Pacific Coast trail via Bass Lake, Alamere Falls, Arch Rock and Sculptured Beach, Point Reyes

Notes by piero scaruffi | Back to the Pt Reyes page
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Note: this one-way hike requires shuttling cars so you have one when you reach the end of the trail.

This would not be a strenous hike because of steep grades, but the distance is trying and thus makes it moderately strenuous. It is one of the greatest hikes in California. Make sure the weather forecast is not "fog" because that could spoil most of the fun. (The weather forecast is always "fog" from may till september, but sometimes the fog frequently burns off after 2pm, so calculate to maximize the time between 2pm and 7pm on the trail).
The trail starts at the Palomarin parking lot, the very southern tip of Pt Reyes in Bolinas. After about 3.5 kms you reach a fork. Take the left fork to Bass Lake. The lake (not to be confused with the little pond that precedes it) is about 1.5 kms to your left. Shortly after Bass Lake, there is another pretty lake, Pelikan Lake. A use trail from the northern side of the lake leads to a "saddle" that affords views of the beach below, Double Point Cove.
About 1.5 kms from Bass Lake you reach the cutoff to Alamere Falls. This trail is unmaintained and frequently infested with poison oak. (Note of 2019: this cutoff trail is closed indefinitely, or at least not maintained anymore, due to storm damage and erosion. It is also overgrown with poison oak). To get to the beach you have to scramble down the ravine. These are the best waterfalls on the beach in California, and more imposing after a few days of rain (hence don't go in the summer or fall, which are very dry seasons in California). If you have time (and the tide permits it), walk south to the Double Point cove, a favorite spot for seals watching. On the way back, make sure to spend a few minutes checking the creek that feeds Alamere Falls, because there are other little waterfalls upstream. The hill to the south is worth climbing for a majestic view of the coast.
Return to the Coast Trail and hike further north 1 km. You reach another fork. Bear left to Wildcat camp, about 2 kms. Wildcat Camp is a spectacular display of colors in the spring with its flooded with wildflowers.
The trail now winds inland (east) for about 1 km. Turn right at the fork. After 1.5 km you reach another fork (to Glen camp) but bear left. After 3 kms the trail has been winding west (and passing a series of little lakes or the bigger Ocean Lake, depending which of the two parallel trails you took) and is now close to the beach again.
After an impressive overlook, the trail descends rapidly via a series of switchbacks towards a thumb-looking cliff. On one of these switchbacks one gets a great view of Arch Rock and the coast further north.
Note: Arch Rock collapsed in 2016
When Arch Rock is but a few meters away, the trail turns inland to go around a little creek. If you leave the trail and head straight for Arch Rock, you'll find yourself standing dangerously above the beach below Arch Rock. Walk north along the edge and you should find a use trail that takes you down to the creek. This is the point where you see the "Sea Tunnel", and you understand why it's called "Arch Rock". After exploring the Sea Tunnel and the beach to the south, cross the creek and use the well-maintained trail to gain the top of Arch Rock. There is a little hill on the other side that has the best view of Arch Rock and nearby cliffs.

If you instead followed the Coast Trail, turn left at the junction to reach Arch Rock. This is a 1 km detour but worth it for impressive views both south and north from Arch Rock.

Return to the junction with the Coast Trail and head north. After 1km you reach Kelham Beach. The sign is hardly visible. I recognize the turnout because of the giant eucalyptus tree. It is the only giant tree on your left handside and it comes right after a little canyon that forced the trail to head inland. Right after the tree there is a use trail that descends steeply to the beach. Return to the Coastal Trail and resume the trek north.

The trail moves away from the coast but you will notice a very prominent bluff. If you are lucky, you can find use trails that take you to that bluff without too much damage to your body (the vegetation is really thorny here even if you avoid the poison oak). That bluff has majestic views of the coast and of the double bridge down below.
Back to the Coastal Trail, after 4km you reach the cutoff to Sculptured Beach (again, the sign is hardly visible, especially if you are hiking from south to north). It is located south of the junction with the Sky Trail and the junction with the Woodward Trail. If you are hiking from south to north and you get to the Woodward Trail, you went 500m too far.

During low tide (-1 and lower) it is possible to reach Sculptured Beach in a slightly more adventurous way: when the trail makes a sharp hairpin to cross a creek on a bridge, follow the creek down to the beach. The creek ends in a 3-meter waterfall, but 20 meters to its right (north) there's a way to descend to the beach. It is not visible at all from the edge of the bluff, so you have to descend a bit at the time and keep looking for ways to descend safely. If you are doing something scary, you didn't find the right way. When you are doing (at that point you are maybe 5 meters from the tiny waterfall), turn right on the beach. You will already see the Finger Rock which marks the southern tip of Sculptured Beach. If the tide is low enough, you can walk on rocks without getting wet and then through a keyhole to get to the Finger Rock. Just before the keyhole, you should explore the cave to your right: it opens up into a giant cylindric structure with no roof.

Sculptured Beach is famous for its tunnels and caves that are normally underwater. During low-tide you can see plenty of starfish, sea anemones, etc.

If you explored Sculptured Beach, it means that the tide is low enough to continue north along the beach all the way to the Limantour parking lot. If not, climb the stairs back to the Coastal Trail and resume the trek north. In less than 2 km you will reach Coast Camp. Another recommended detour is to the top of the hill overlooking the Coast Camp, the hill marked by a strange fortress-like boulder. To climb this hill, start at the bridge 300m after the junction with the Woodward trail. Walk upstream 200-300m. When the vegetation allows it, start climbing straight up. You should soon be out of the vegetation and climbing along the ridge. At the top you get a view of Drake's Estero, besides the obvious view of the entire gulf from Limantour Beach to Chimney Rock. You can descend on the other side, heading more or less straight for Coast Camp.

