Waterfall Loop, San Pedro Valley Park,
County of San Mateo,

San Mateo County
In brief:
A 2.2 mile loop through eucalyptus woods and coastal scrub.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 2.2 mile loop hike is easy, with about 640 feet in elevation change. Trailhead elevation is about 200 feet, and the high point is about 840 feet. If you want a longer hike, you can extend this hike out of the park and into McNee Ranch State Park (you'll enter the park at about 1400 feet), where the high point is over 1800 feet.

Mix of sun and shade.

Trail traffic:

Trail surfaces:
Dirt trails.

Hiking time:
1 1/2 hours.

Nice any time; lovely in early spring.

Getting there:
From CA 1 in Pacifica (San Mateo County), turn east onto Linda Mar Boulevard, drive to the end of the road (about 2 miles), turn right onto Oddstad, and make the first left into the park. 

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails:

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 3734'41.38"N
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging:
Gas, restaurants, and stores on Linda Mar, about 2 miles west. No camping.

Trailhead details:
Entrance fee of $6 is charged even when entry kiosk is unstaffed, so bring exact change for self registration. Lots of parking. Restrooms, pay phone, and drinking water on site. There's a nice Visitor Center with books and maps for sale, open on weekends. Maps available at the information signboard near the start of the Plaskon Nature Trail (just off the south parking lot). There are designated handicapped parking spots, but this loop isn't suitable to wheelchairs (the Plaskon Nature Trail and Weiler Ranch Road are).

Most of the trails at San Pedro are narrow, and bicycles are permitted only on wide Weiler Ranch Road. Some trails are designated hiking only, and a few allow equestrians, but horses are often prohibited when trails are wet. No dogs. Park is open from 8 a.m. to about sunset (hours vary seasonally). 

The Official Story
CSMP's San Pedro page.
Park headquarters 650-355-8289

Map Choices:
A hike through San Pedro to the top of Montara Mountain is described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San Francisco, by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order this book from Amazon.com.
Hiking, Bicycling, and Equestrian Trail Map of Pacifica and Trails of the Coastside and Northern Peninsula are the best map guides to the park (available from Pease Press).
Map from CSMP
Afoot and Afield: San Francisco Bay Area, by David Weintraub (order this book from Amazon.com) has a great map and descriptions of a Montara Mountain hike.
• Tom Taber's The Santa Cruz Mountains Trail Book has a simple map and park descriptions (order this book from Amazon.com).
Peninsula Trails, by Jean Rusmore, has a simple map and trail descriptions (order this book from Amazon.com).

View photos from this hike.

Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

Hiking around the bay area during the winter has some ups and downs. Parking lotThe weather is harsh and often rainy, and the trails get muddy. But cool weather makes strenuous hikes a little easier; without the sun sapping your strength you may find yourself with increased endurance. The parks empty out as outdoor lovers find themselves busy with school, work, and holiday planning. And then there are the waterfalls. Fueled by winter storms, water cascades down creek beds or sluices sharply off rocky outcrops, in spectacular displays of water power that only happen during the wettest months. There are wonderful waterfalls all over the bay area, but San Pedro Valley Park, just south of San Francisco in Pacifica, has one of my favorite seasonal waterfalls.
     Even if you don't get around to a winter visit, San Pedro is wonderful any time of the year. Since it is a short distance from the ocean, you can depend on relatively cool temperatures in summer. There aren't many foliage plants on display in fall, but the park makes up for drab autumns with spectacular late winter through spring wildflowers. View of the park from the upper reaches of Montara Mountain TrailThe display actually starts around Christmas, when manzanitas stagger hummingbirds and humans alike with stunning oceans of blossoms and a delightful sweet smell. Come back in spring for trilliums, currant, iris, mission bells, milkmaids, and paintbrush.
        San Pedro is a small park with three looping trails. You could hike them consecutively in one visit, for a 7 mile grand tour. Valley View Trail is a 1.4 mile path connected by flat Weiler Ranch Road Trail. Valley View climbs the south facing slope of a hillside, then drops back down to the valley floor, where deer are abundant. Hazelnut Trail departs from Plaskon Nature Trail, climbs through chaparral to a high stand of eucalyptus, then takes many twists and turns along the contour of the mountainside before descending to meet up with Weiler Ranch Road Trail.Eucalyptus forest on Montara Mountain Trail This 4.5 mile loop climbs from about 200 to 1000 feet, but it's not a hard hike, and can easily be done in either direction. For a true workout, take Montara Mountain Trail from the trailhead (elevation around 200 feet) all the way to McNee Ranch State Park (elevation as you enter the park is near 1400 feet), an out and back hike on which you can retrace your steps if the climbing becomes too strenuous, or hang in there to the McNee Ranch's boundary and high point, an over 6 mile hike that's substantially easier than the corresponding route at McNee Ranch.
     The county gets high marks for signage and maintenance. Every park junction, and even false trails, are marked with sturdy signs, and the park is impeccably clean. This is an achievement, considering how many people use San Pedro's picnic grounds and trails. Chaparral on Montara Mountain Trail
      I use this park mostly for short hikes, as the proximity to San Francisco makes it possible to squeeze a 2 or 3 mile jaunt into a spare morning or afternoon. In winter, when rain is forecast for the afternoon, I can usually make it to the park, hike, and then make it home in about 3 hours, beating the raindrops. Keep in mind that San Pedro is not a safe place to get caught in a storm, as winds and fog can whip in quickly and some of the trails are on exposed ridges, or under tall eucalyptus trees.
     This loop can be walked in either direction. After visiting many times, I've decided that I prefer the counterclockwise direction, because you get the best views that way.
     Park in the lot to the right after you pass the entrance kiosk. Look for the yellow fire hydrant near the restrooms; the start of the trail is a few feet to the left of the hydrant. Start up the trail and almost immediately, at about 210 feet, you'll reach the first signed junction. Turn right onto Montara Mountain Trail.Towering manzanitas on Montara Mountain Trail
     Coast live oaks give way to a eucalyptus forest. Montara Mountain Trail ascends slightly, then at about 0.12 mile, the trail crosses a paved service road. Continue straight. The trail begins to climb on a steady and reasonable grade, taking a zigzag course up the mountain. With the town of Pacifica on the right, sounds of civilization compete with the creaks and moans of the tall trees swaying in a breeze. Beneath the eucalyptus you might see ferns, goldenrod (in summer), poison oak, coyote brush, currant, hazelnut, monkeyflower, tree-sized toyon, ceanothus, blue elderberry, pitcher sage and creambush. In late summer, look for shrubs with plump, enticing-looking dark berries. This is California coffeeberry, and the berries, while popular with animals, are not edible for humans. Do not confuse coffeeberry with the edible huckleberry, also present in the park, although not found on the lower reaches of this trail. Brooks Falls TrailMontara Mountain Trail switchbacks gently uphill, well shaded by the tall eucalyptus. Banana slugs are common in the winter. If you are quiet and observant, you might catch a glimpse of redtail hawks in the upper reaches of eucalyptus trees. The trail straightens out and leaves the forest for chaparral. Some of the shrubs, such as coffeeberry and coyote brush, persist, and some new plants are added to the mix, including yerba santa. Ceanothus towers overhead on the right side of the trail, and the hillside drops off to the left, as Montara Mountain Trail angles across a hillside. Weather (fog) permitting, expect long views to Montara Mountain. The trail curves left near a damp spot and passes some huckleberry and chinquapin. Here you might also notice the first of the manzanita. They are slight and overshadowed by other vegetation, but just a few steps up the trail they completely overtake everything else.Brooks Falls Trail
