Pinnacles National Monument

Bear Gulch Caves - Balconies Caves


Useful Information

Location: Paicines, CA.
Bear Gulch Caves: 1.1 km from the Bear Gulch visitor center, east side.
(36.474345, -121.186213)
Balconies Caves: 1.1 km from the Chaparral Ranger station, west side.
(36.499293,-121.202100)
Open: East Side: All year daily 0-24.
West Side: All year daily 7:30-20.
Bear Gulch Cave:
End of March full.
APR to mid-MAY lower half.
Mid-JUL to SEP lower half.
OCT full.
NOV to FEB lower half.
[2021]
Fee: Weekly Pass: Car USD 30, Motorcycle USD 25, Walk-in USD 15, Bicycle USD 15.
[2021]
Classification: SpeleologyTalus Cave.
Light: bring torch
Dimension:  
Guided tours: self guided
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography:  
Address: Bear Gulch Nature Center, Pinnacles National Monument, 5000 Highway 146, Paicines, CA 95043, Tel: +1-831-389-4486.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1880s Pinnacles, then known as the Palisades, visited by picnickers.
1881 first printed description of the Balconies area.
~1890 name shifts from Palisades to Pinnacles, place is never officially renamed.
08-JUL-1906 proclaimed Pinnacles Forest Reserve by President Theodore Roosevelt.
16-JAN-1908 the area became a National Monument, proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt.
1930s original stairs in Bear Gulch Cave constructed by the CCC.

Description

photography
Pinnacles National Monument, California, U.S.A.. Public Domain.
photography
Bear Gulch Cave, Pinnacles National Monument, California, U.S.A.. Public Domain.

The Pinnacles Formation consists of rhyolitic breccia and is the remains of an ancient volcano. The volcano erupted about 320 km to the south and then was shifted north along the San-Andreas-Fault. Erosion formed the pointy pinnacles and the area and the National Monument were named after this characteristic geologic feature. Originally the area was called Pallisades, but around 1890 there was a shift from calling them "Palisades" to calling them the "Pinnacles".

The collapse of fragile pinnacles caused the accumulation of talus. Inside this more or less loose blocks of rhyolite numerous caves can be found. The caves are so-called Speleologytalus caves, a labyrinth of chambers and crevices covered by an accumulation of talus. This kind of caves is very rare. Balconies and Bear Gulch cave were created when boulders formed a roof over a narrow canyon. As a result there is a cave river, which si quite extraordinary for talus caves.

Two of the caves are developed with trails for self guided tours. You should definitely bring a torch to visit them. The trails are described as being "easy enough that even young children can enjoy it".

Bear Gulch Cave at the east entrance is closed at certain times, to protect a colony of Townsend's big-eared bats. The colony is the largest maternity colony between San Francisco and Mexico. The bats rest there in winter and raise their young in the late spring and summer, so the cave is actually closed twice every year. At this times they can only be visited by a virtual tour, see links below. The exact dates depend on on the presence of the colony of bats, so the given times are only a rule of thumb. At some times the cave is fully open, at some times only the lower half. To get the status of the cave check the official website.

One highlight of the caves is the Bear Creek forming subterranean cascades inside the caves. Unfortunately part of the trail through the caves uses the bed of Bear Creek, so rubber boots may be a good idea during periods of high water.

The second cave, Balconies Cave at the west entrance, is open except during periods of high water. It attracts solitary males that roost in tiny cracks, away from human disturbance, so there are no bat protection related closures. To get the status of the cave check the official website.

The caves are located at opposite sides of the park, at the two entrances. There is no road through the park, and the drive time around through oak-dotted hills is over an hour. It is also possible to hike through the park, the big loop takes about a day. At the east entrance is a small visitor and a campground, but there is no food available in the park. The best time to visit Pinnacles is in March and April, when the weather is comfortable, the streams are flowing and the wildflowers are at their peak. However, for the caves the dry summer is much better.