Alamere Falls, located on the southern end of Point Reyes National Seashore, spills over the edge of a thirty-foot cliff and into the Pacific Ocean below. A “coastal waterfall” or “tidefall,” it is a fairly uncommon natural phenomenon, with only twenty-five of its kind sprinkled around the globe. San Francisco, where I live, is just 35 miles from Alamere Falls. So close, yet so far away.
Labor Day was hazy and humid. Not as brutally hot as the days preceding it, but still quite warm for an early September day on the northern California coast. It was late morning and the trail was already packed when my husband, daughters and I set off from the Palomarin Trailhead, just north of Bolinas, to see our first tidefall.
After making our way through a large stand of eucalyptus, we followed the trail along the coast for a brief stretch, in and out of darkened thickets of Douglas fir, past a series of lily-pad covered ponds, and onto serene Bass Lake and Pelican Lake, black mirrors nestled in the trees.
Shortly after passing Pelican Lake, we came to the turn off for the unofficial trail to Alamere Falls, where rocks arranged in the shape of an arrow marked a small opening in a dusty tangle of dense scrub. While this is the quickest and most popular way to go, the National Park Service “strongly advises visitors against using this unmaintained route,” instead directing hikers to continue for two miles to the coastal Wildcat Camp and backtrack from there — tides permitting — along the beach. Reluctant to add a couple more hours onto our hike and unsure whether the beach route would be dry or submerged by the time we got there, we ducked into the poison-oak-entwined brambles and continued in single file on a narrow, overgrown path.
About ten minutes later, we emerged from the scrub and scrambled down a deeply rutted shale and sandstone bluff to a wide, flat cliff overlooking the ocean. This was where Alamere Creek became Alamere Tidefall, slipping quietly over the edge of the cliff after splashing through a set of two small waterfalls in the eroded hillside above.
But we had not yet reached our ultimate destination. To see Alamere Falls in all its glory, we needed to get ourselves down a crumbling cliff face just to the right of the falls. It was at least thirty feet high and nearly vertical, a steady stream of people clambering up and down through the jagged rocks.
My husband and daughters plunged ahead while I waited for a couple people to pass. I watched the girls jump onto the sand, waving at me to join them, and in those moments of hesitation an uncomfortable, albeit familiar feeling began to take hold. Paralyzed, I stared at the narrow ledge I needed to step down to next, trying to will myself to go there. My family yelled words of encouragement from the beach, while two tattooed Millenials offered to help me down. But the longer I stood there, the tighter the fear gripped me. I just couldn’t do it.
Waiting at the top of the falls for my family to come back up, I berated myself for chickening out, wishing I could have seen Alamere Falls with my own eyes. This fear of heights was a feeling I had experienced before and I didn’t like it. On the one hand, my fear of climbing down the cliff face wasn’t completely irrational; according to the National Park Service, people get injured at Alamere Falls on a weekly basis, some requiring the mobilization of search and rescue teams. Yet on the other hand, if all of these people — many of them much less fit and coordinated than I — could do it, I knew that I could too. Was I really so afraid of the thirty-foot drop or of possibly hurting myself? Where did this fear come from, anyway?
I’ve realized, in retrospect, that at the heart of my fear was a fear of the unknown and deeper still, a sort of fear of my own fear of heights. How would I feel once I stepped down onto the ledge and what if I once again froze up, unable to go further down or to climb back up again? What if I got stuck there?
My experience at Alamere Falls has gotten me thinking a lot about how fear plays into my decision making more generally. There’s a fine line between caution and cowardice, fearlessness and recklessness, and fear is not always a bad thing. In many cases it serves as a healthy and helpful survival mechanism. I’m still not completely sure whether my fear of heights is a rational response to danger or an irrational reaction I should try to overcome. But I do know this: fear can all too often get in the way of things that we want, preventing us from reaching our goals and achieving our dreams. Alamere Falls is just a waterfall, but I don’t want to miss out on any more of life’s waterfalls because of fear.