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.
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.
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.
© 2019 David Baselt