Bear Gulch Falls

Pinnacles National Park / Paicines, California, USA

About Bear Gulch Falls


Hiking Distance: 0.5 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 30-45 minutes

Date first visited: 2020-02-23
Date last visited: 2020-02-23

Waterfall Latitude: 36.48306
Waterfall Longitude: -121.1742

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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.

Pinnacles_NP_585_02232020 - The volcanic boulders underlying where Bear Gulch Falls is supposed to be
The volcanic boulders underlying where Bear Gulch Falls is supposed to be

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.

Pinnacles_NP_588_02232020 - This was the view of the dry Bear Gulch Falls from where Ann Marie Brown would have taken her photo of it flowing in her California Waterfalls book
This was the view of the dry Bear Gulch Falls from where Ann Marie Brown would have taken her photo of it flowing in her California Waterfalls book

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

Pinnacles_NP_547_02232020 - Approaching the Bear Gulch Nature Center as I was pursuing the Bear Gulch Falls
Approaching the Bear Gulch Nature Center as I was pursuing the 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.

Pinnacles_NP_557_02232020 - Beyond the Employee Residence, the trail leading towards Bear Gulch Falls opened up into this clearing or meadow
Beyond the Employee Residence, the trail leading towards Bear Gulch Falls opened up into this clearing or meadow

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.

Pinnacles_NP_589_02232020 - Context of the trail and the rocks on the creek bed of Bear Creek, where the brink of Bear Gulch Falls was supposed to be
Context of the trail and the rocks on the creek bed of Bear Creek, where the brink of Bear Gulch Falls was supposed to be

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.

Pinnacles_NP_567_02232020 - Just downstream of Bear Gulch Falls near the footbridge with a '4' labeled on it, I noticed that Bear Creek had water again as evidenced by this tiny cascade
Just downstream of Bear Gulch Falls near the footbridge with a ‘4’ labeled on it, I noticed that Bear Creek had water again as evidenced by this tiny cascade

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.

Authorities

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.

Pinnacles_NP_550_02232020 - Walking by the National Park offices and buildings by the Bear Gulch Nature Center en route to the Bear Gulch Falls
Pinnacles_NP_553_02232020 - I wasn't sure if this was plant life or if this was actually put there by the Pinnacles National Park authorities
Pinnacles_NP_556_02232020 - The Pinnacles National Park Employees Residence
Pinnacles_NP_561_02232020 - In the clearing just downstream of the Pinnacles National Park Employee Residence, this part of Bear Creek was dry
Pinnacles_NP_563_02232020 - Looking back at a footbridge at the lower end of the clearing, where Bear Creek appeared to re-emerge momentarily
Pinnacles_NP_564_02232020 - The context of Bear Gulch Falls and the trail that went by its brink
Pinnacles_NP_565_02232020 - Looking back at the top part of where Bear Gulch Falls would have started to make its drop
Pinnacles_NP_575_02232020 - Near the turnaround point of my first hike to Bear Gulch Falls, where I made it down to the footbridge with a '5' label on it
Pinnacles_NP_576_02232020 - Closer look at the footbridge with the '5' label just downstream of Bear Gulch Falls
Pinnacles_NP_582_02232020 - Climbing back up towards the top of Bear Gulch Falls from the footbridge further downstream
Pinnacles_NP_592_02232020 - Closer look at the footbridge further upstream of the Bear Gulch Falls. Notice the '4' label on this bridge
Pinnacles_NP_595_02232020 - Walking back across the clearing with the dry Bear Creek (though its waters were really beneath the surface)
Pinnacles_NP_607_02232020 - A closer look at the Bear Creek with water as I was near the National Park buildings
Pinnacles_NP_609_02232020 - Making it back to the Bear Gulch Nature Center Parking Lot

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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).

Pinnacles_NP_421_02232020 - Looking down at the parking lots on the western side of Pinnacles National Park from the High Peaks Trail at the very top of the park. This is why you can't drive directly from east to west through the park
Looking down at the parking lots on the western side of Pinnacles National Park from the High Peaks Trail at the very top of the park. This is why you can’t drive directly from east to west through the park

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.

Pinnacles_NP_001_02232020 - The parking lot at the Bear Gulch Nature Center, which was also the nearest car park for the Bear Gulch Falls
The parking lot at the Bear Gulch Nature Center, which was also the nearest car park for the Bear Gulch Falls

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.

Pinnacles_NP_544_02232020 - There's very limited parking at the Bear Gulch Nature Center so it might be just as suitable to take the park shuttle from the visitor center where there's more ample parking
There’s very limited parking at the Bear Gulch Nature Center so it might be just as suitable to take the park shuttle from the visitor center where there’s more ample parking

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.

Upstream to downstream sweep of the dry Bear Gulch Falls

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Tagged with: pinnacles national park, pinnacles national monument, paicines, san benito county, california, bear gulch, bear gulch creek, pinnacles nature center



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