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Alamere Falls


Length 8.3–15.6 mi · Climbing 1350–2630 ft
California > San Francisco Bay Area > Point Reyes National Seashore

Alamere Falls. The tide is at 2 feet in this picture.

Background

Alamere Falls is is a spectacular waterfall that cascades onto a scenic beach. It’s one of the Bay Area’s most popular hiking destinations: on a nice weekend afternoon the trail from the Palomarin trailhead is a nearly continuous stream of people. Unfortunately the falls also happens to be an unusually hazardous hiking destination, and there isn’t any really safe way to reach them. Ironically the danger only seems to add to the falls’ popularity by making the hike that much more exhilirating.

Tide and surf forecasts are especially important for this hike. The tide needs to be below about 3 feet for the Palomarin route or 0 feet for all other routes. Even then there’s no guarantee of reaching the falls, since the level of the beach changes a lot from year to year and season to season.

The falls are at their most spectacular right after spring storms which, of course, is when high waves and low beach levels make getting to the falls the most dangerous. Over the summer the falls reduce to an unimpressive trickle, but the beach route gets easier.

Here are the four most commonly used routes to the falls. I don't recommend the first one because it ends in a steep scramble down a cliff. The other three all require getting around a large rock on the beach, which may not be safe to do even at low tide.

Palomarin route (8.3 mi, 1350 ft — not recommended)

Click map to enlarge; click again to show all trails and roads
Part of the Bay Area Trail Map: Point Reyes (Redwood Hikes Press, 2017)

This is the route that everyone takes, even though it ends with an off-trail climb down eroding cliffs. The sheer number of people (including little kids) successfully scrambling up and down the cliff without too much difficulty make it look pretty easy, but according to the park’s website, almost every week people get sprained ankles and other injuries here, and have to be rescued. There’s no cell phone coverage in the park, so to get help someone has to walk all the way back to the trailhead, leaving the injured person stranded on the beach with the tide coming in.

The hike starts at the Palomarin Trailhead, which is reached by a bumpy and sometimes severely potholed gravel road. On nice summer weekends the lot is completely full from about 10 am until about 4 pm, so a lot of visitors end up walking an extra three-quarters of a mile each way to reach the trailhead. If it gets really busy, rangers can close off the road to the trailhead entirely. There’s actually a sign on Highway 1 that’s supposed to warn you if the parking lot is full, but it’s not very accurate because they sometimes forget to reset it at the end of the day. The good news is that the number of people parking at the trailhead has been declining for the past few years.

The hike starts with a very pretty stroll along the top of a scrub-covered bluff with some great ocean views. After a few miles, the trail turns inland and climbs into pine woods, passing a series of scenic lakes, which I think are the only natural lakes in the Bay Area. The first half of the hike is mostly open to the sun, while the second half is mostly shaded.

The Coast Trail runs along blufftops with great coastal views

Bass Lake is the largest natural lake in the Bay Area

Just after the trail breaks out of the woods and starts descending, there’s an easy-to-miss unofficial path to Alamere Falls. It’s a little, unmarked hole in the brush, usually with a few people standing around. Almost everyone walks right past it and ends up backtracking.

The side trail used to be a ranch road, but it was closed in the 1970s when erosion started making the cliffs unsafe. Even when it was officially maintained, it only went to the cliffs above the falls; there’s never been an official trail to the bottom of the falls.

The first few hundred yards of the side trail is overgrown with poison oak and it’s pretty much impossible to walk through without touching it. If the sap of the plant touches exposed skin it produces an itchy rash starting after 1–4 days and lasting 2–4 weeks. I always bring some old raingear to cover up.

After the tunnel of poison oak, the trail descends precipitously through a notch to a wide plateau with two small waterfalls. A creek crosses the plateau and it requires a 4-foot jump or some wading to cross it.

People jumping over the creek to get to the falls. The creek is about 18 inches deep at this point.

Finally there’s an off-trail scramble down a steep slope covered with loose rock to the beach. The last 10 yards or so are the steepest and seem to be where most injuries occur.

