About Phillips Gulch Falls
Phillips Gulch Falls (or Phillips Gulch Waterfall) was a dramatically-situated 15ft waterfall right along the battered coastline of the Sonoma Coast in Salt Point State Park.
Even though it resided within the boundaries of a reserve, it turned out to be a rather obscure waterfall since it didn’t appear to have any signage nor infrastructure alerting the public about its presence.
Nevertheless, as you can see in the photo above, the scenery around this modestly-sized 15ft waterfall would have surely made people stop and check it out instead of driving right by.
Where Do I Find The Phillips Gulch Waterfall?
The bottom line is that the Phillips Gulch Falls is accessed by the Bluff Trail.
In fact, I’d imagine that the people who have managed to find this waterfall only did so after stumbling upon it while hiking this trail from the nearby Stump Beach.
The Bluff Trail was a dramatic coastline trail that hugged the dropoffs of the sea cliffs above the Sonoma Coast between Stump Beach and Fisk Mill Cove.
Along this trail, we witnessed turbulent waves crashing against rock stacks sending spray high in the air.
On our first visit to this waterfall, we studied the topographic maps and then looked for it when we finally got to the field.
That effort brought us to an unmarked pullout and use-trail going right into some tall windswept grass ultimately connecting with the Bluff Trail, where we then followed it to the Phillips Gulch.
This approach only took about 3/4-mile round-trip according to my GPS logs, but I did notice that the Bluff Trail kept going beyond Phillips Gulch as well as back towards Stump Beach.
Speaking of this “shortcut”, when we came back to the Sonoma Coast in February 2022, we noticed that the nearest pullout to the start of this trail now had signage and fencing prohibiting parking there (though the falls remained unmentioned).
How Can I Hike To Phillips Gulch Waterfall From A Legitimate Parking Area?
On our second visit to the Phillips Gulch Falls, we decided to start at Stump Beach (see directions below), which had a parking lot as well as a picnic area and access to the aforementioned beach.
Starting from this trailhead, there was an obvious path that descended towards the well-signed Bluff Trail with branching access to the secluded Stump Beach.
The Bluff Trail skirted within the vegetation along the innermost edge of the beach, going by some driftwood that washed ashore, before climbing a gully where we actually heard some frogs.
Above the gully, the Bluff Trail continued through some grove of trees and coastal vegetation, but then it encountered a series of fallen trees that completely obscured the continuation of the trail.
At this point, there were trails that led back to the Hwy 1, where we could walk along the road back to the “shortcut” trail that we had taken the first time we were here.
However, there were also other use-trails going back towards the fallen trees, where it was possible to clamber over a few of them and regain the Bluff Trail near a power pole with some yellow tape to help steer us on the path.
This was the more atmospheric approach as we got to look back towards Stump Beach as well as the crashing waves of the Sonoma Coast in the distance.
Eventually, the shortcut trail merged with the Bluff Trail, and then it was a pretty straightforward jaunt for another 1/4-mile more as the path descended to the Phillips Gulch Waterfall.
Overall, my GPS logs indicated that the distance between Stump Beach and Phillips Gulch Falls was about 3/4-mile or 1.5 miles round-trip.
Experiencing The Phillips Gulch Waterfall
The ledge just to the south side of the Phillips Gulch Falls was perhaps the safest spot to witness the falls dropping into its seemingly protected cove.
I only say that it was “protected” because there was a small sea stack that was being battered the turbulent swells of the Pacific, which essentially kept us from being exposed to the odd rogue wave that might have otherwise conspired to pluck us off the ledge.
I didn’t see an obvious way to scramble down to the bottom of the Phillips Gulch Falls, but I’m aware that some people have done it in the literature, and I’d imagine it should only be attempted during low tide.
That said, we were content with our ledge views where both the waterfall and coastline were juxtaposed together.
We didn’t bother with taking our chances with the turbulent waves and tides that could easily inundate the channel that the waterfall spilled into, especially during high tide.
Anyways, as we stared towards the Phillips Gulch Waterfall and the waves pounding the coastline, I couldn’t help but notice that there were temporary tidal waterfalls dropping from rocks in the distance.
Basically, if the waves were high enough, they’d deposit water onto those rocks, and then when the waves subsided, waterfalls fell from those rocks.
We also noticed there were some unusual plants sticking up from rocks right in the path of turbulent swells and waves of the Pacific.
Such hardy plants appeared to be to be able to grow and stand up against such forces of Mother Nature, and I wondered what kinds of plants they were as well as whether they were a rare (or common) form of life since I had never seen them before.
Finally, we noticed that the Bluff Trail did continue beyond the Phillips Gulch Creek, and I’d imagine we could have continued hiking it towards the Chinese Gulch, which might have another drop-into-the-ocean waterfall.