From Coast Camp one can either reach the Youth Hostel or (more conveniently) Limantour Beach. The Coast Trail is parallel to the beach but eventually bends right (inland). At that point you have to head for the beach. The trail also makes a couple of wild curves to go around little canyons. An alternative to following the Coast Trail is to simply go down to the beach (possible from here even with high tide) and walk on sand the rest of the route: from the group campsite 8AB of the Coast Camp leave the Coast Trail and walk left to the beach. Then turn right (north) and just walk along the beach (tip: the sand is harder near the water).

Whichever way you went, the last km is going to be on the beach. Look for footprints and it should be obvious where the parking lot is, but sometimes it is not, especially if you get here after sunset. You can climb the sand dunes to spot the parking lot beyond a little lagoon. As a general rule, it takes about 30 minutes to reach the Limantour parking lot from the Coast Camp along the beach.
For the Youth Hostel: from the Coast Camp there is a trail that leads straight to the Youth Hostel. No need to hike on the beach. The Fire Lane trail is only 3kms to the hostel, although a little strenous.

There is non-potable water at Wildcat Camp and potable water at Coast Camp, but nowhere else along this trail. If you do this in the winter, it will be cold because it's winter. If you do this in the summer, it can be very cold because of fog/wind (in fact, it is either cold because of the wind or cold because of the fog).

Thus this is a very intense hike. Summarizing, the main attractions/detours are:

  • Bass Lake
  • Pelikan Lake
  • Alamere Falls
  • Arch Rock and Sea Tunnel
  • Kelham Beach
  • Sculptured Beach
  • Panoramic Hill
  • Limantour Beach
Depending on how many hours you have, and how good your shape is, you may want to do all of them or select a few.

Timetable (October 2001):

  • Palomarin parking lot (0km): 0 hrs
  • Bass Lake (5 km): 50'
  • Alamere Falls (6.5 km): 1 hr 20' + 30' rest
  • Wildcat (9.5 km): 2h 45'
  • Fork to Glen (12 km): 3hr 30'
  • Arch Rock (15 km): 4 hr 15' + 30' rest
  • Sculptured Beach (20 km): 5 hr 20' + 30' rest
  • Coast camp (22 km): 6h 15'
  • Youth hostel via Fire Lane trail (28 km): 7 hr 15'
For the parking lot at the end of Limantour Rd: from Coast Camp one can simply walk up the beach for about 45' instead of taking the Fire Lane trail to the youth hostel. (The parking lot is NOT exactly on the beach, so watch out on your right).

Timetable (May 2006):

  • Palomarin parking lot (0km): 0 hrs
  • Bass Lake (5 km): 50'
  • Pelican Lake (5.5 km): 1hr
  • Alamere Falls (6.5 km): 1hr 30'
  • Ocean Lake Loop (8 km): 2hr
  • Wildcat Camp (9.5 km): 2h 30'
  • Junction with Sky trail (10 km): 2h 45'
  • First Fork to Glen (12 km): 3hr
  • Second Fork to Glen (12 km): 3hr 15'
  • Arch Rock (15 km): 3hr 45'
  • Kelham beach (16 km): 4hr
  • Sculptured Beach (20 km): 5hr + 30' exploration
  • Coast Camp (22 km): 6h
  • Mountain above Coast Camp (23 km): 6h 30'
  • Beach west of Coast Camp (24 km): 6h 45'
  • Limantour beach and parking lot (26 km): 7h 15'
These distances do NOT include the countless detours.

Driving directions to Palomarin from San Francisco:

  • Cross the Golden Gate bridge heading north
  • Take the Highway 1 North exit towards Mill Valley/Stinson Beach
  • Follow signs for Highway 1 north
  • Drive about 25kms on Highway 1
  • Turn left onto Olema Bolinas Rd (this is tricky as it is not marked, but it is the very first left turn you can take as soon as the lagoon ends). If you get to Olema, you went way too far. Map of Mesa Rd
  • (A less winding and possibly faster alternative is to take Francis Drake Blvd from 101 to Olema, then turn left/south and then turn right into the Horseshow Rd just before the lagoon begins)
  • You are now heading into Bolinas
  • After about 1km turn right onto Mesa Rd (well marked) and continue for about 20 minutes past the Bird Observatory (the last 2-3 kms are unpaved)
  • Mesa Rd ends at the Palomarin parking lot
The total driving distance from the Golden Gate Bridge to Palomarin is about 40kms. It is a slow, winding road, so it will take you at least 40 minutes without traffic. (Again, the Francis Drake alternative might actually be faster, even if it is technically longer).

Driving directions to the Coast Camp:

  • Drive north on the GG Bridge
  • Take the San Anselmo/ Francis Drake Blvd exit
  • Go left/west on Francis Drake Blvd all the way until it dead ends in Olema (takes about 30 minutes)
  • Turn right and immediately (100m) left into Bear Valley Rd
  • Now you are entering Pt Reyes
  • Continue straight and turn left into the Limantour Rd (sign for Youth Hostel)
  • Park either at the Limantour parking lot (very end of the road) or at the Youth Hostel. The hike to the Coast Camp is shorter but steeper from the Youth Hostel.