Watch for condors, walk through a cave, and take a hike in America’s newest national park. Two of The Trailmaster’s favorite hikes are the short jaunt to Bear Gulch Cave from the park visitor center on the east side of the park and a trek around the High Peaks area on the west side.
Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir(2 miles round trip)
Easily the national park’s most popular hike is the path to Bear Gulch Cave. The cave (caves, actually) formed long ago when huge boulders slowly worked their way down from the walls above and wedged atop a narrow gulch.
Reach the cave via Moses Spring Trail, a self-guided nature trail that introduces the park’s major ecological communities—Foothill Woodland, Riparian, Chaparral and Rock and Scree.
The possibilities for hikers to see any, some, or all of the Bear Gulch Cave is linked to park service management policies having to do with special residents of the caves—a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats. When the bats are not using the cave for hibernation or pupping, some access to the cave is permitted.
A gate about halfway into the cave protects the bat’s habitat. A bypass trail allows hikers to enter the cave and then continue on to the reservoir without having to double back.
Most visitors begin this hike from the Bear Gulch Visitor Center and continue up to the reservoir.
The hike: Begin travel in oak woodland, soon passing a junction with High Peaks Trail. Walk through a short tunnel, constructed in the late 1930s by those master trail-builders, the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Moses Spring Trail leads to the cave. After passage through and around the caves, you’ll rejoin the trail.
Enlivening Bear Gulch is Moses Spring, a seep in the rock. Water trickling down from above into Fern Chamber nourishes lush chain ferns.
Continue to Bear Gulch Reservoir, a handsome rock-rimmed lakelet. Pull up a boulder and sit down while admiring the reflections of the wondrous stone statuary in the water.
Condor Gulch and High Peaks (5.2 miles round trip loop with 1,400-foot elevation gain)
The Civilian Conservation Corps built many miles of trails throughout our western national parks and forests during the 1930s. Some of the very best efforts of these young men can be enjoyed today in the High Peaks area of Pinnacles National Park.
The corps constructed “pigeon hole” steps in order to ascend the dramatic escarpments and installed handrails (but didn’t overdo it) along high ledges. While hikers wary of heights might want to hike elsewhere, those not predisposed to acrophobia will relish the adventure of hiking into the High Peaks area.
One of the Pinnacle’s best hikes is a circuit through the High Peaks area that begins from the visitor center in the east side of the national monument. By combining a couple different trails you can climb brushy ridges, penetrate oak-dotted gulches, and get great views of–and from–the Pinnacles.
High point, both literally and figuratively, of the hike is the High Peaks, a reddish-orange collection of cloud-piercing crags. Stair-steps carved into stone aid your ascent of the High Peaks.
Condor Gulch Trail, which leads to the High Peaks, is also the first half of the 3.8-mile long Pinnacles Geological Trail. Those hikers interested in lava flows, plate tectonics, the nearby San Andreas fault and the 23 million-year-long geologic story of the Pinnacles will be fascinated by this trail.
Directions: From Highway 101 in King City, take the First Street exit and travel a mile north through town to Highway G13. Head east on the highway (called Bitterwater Road in Monterey County and King City Road in San Benito County) 15 miles to a junction with Highway 25. Turn left (north) and continue 14.2 miles to Pinnacles Highway (146). Turn left and drive five miles to the Pinnacles National Park Bear Gulch Visitor Center.
The hike: Signed Condor Gulch Trail ascends one mile up a slope blanketed with manzanita, ceanothus and chamise to a viewpoint. Take in the view upward of the towering Pinnacles and the view downward of the park visitor center, then continue the stiff ascent on a series of switchbacks. A long 0.75-mile climb leads to a ridgecrest junction with High Peaks Trail.
The trail’s right fork heads east back down toward the Chalone Creek picnic area, but you turn left toward the High Peaks, whose jagged spires frame views of Chalone Creek Valley and the Balconies Cliffs area of the west side of the national park. After 0.6-mile of travel, the path splits; a right branch leads to a meeting with Jupiter Canyon Trail and passage to the west entrance of the park while our left branch enters the maze of Pinnacles.
Occasional hand rails and steps hewn into the stone help you negotiate the steepest sections of the High Peaks Trail. After surmounting two sharp ridgecrests, this thrill-a-minute, 0.6-mile section of trail delivers you to a saddle and a junction with Juniper Canyon Trail.
At the saddle is a restroom constructed of rock and a bench from which you can take in the spectacular view.
It’s all downhill from here as High Peaks Trail rapidly descends a long, brush-covered ridge. Near the bottom, in Bear Gulch, pass rock climber access trails, join Moses Spring Trail and continue through a long picnic area back to the Visitor Center.