As a result of this observation, that was something we did end up doing on our second visit, which I’ll describe shortly.
Overall, we spent about an hour away from the car on our first visit, but most of that time was spent staring at the mesmerizing scenery before us.
On our second visit, we spend a little more time away from the car due to the doubling the overall hiking distance from Stump Beach.
Timing The Phillips Gulch Waterfall
Our first visit to the Phillips Gulch Falls took place in late November, which was pretty late in the season as far as most California waterfalls would be concerned.
That said, we still managed to see it flow (albeit very lightly).
This suggested to me that either this falls had good longevity and was barely hanging on for the year until the Winter rains would come, or a recent rain storm during the prior week might have restored some of the moisture in the gulch.
On our second visit to the Phillips Gulch Falls, it took place in late February after a pretty dry first 7-8 weeks of 2022, and it had a similar low flow to what we had witnessed in late November 2020.
So that further reinforced to me that you’ll want to be here not long after the passing of some strong storms if you want to see the falls flowing more vigorously (as you might have seen in the literature).
As far as timing a visit in terms of time-of-day, as you can see from the photos on this page, morning wasn’t the best since we had to contend with shadows that created a high contrast situation.
However, afternoon was just about perfect as there were no shadows to deal with, but the drawback of this was the likelihood of driving the twisty Hwy 1 in the dark (which included the presence of deer).
Moreover, experiencing this place in the late afternoon also might have helped us spot deer since there were fewer people around during our second visit.
Continuing Beyond Phillips Gulch Falls To The Chinese Gulch Waterfall
On our second visit to Phillips Gulch Falls, we actually crossed over the top of the falls and walked another half-mile further along the Bluff Trail to the Chinese Gulch.
This section of trail remained wide open, and we even spotted some deer during that second visit (which also made us keenly aware of the hazard they pose when driving the Hwy 1).
Upon descending to the Chinese Gulch, there was another seasonal stream that was similar to the Phillips Gulch except the waterfall was less accessible and less visible since we were looking down at it.
Although it did look possibly (albeit very sketchy) to reach the rocky coastline beneath the falls, we decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble and were content with the limited views from the top.
The best spot to see the Chinese Gulch Waterfall “safely” was from the bluff on the other side of its stream, where I managed to get more angled top down views of part of the two-segment falls.
The Bluff Trail would continue further northwest towards the Fisk Mill Cove, but this was essentially our turnaround point for this optional add-on to the Phillips Gulch Falls hike.
Overall, if we included the optional extension of the Phillips Gulch hike from Stump Beach to Chinese Gulch, the total hiking distance was about 2.5 miles round-trip, which took us around 2 hours away from the car.
This included the time spent stopping to take pictures, especially when we tried not to spook the deer that we had spotted.
Phillips Gulch Falls (or Phillips Gulch Waterfall) resides in Salt Point State Park near Jenner in Sonoma County, California. It is administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website.
Approach From The North
From Sea Ranch, we drove nearly 9 miles south on the Hwy 1 as it rounded a bend while crossing a short bridge over Phillips Gulch.
Just on the other side of this bridge to the right side of the road was a somewhat large unpaved and unmarked pullout, and this was where we preferred to park the car.
That said, another 0.2-mile further on Hwy 1 was a smaller pullout at the next bend in the road with room for barely one or two cars.
On our second visit, there was new signage prohibiting using this pullout to park), and besides, given how much traffic is on the Hwy 1, I personally wouldn’t try to force it to park at that pullout given the likelihood of a traffic incident.
Therefore, we just walked that 0.2-mile stretch along the overgrown shoulder of Hwy 1 in the interest of safety.
Alternatively, it was another 0.5-mile from the aforementioned pullout to the much larger parking area at Stump Beach, and I’d recommend parking there to access the Phillips Gulch Falls since it’s easier to find.
Overall, this stretch of the drive between Sea Ranch and Stump Beach took us a little over 10 minutes though our longer drive from Little River took about 2.5 hours.
Approach From The South
The drive from Jenner to Stump Beach was roughly 21 miles, which would take about an hour or so.
The Stump Beach entrance would be on the left, but the “legal” pullout closer to the “shortcut” would be about 0.8-mile north of the Stump Beach turnoff (or about 0.2-mile beyond the unsanctioned pullout where the shortcut trail began).
For geographical context, Jenner was 33 miles (under an hour drive) west of Santa Rosa, 52 miles (under 90 minutes drive) west of Sonoma, 78 miles (over 90 minutes drive) north of San Francisco, 87 miles (over 2 hours drive) south of Mendocino, 143 miles (over 2.5 hours drive) south of Leggett, and 241 miles (4.5 hours drive) south of Arcata.
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