top of page
  • solarastills

Cave Crawling At Pinnacles National Park

Location : Pinnacles National Park, Hollister, CA

Parking : Free with National Park entry fee of $30 (or with National Parks Annual Pass)

Pets Allowed? : No

Pro Tip : Hiking boots and headlamps a must. Reach the park by 8.30am if visiting on a weekend during winter and spring. Caves are closed late spring through summer.

Pinnacles - A geologist and rock climbers delight

Pinnacles National Park is the newest National Park in California and the most underrated. Just a 2 hour drive from the Bay Area, it is a relatively small park, but covered with dramatic cylindrical stone mountains which also provide underground exploration opportunities. It is a geologist and a rock climbers delight. The interesting rock structures in the park today were created over 23 million years ago by lava flow from the Neenach volcano (now near Los Angeles) and the movement of the North American tectonic plates which created the Pinnacles volcanic field.

One of the most interesting geological formation in the park are the two talus caves - the Bear Gulch Cave and the Balconies Cave. These caves are home to 14 species of bats. The caves are closed during bats breeding season in the spring and summer. The best time to visit the park and the caves is during the winter when the temperatures are mild and the caves are open to the public. We planned our trip in the first weekend of February 2022, after confirming with the park over the phone that the caves would be open during our visit.

Here's my Instagram Reel about the caves.

Below is the description of the two hikes we embarked on to see both the caves.

Hike #1 to see Balconies Cave :

Trails traversed : Old Pinnacles Trail > Balconies Caves Trail > Balconies Cliffs Trail > Old Pinnacles Trail

Trail type : Lollipop loop

Trail Length : 5.1 mile

Elevation Gain : 495 ft

Difficulty : Easy

Parking : Old Pinnacles Trailhead parking lot

There are only 10-15 parking spots at the trailhead. So plan to come early, if visiting during the weekend. On a Sunday morning, there were 3-4 spots available when we reached at 8.30am. By 9am, they were all taken. Porta-potty is available at the trailhead.

Old Pinnacles Trail starts at the parking lot and runs along an almost dried up stream for the most part of the hike. The route is flat and unremarkable for the first 2 miles of the trail. It crosses the West Fork Chalone Creek at multiple points requiring hikers to skip over rocks and stones in order to stay on the trail.

At 1.8 miles, the trail becomes Balconies Caves Trail and splits in two direction. The trail straight ahead leads to the bottom of Balconies cave and the trail on the right that goes uphill takes you to the top of the cave. We found it easier to traverse the cave from bottom to top, instead of vice versa. Continue straight on Balconies Caves Trail where you will have to scramble over boulders till you reach the entrance to the cave. The entrance is marked by a large iron gate (which will remain closed during bat breeding season in spring and summer).

Balconies Cave entrance

Your fun adventure begins as soon as you enter the cave. Make sure your headlamp is on! You cross through a series of volcanic rock formations and journey through the dark, twisted passage of the cave. The cave ceiling is created by huge boulders which tumbled into a gorge after earthquakes and landslides thousands of years ago. As you climb down and over the boulders, you will notice how precariously the giant size rocks are balancing over each other. There are white arrows painted on the rocks to direct you towards the exit of the cave. If you are short, you may require some core and arm strength to pull yourself up and over the rocks. If you are tall, you will need to crawl on your hands and knees to duck under the gaps between the rocks.

Some of the passageways require crawling on all fours.

Once in a while, the rocks get bathed in sunlight from cracks above.

Climb your way out of the cave to another gate at the end of the Balconies cave. The trip through Balconies Cave will leave you wanting more, and you may actually venture back through the cave a second time before deciding what to do next.

As you exit the cave, you will see a trail leading uphill. This is the Balconies Cliffs Trail. Continue on this trail which goes up the side of the mountain and provides a great view of the High Peaks. The high peaks are shards of the rock that extend straight out of the landscape.

Fairy chimney rock formations

After a small climb, the trail goes downhill and intersects the fork where the Balconies Cave Trail started. Hang a left at the fork and retrace your steps back to the Old Pinnacles Trail parking lot.

Hike #2 to see Bear Gulch Cave :

Trails Traversed : High Peaks Trail > Moses Spring Trail > Rim Trail > High Peaks Trail

Trail type : Loop

Trail Length : 2.4 miles

Elevation Gain : 550 ft

Difficulty : Easy

Parking : Bear Gulch Visitor Center or High Peaks Trailhead parking lot

Parking for this hike is much easier than that for Balconies cave. The Bear Gulch Visitor Center/Nature Center parking lot has atleast 50-75 parking spots. If no spot is available, wait for someone to return from their hike. The High Peaks parking lot, which is a quarter of a mile up the road, and right next to the trailhead has about 10 parking spots. At 12:45pm on a Sunday, I decided to try my luck at the High Peaks parking lot. It was full. I waiting for about 10 minutes, hoping that someone would pull out their car, but in vain. I drove back down to Bear Gulch Visitor center lot, where there were multiple free spots, and walked back up to the trailhead. There are numerous picnic tables at the Bear Gulch parking lot. I also noticed a park shuttle that was picking and dropping off people at this Visitors Center. Clean, flush restrooms are available at both parking lots.

The High Peaks Trail slowly climbs above the shallow creek bed at the bottom of Bear Gulch. It is fully shaded all the way. As you make your way, you may see climbers trying to ascend the cliff walls in the canyon across from the trail.

Can you spot the rock climber?

At the 0.2 mile marker post, the trail branches off to Moses Spring Trail, which will take you to the Bear Gulch Cave. I personally found the Bear Gulch Cave more exciting than the Balconies Cave as it is geologically more interesting and the cliff walls feel like they are closing in on you with their angular forms.

Tunnel entrance to Bear Gulch cave

The temperature within the cave is atleast 20 degrees lower than outside, probably due to the fact that there is a stream running inside, resulting in a small cascading waterfall inside the cave. There are stairways and tunnels within the cave which are reinforced with handrails. Once again, headlamps are a must as you need your hands to hold on to the rails.

Staircase with handrails

There are tight spaces you will need to squeeze through or crawl through, similar to the Balconies cave. Another similarity is that this is also a talus cave, formed by huge boulders falling into a canyon.

Superwoman ??

A long flight of stairs cut in stone leads you to the outside of the cave. A few more steps uphill and you come to what I call the cherry on the cake, which is the beautiful Bear Gulch reservoir. The blue water and the stony but picturesque surroundings make this a perfect spot for a picnic lunch and even a quick dip on a hot day.

Beautiful and serene Bear Gulch Reservoir

On the return, you have the option to trace your steps back through the caves to the High Peaks Trail and back to the parking lot, or try a slightly circuitous route on Rim Trail. If the latter is your preference, continue on Bear Gulch Trail, past the reservoir where the trail becomes Rim Trail. This route will give you some incredible views of the Gulch you were just crawling around in.

After a couple of downhill switchback, the trail connects to High Peaks Trail that, in turn, will lead you back to the parking lot.

In summary, Pinnacles has some of the most amazing rock formations in California, and the above two hikes will take you through forest, cliffs, two caves, and a man-made lake. Both are great hikes for all ages and most hiking abilities, and they highlight some of the more interesting areas of this hidden gem of a National Park.


bottom of page