UC Berkeley closed public access to the site popularly known as University Falls on Aug. 14 in response to growing concern over visitors’ negative treatment of the land.
Managed by the campus Center for Forestry of the College of Natural Resources, University Falls is located about three hours northeast of Berkeley in El Dorado County and attracts about 700 people per weekend, said Robert York, the center’s research stations manager, who ordered the shutdown. According to York, the wilderness site known for its waterfalls has long been used for recreation by the public. But in the past few years, increased visitor traffic to the site has led to concerns about fire safety and escalating environmental degradation.
York said maintaining the site for public recreation detracted from the center’s primary mission of research, education and demonstration, as the team instead had to spend much of its time collecting garbage and monitoring fire safety, among other tasks. The site remains open for researchers.
“Research that improves the understanding and management of forests in the Sierra Nevada is our higher priority,” York said in an email.
Another challenge posed to the center’s management was that the route to the falls intersected land with different access policies, such as private property, York said. The center was also concerned about the slippery nature of the 5.4 mile round-trip hiking trail to the falls.
In an announcement on its website, the center said the path has caused injuries and even fatalities at the falls. Emergency response could take more than two hours to reach the falls.
York attributed the recent rise in popularity of the falls in part to reviews on websites such as Yelp and Alltrails. Both websites now list the area as closed, yet York said he has had to talk to about 800 visitors to the falls after its closure to give them alternative recreational options.
Numerous visitors to both websites reported being turned away by guards and being threatened with fines and arrest for trespassing if they attempted to go to the falls. Many expressed sadness that the falls had been closed to public access, although others spoke of deteriorating conditions at the falls caused by visitors, including large quantities of garbage, human waste on the trails and illegal parking.
York said in order for the site to reopen to the public in the future, one of two things will need to happen.
“Either the university will need to have more control over the access route, or the land needs to be managed by a public agency that has a mission of recreation,” York said in an email.