About Bear Gulch Falls
Bear Gulch Falls was probably one of the more intimate waterfall experiences in the remote Pinnacles National Park.
The reserve was formerly known as Pinnacles National Monument until President Obama changed the reserve’s status to a full blown National Park in 2012.
While most of the park’s commotion revolves around the Bear Gulch area, where there’s trail access to both the Bear Gulch Caves as well as the namesake Pinnacles on the High Peaks Trail.
We describe that other big hike encompassing both the Bear Gulch Cave and the Condor Gulch Falls in a separate write-up.
The Bear Gulch Falls described on this page sat relatively hidden further downstream from the Bear Gulch Nature Center.
Its cumulative drop over a jumble of volcanic boulders was probably on the order of 30ft or so.
However, as you can see from the photos on this page, this waterfall tends to have a very short flow period, and you’d need serious timing in order to have a better experience that what we had on our late February visit in 2020.
Even though Bear Creek might have water both upstream and downstream of the waterfall, the rocky walls supporting the falls itself meant that you would need to be here when the creek was flooding.
Without sufficient flow, most (if not all) of the waters of Bear Creek tended to flow beneath the surface instead of above it.
Therefore, seeing this waterfall flow would require coming here almost immediately after a significant storm (or at least a series of storms), which would supply the drainage with enough water for the falls to show itself on the surface.
Experiencing Bear Gulch Falls
From the Bear Gulch Nature Center Parking Lot (see directions below), I then walked towards the Bear Gulch Nature Center itself before continuing further down the trail as it passed by picnic tables and other park-related buildings.
You also have the option of walking a different trail closer to the road as it paralleled the opposite side of Bear Creek.
These trails merged near the Ranger’s Office building, and shortly after that, the trail crossed a driveway for the Employee Residence.
Continuing further downstream past the driveway, the trail then opened up momentarily into a wide clearing before crossing another bridge just as the canyon closed in again.
After about a quarter-mile from the nature center, the trail then crossed a bridge with a “4” labeled on it, where shortly thereafter, the trail skirted a rocky section.
By this point, Bear Creek’s water had disappeared, and after a few more paces of walking along this rocky section, I noticed that the trajectory of the creek turn away from the trail and over a couple of drops.
This spot was probably the only sanctioned place to view the waterfall (albeit unsatisfactorily), but if you look at the California Waterfalls book by Ann Marie Brown, you’ll see that she managed to make it down the waterfall’s base.
It turned out that there was no sanctioned “trail” or “path” leading away from the trail and down to the Bear Gulch Falls’ base, so she must have made an off-trail scramble to get down there.
I don’t think the National Park service would appreciate off-trail scrambling to get close to this waterfall, but that was how I got the photo you see at the top of this page.
As I explored a little further downstream from the falls (just in case there was more), I ultimately turned around near the bridge with a “5” labeled on it.
Down here, I noticed the re-emergence of Bear Creek, which corroborated my theory that the creek’s waters was definitely at the waterfall, it just so happened to not flow on the surface.
This trail continued further downstream towards the other side of the High Peaks Trail as well as further on to the Old Pinnacles.
However, as far as experiencing the Bear Gulch Falls was concerned, I headed back uphill to the Bear Gulch Nature Center to complete this roughly half-mile round-trip walk.
Bear Gulch Falls resides in the Pinnacles National Park near Paicines in San Benito County, California. It is administered by the National Park Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
Bear Gulch Falls was in the eastern side of Pinnacles National Park.
Although the park also had a western side, there is no road that directly connects the two sides (it would require about a 1.5-2 hours drive to get from one side to the other).
So we’ll just describe the driving directions to only the east side of the park.
Directions from San Jose
From San Jose, we headed south on the US101 south towards Gilroy for about 33 miles before taking the exit 353 to CA-25 south.
We then followed the CA-25 south (towards Hollister) for about 42 miles before turning right onto the CA-146 leading into the east entrance for Pinnacles National Park.
Next, we followed the CA-146 west for about 2 miles before turning towards the Visitor Center to pay for the entrance fee ($30 per vehicle as of 2020).
If no parking was available at the Bear Gulch Nature Center (which is the closest sanctioned parking lot for the Bear Gulch Falls), then you’d have to find parking in the large lot here, then take the park shuttle.
However, if you wish to try your luck at parking at the Bear Gulch Nature Center lot, then you’d continue on the CA-146 (bearing left at the junction with Old Pinnacles Road) for about 3 miles before arriving at the desired lot.
Overall, this drive would take about 90 minutes though it could be longer depending on traffic as well as any queues to pay for the park fees.
Directions from Coalinga
If you’re headed north on the I-5 from the south (like say Los Angeles or Bakersfield), then you’d want to take the exit 325 for Jayne Ave, then turn left and follow this straight shot road as it ultimately coincides with the CA-33 west towards Coalinga.
Then, at the intersection with Elm Ave, turn left to go onto the CA-198, and follow this somewhat winding road for about 34 miles towards its junction with the CA-25 north.
Turning right to go onto the CA-25 north, we’d then drive for another 33 miles towards the CA-146 west junction, and then we’d follow the directions as above to reach the main visitor center and ultimately the Bear Gulch Nature Center lot.
It took us around 90 minutes to drive between Pinnacles National Park and the I-5 near Coalinga.
For geographical context, Paicines (the nearest town to the east entrance of Pinnacles National Park) was about 28 miles (over 30 minutes drive) southeast of Gilroy, 52 miles (about an hour drive) east of Monterey, about 60 miles (over an hour drive) southeast of San Jose, 125 miles (over 2 hours drive) west of Fresno, and 292 miles (nearly 5 hours drive) northwest of Los Angeles.
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