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February 10, 2015

The Seven Best Waterfall Hikes Near San Francisco

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With sunshine most of the year in most of the Bay Area, there's never a better excuse to go exploring for waterfalls. They’re all in beautiful areas and are well worth the trip.

If you’re looking for a hike, check these falls out this weekend.

Alamere Falls

  • Hiking time: 2 hours each way
  • Total distance: 8.2 miles
  • Trail difficulty: Moderate
  • No dogs, no bikes
  • Directions

Alamere Falls is the rock star of Bay Area waterfalls. Not only is it one of the most dramatic locations, falling right onto the beach, but also it's one of the most reliably high-flowing falls around. The hike to Alamere Falls is the longest on the list, but it keeps a fairly even elevation most of the way. The first mile snakes along a 300-foot cliff overlooking the water, and the rest goes between covered forest and exposed chaparral.

To get down to the beach, you’ll have to scramble 60 feet down a gravelly cliff. It’s nothing crazy, but you will definitely have to use your hands. Climbing back up can be tricky and the rocks are very loose and crumbly. If you’re not feeling particularly agile, you can take an alternate route north to Wildcat Campground and then walk back down to the falls along the sand. It should be passable at most tides, but be sure to check high-tide times before you go. The alternate route will add about 2.7 miles each way.

Cascade Falls

  • Hiking time: 20 minutes each way
  • Total distance: 1.5 miles
  • Trail difficulty: Easy
  • Dogs OK, bikes OK on fire roads only
  • Directions

This is a quick hike to a great waterfall that you could do on a whim if you happen to be in the area. There’s a “community nature journal” in the driveway of 690 Cascade Dr. near the trailhead. It has some great kid drawings and also gives a good idea of the current state of the falls. The main trail crosses San Anselmo Creek multiple times, but it’s mostly dry except after seasonal rains. In case of high water, there’s an alternate trail that follows along the north side of the creek with one bridge crossing just before the falls.

When you reach the end, there’s a perfect overlook platform on the trail and a couple of large boulders immediately in front of the falls. The trail officially ends at the falls, but if the water is low enough, you can rock-hop upstream and find some nice secluded spots. It’s important to remember, though, that San Anselmo Creek is a nursery for steelhead trout. Eggs and young fish stay in the gravel for months in the winter and spring after adults make their way upstream from the ocean. For this reason, it’s important to stay out of the water, even at low levels.

Dawn Falls

  • Hiking time: 30 minutes each way
  • Total distance: 2.2 miles
  • Trail difficulty: Easy
  • Dogs OK on leash, no bikes
  • Directions

Full disclosure: as of the first few weeks of 2015, Dawn Falls was essentially dry. When it does rain again — and it will rain again — Dawn Falls will be one of the best on the list. The trail leads right up to the precipice of the falls, overlooking a 30-foot drop to the streambed below.

There is a lower waterfall that you’ll pass on the way to Dawn Falls that, while not quite as high, is definitely worth checking out. No matter how much water is in the creek, I couldn’t imagine anyone walking away disappointed.

Elliot Creek Falls

  • Hiking time: 10 minutes each way
  • Total distance: 0.8 miles
  • Trail difficulty: Easy
  • Dogs and bikes: Unknown
  • Directions

Elliot Creek flows out onto the beach just south of Año Nuevo State Park. Even if you’ve driven past it a hundred times on your way to Santa Cruz, you’d never guess there was a waterfall just off the highway. There are actually a few more within a couple of miles, but this one lasts longer than the others after a good rain. This waterfall also has a hidden talent of unearthing fossils. The three- to five-million-year-old Purisima Formation stretches along much of the coastline between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. You can find chunks of smoothed rock filled with shells scattered around the beach at low tide.

The walk down there is quick and easy, and more likely than not, you’ll have the entire beach to yourself. The falls are only about 100 yards south of where the dirt trail meets the beach. The strip of land between the road and the beach is owned by Coastways Ranch, but fortunately for Californians, there’s no such thing as a private beach. That being said, the landowners could still make it a lot more difficult to access this unique waterfall and the beach surrounding it. If you do visit Elliot Creek, be sure to leave it as pristine as you found it.

Mount Diablo Falls

  • Hiking time: 3.5 hours total
  • Total distance: 6.3 miles
  • Trail difficulty: Strenuous
  • No dogs, bikes OK on fire roads only
  • Directions

This isn’t the longest trail of the bunch, but with a 1,154-foot elevation difference from trailhead to trail crest, it’s definitely the most physically demanding. These falls are more dependent on rain than some of the others on this list and a few of the bigger ones dry out a month or so after a storm. Even in times of drought, though, it’s still worth the hike. There are a few waterfalls that I couldn’t get close enough to in order to shoot well, but they’re nice to look at from afar.

The falls loop follows a few different trails, so I would suggest taking a map or writing down the directions before you go. All the trails are clearly marked at each intersection, so it’s not too hard to keep track of where you are. There’s also a map of the whole park at the trailhead. There are a number of waterfalls around the north side of Mount Diablo, and there are just as many trail combinations to get to them. Use these directions as a template if you want, and go from there: Regency Gate > Donner Canyon Road > Cardinet Oaks Road > Falls Trail > Middle Trail > Meridian Ridge Road > Meridian Point Trail > Back Creek Trail > Back Creek Road > Regency Gate.

Peters Creek Falls

  • Hiking time: 20 minutes each way
  • Total distance: 1.8 miles
  • Trail difficulty: Easy
  • No dogs, no bikes
  • Directions

This is the kind of place that makes you feel good about the world when you stumble upon it. Even at low flow, the rocky spillway of Peters Creek is nothing short of amazing. You won’t find it on any maps and the offshoot from the main trail is unmarked. There are multiple small waterfalls cutting grooves in the sandstone boulders at the end of the creek. The trail winds around the edge of the falls until it fades into a leafy slope.

If you’re into rock climbing, bring your shoes and a crash pad because there is some great bouldering nearby. This is easily the kind of place where you could spend a day and not see another person. The signs at the main trailhead warn of mountain lions in the area, and the leftovers from a dinner of free-range venison back up the hype.

There are two trailheads at the starting location. Take the one across the street from the parking lot. Walk through the gate, and take an immediate right turn along the wide path that follows the barbed-wire fence. This will merge with another well-worn trail. Continue until you see a small trail going off to the left side. If you get to a paved driveway, you’ve gone too far. Follow that small trail downhill, cross the driveway, and continue along a wider fire road. You’ll come to a clearing with an old foundation. Around the corner to the left, you’ll see the sign marking the rest of the trail. The falls are at the end of that trail.

Bonus Material

If you use Google Earth, you can download this KMZ file to see all the trails, locations, and elevation profiles. If you don’t have Google Earth, you can download it here for free.

Some of these spots are popular, with well-maintained trails, while some are mostly overlooked. Regardless of where they are, there are a few basic rules that should be followed to ensure that you and everyone else are able to enjoy them for the foreseeable future.

  • Be courteous to the locals. Don’t park like an A-hole; don’t be noisy; pick up your dog’s poo, and take trash with you, even if it’s not yours.
  • Be courteous to nature. Obey posted signs; watch where you step, and don’t contribute to erosion.
  • Dress in layers. Temperature can fluctuate wildly in only a couple of hours, whether you’re inland or on the coast. Bring plenty of water and drink it often.
  • Watch out for poison oak. If you don’t know what it looks like, look it up and avoid tromping through bushes. If you think you may have touched some, wash with cold water as soon as possible.

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