     I had one of my first "nature" experiences on this stretch of trail. As a beginning hiker, I sometimes felt pretty scared hiking alone, and my number one fear was an attack by a mountain lion. I kept hearing this high-pitched buzzing noise, very close to my head. When I turned around, there would be nothing there. I continued on, but felt like I was being stalked; what was this buzz? Finally, after a few tense moments, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a hummingbird, feeding on the manzanita blossoms. There were a couple of them, and I couldn't see them because they were actually zooming around above my head, as hummingbirds tend to do. I gave a big sigh of relief, but I had been spooked and still felt a little scared somehow. The thicket on the side of the trail was impossible to see through, and I started obsessing about how a mountain lion could invisibly stalk me from the other side of the bushes. Bench with great view of the falls in winterAs I proceeded warily uphill, a squirrel came running down the trail toward me screaming his little head off. Have you ever heard a squirrel scream? I know, it's not exactly Silence of the Lambs, but it's pretty alarming. I figured it was a rabid squirrel on a kamikaze mission, and as it continued toward me, I stopped dead in my tracks and screamed right back. The squirrel suddenly veered off the trail and up a small tree, where it sat a few feet from me, chattering and shaking. Well, this was not an encouraging sign for me. To my credit, I decided I would continue on, and face whatever that brave squirrel had avoided. A few steps more up the trail and I saw an animal cross the trail about 50 feet ahead of me. When I got to that area, I peered into the bushes. It was a feral cat, about 10 feet away, and I thought, big deal. Then it turned, I saw a stubby tail, and my heart jumped -- it was a bobcat! Now whenever I walk through here, I think of that day and how far I've come as a hiker.
     I miss the hummingbirds in summer, but I know they'll be back in winter when the manzanitas bloom. Brooks FallsCottontail rabbits live in the park year round, and are common in this part of the park. Large manzanitas over 6 feet tall curve gracefully over the trail, creating a natural bower. At 1.22 miles, Montara Mountain Trail meets Brooks Falls Trail at a signed junction. This is a good spot to stop and admire the ocean view. Turn left. (You can extend the hike from this point by continuing on Montara Mountain Trail. It's another 1 mile to the fire road at McNee Ranch.)
     Brooks Falls Trail, downright tiny and lumpy with tree roots in places, winds easily downhill through manzanita-weighted chaparral. From the trail the hills to the north and east (Sweeney Ridge) appear to be a continuous carpet of mottled green. There are unobstructed views on Montara Mountain as you descend into a very quiet part of the park. Turning a corner, you might notice the trail surface taking on a decidedly orange cast, a counterpoint to the vibrant green leaves of the manzanita shrubs lining the way. A bench at 1.64 miles marks my favorite place to sit and watch the waterfall. Even if there is no water cascading over 175 feet down off the mountain, it's a dramatic and lovely view across the canyon to Brooks Falls. Back under eucalyptus on Brooks Falls Trail On one November morning, I watched a murder of crows near the falls, and they provided ample entertainment even though the water wasn't running yet (in fact, crows are common in this area and you may hear their peculiar calls even if you can't see them). As you continue downhill, you'll cross a bridge constructed in 2000 to help hikers avoid a previously soggy stretch of trail. Silktassel, madrone, chinquapin, and huckleberry thrive among the manzanita. In spring, look for thimbleberries along the shady parts of the trail. Clinging to the edge of the hillside, Brooks Falls Trail returns to the eucalyptus forest, where you will probably hear the roar of Brooks Creek, just downslope to the right but not visible. At 1.97 miles, you'll reach a signed junction. The trail to the right returns to the valley floor, so stay to the left, toward the Visitor Center (the other trail is an option for returning to the trailhead). Just a few feet later, stay to the left again as an old closed path breaks off to the right. You'll pass a few young redwoods, then bisect a grove of pines and a handful of Douglas fir. At 2.18 miles, you'll reach a previously encountered junction. Turn right and retrace your steps to the parking lot.Pine trees along Brooks Falls Trail
      If you have a little more time and want to explore some more, walk the short Plaskon Nature Trail. This trail, behind the Visitor Center, follows the South Fork of San Pedro Creek, where steelhead salmon spawn in winter. The self-guided nature tour (pamphlet available at the Visitor Center) along the creek features willow, dogwood, poison oak, thimbleberry, and blackberry bushes. If you are interested in plant identification, check out the small garden on the side of the Visitor Center. Many of the plants found in San Pedro Valley have been planted here, with identification tags. The Berkeley Botanical Garden it's not, but it's a nice small garden.

Total distance: 2.21 miles
Last hiked: Tuesday, December 24, 2002