If the tide is above about 3 feet, depending on beach erosion and surf conditions, the waves could be washing against the base of the cliffs, so it might not be possible to reach the base of the falls.

Palomarin beach route (13.8 mi, 1849 ft)

Click map to enlarge; click again to show all trails and roads
Part of the Bay Area Trail Map: Point Reyes (Redwood Hikes Press, 2017)

The park recommends avoiding the unofficial side trail by continuing up the Coast Trail for 1.5 miles to Wildcat Camp, then walking down the beach 1.3 miles to Alamere Falls.

This route isn’t necessarily safe, though, because a large rock juts out into the ocean just a few yards before the falls. Sometimes it’s no problem at all to get past the rock, sometimes it’s completely impossible, and sometimes people can be seen sprinting past the rock between huge waves that crash spectacularly against it. It depends not just on the tide and surf height but also on the beach sand, which shifts around from month to month and year to year. So even if the tides and surf are low it may not be possible to reach the falls safely. In general, conditions are best in the fall and worst in the spring.

This route is a lot longer but also a lot more scenic than the shortcut trail; the walk down the beach with its crashing surf is a nice contrast to the quiet interior of the park.

The sand is soft, so the walk down the beach is a bit of a slog; the waterfall is visible the whole way and it doesn’t seem to get any closer until you round the final bend.

The long route features a 1-mile walk on the beach

Five Brooks route (14.5 mi, 2630 ft)

Click map to enlarge; click again to show all trails and roads
Map is part of the Bay Area Trail Map: Point Reyes (Redwood Hikes Press, 2017)

This route starts from the Five Brooks trailhead, where it’s usually easy to find parking. It’s the least-used and hilliest of the routes to Alamere Falls.

The first mile or so is on the dirt Stewart Trail and is heavily strewn with horse manure due to the nearby stables. Fortunately the manure ends when you turn onto the the Greenpicker Trail. The Greenpicker Trail is little-used (I’ve never actually seen anyone else using it) and can be overgrown, but if it’s been maintained recently, the quiet, woodsy trail is really very enjoyable.

After reaching the ridge, the route re-joins the dirt road and descends through increasingly open woods interspersed with meadows. The woods give way to open coastal scrub as the trail makes its final descent to Wildcat Camp.

Continue past the camp and then walk along the beach to the falls. You still have to get past the same rock formation described above for the Palomarin Beach Route.

The descent to Wildcat Camp on the Coast Trail

Bear Valley route (15.6 mi, 2160 ft)

Click map to enlarge; click again to show all trails and roads
Map is part of the Bay Area Trail Map: Point Reyes (Redwood Hikes Press, 2017)

Here’s the location of the Bear Valley Trailhead in Google Maps.

I like this route the best even though it’s the longest. Easy fire roads at the beginning and end make the route fast for its length, and you’re rewarded with a nice progression of different environments with a few brief but memorable views along the way. There’s also plenty of parking.

The hike starts on the busy but rather utilitarian Bear Valley Trail. These three miles of wide and mostly flat trail could be ridden on a mountain or gravel bike; there’s a handy bike rack at the Glen Trail intersection.

Turn onto the relatively quiet Glen Trail, which climbs up a wooded hill with some nice views of the conifer-carpeted hills of Point Reyes. Turn onto the dirt road briefly and then take one of the cut-off trails to the Coastal Trail. As the trail begins descending there’s a nice view of Double Point through the trees; look carefully and you can see Alamere Falls at its base (it’s a lot easier to see in the afternoon, when the sun is shining on it). A little while later there’s a clear view of the ocean with Wildcat Camp far below.

View of Double Point and Alamere Falls from the Coast Trail

The trail then descends through open scrub to Wildcat Camp. From here, take the same beach route as the Palomarin Long Route. Here again, you still have to get past the rock formation to reach the falls.

More information

Average number of cars per day at the Palomarin trailhead, based on NPS statistics.


 

© 2019 David Baselt