For decades, people have flocked to a series of four waterfalls about 12 miles outside Georgetown in El Dorado County to slide down smooth granite rocks, lounge in the crystal-clear, cool water and spend time enjoying the forest.
The nearly 6-mile round-trip hike – some of it through fairly steep terrain – did little to dissuade an estimated 600 people each weekend in summer months from visiting University Falls, as the area is popularly known.
But that all ended on Aug. 14, when the owner of the land, UC Berkeley, shut down access to the site, blocked part of the trail with tree limbs and erected no-trespassing signs along the trail to the area, which is formally named Pilot Creek Falls.
The shutdown was ordered by Rob York, the research stations manager for the university's 4,000-acre Blodgett Forest research project, which studies forest and wildfire issues and includes the falls as part of its property.
“Over time, more and more people were not obeying the rules, and it was clear they were doing that so we really had no other option except to close it down,” York said last week as he walked through the area picking up discarded beer cans, plastic water bottles and a large, smashed bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. “It's been a cumulative impact. ... Really, in the end, I was spending a third of my budget trying to mitigate the impacts.”
In addition to the trash problems, York said, visitors have ignored rules banning alcohol, dogs and firearms. The influx of visitors also created headaches for nearby residents and travelers dealing with people parking along two-lane Wentworth Springs Road. There were also problems with fire hazards and illegal overnight campers, he said.
The site's popularity also affects the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office, which found itself frequently responding to calls for help from injured citizens or to break up fights.
“It takes officers quite a while to get there. It usually takes an hour,” sheriff's Sgt. Chris Felton said. “You can't get a vehicle all the way down there. It's actually an old Jeep trail.”
The difficulty in accessing the site is obvious walking in. There are at least two abandoned vehicles that have been slowly deteriorating for years on the hillsides below the trail. For sheriff's deputies or the local volunteer fire department, the steep terrain lengthens response time when people need help, Felton said. About six weeks ago a young woman died after hitting her head going over the fourth waterfall, which is extremely steep and dangerous, he said.
“That's the one that kills people,” York said, as he stood above the final waterfall last week.
The decision to close off the falls has been a long time in the making, York said, and came after consultations with UC Berkeley's legal staff and officials at Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns property in the area that includes a portion of the old fire road that leads to the falls.
But the move has not been without controversy. On social media sites like Yelp.com, some users have raised questions about the university's legal right to keep people off the land. Some have openly defied the no-trespassing edict.
“Upon arriving, I noticed the sign saying that the falls were closed,” one Yelp commenter from Lafayette wrote Aug. 17, three days after the falls were closed. “A nasty old man drove by and told us ‘not to risk it' and that people were getting fined $750 for trespassing. ...
“I didn't drive to the middle of nowhere for 2 hours just to turn around. The falls are not private property, however the surrounding land might be.”
In fact, the ownership of the surrounding land complicates the closure somewhat. Accessing the site requires walking around a locked steel gate and onto an unpaved U.S. Forest Service road. After about a mile, the road crosses into private property owned by Sierra Pacific, and eventually the route winds into a steep hiking trail on UC Berkeley land that leads down to the waterfalls.
York said he has contacted sites like Yelp and Alltrails.com to get them to note that the falls are closed, and he has sent messages to people offering reviews of the falls telling them that they no longer can be accessed legally.
Some of the no-trespassing signs are attached high up on pine trees out of reach, but many of his signs have been torn down by people who have chosen to ignore the closure and hike in to the falls.
Felton, the sheriff's sergeant, said the department has issued some warnings to people but has yet to issue any trespassing citations.
York has posted signs at the trail head listing six alternative sites for hikers to visit, complete with driving directions and estimated drive times, in the hope that visitors will decide to go elsewhere. A listing of those sites can be found at www.sacbee.com/links/.
In the long term, York said he is hopeful that a way can be found to reopen the area to the public, but with rules in place that don't harm the university's forest research programs.
“We'd like to be able to open it up in the future for safe and managed recreation, but we don't have the capacity to do that at this point,” he said. “It's UC regents (property) with the primary objective of research, and it has a long history of being used for that.”