The Fern Falls Hike at the southeastern end of Garland Ranch Regional Park may be one of the most strenuous hikes in the park. However, it may also have the biggest payoff: high picturesque views of the sprawling Carmel Valley, wooden benches set on grassy mountaintop meadows, and a 20-foot waterfall in a shady lush canyon that, though accessible by a much shorter hike, is limited to only 10 vehicles of hikers per day, ensuring it remains quiet and lightly visited.
To hike from Garland Ranch, the trail is about 4.5 miles and requires a climb and descent of 1,400 feet each way! With that much elevation gain and loss over the relatively short distance, you can be sure that your legs will be feeling the nearly 3,000 feet of total climbing by day's end.
Because of the number of trails that fork off in the isolated and distant portion of the trail system, it is imperative that hikers carry a map—available for $1 from the Garland Ranch Visitor Center near the park's primary entrance—in order to navigate the junctions.
The hike begins at a secondary park entrance near Dempierre Little League Park (located at 55 Paso Hondo, Carmel Valley). Park at the far end of either parking area. A trail leads behind the baseball diamonds to a footbridge over the river. The wading spot here is popular, as is the meadow that lies behind it. But upon leaving the meadow and beginning the steep climb, over 1,100 feet of elevation gain in slightly more than 1 mile, everyone else will disappear, and the green ferns and miner's lettuce will make you feel as if you've left California for the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.
Eventually you emerge from the shady slope into the dry and vista-rich meadows atop the mountains. Here, wildflowers flourish, and a few large oak trees provide respites of shade in the otherwise open landscape. A little more climbing up the hillside precedes the beginning of the descent toward Hitchcock Canyon.
For the last portion of the hike, the trail passes a ranch and meets up with an unpaved fire road that proceeds to an unused wooden cabin marking the fork onto the foot trail. The final portion of the hike parallels Hitchcock Creek through a shady canyon bottom toward the falls. Signs warn of slow-moving newts walking across the trail, and the hoots of owls might be heard above the flow of the creek.
Ferns Falls is a 20-foot, year-round fall that cascades into a wide pool at the bottom. Below this pool, the creek trickles into another pool filled with slow-moving water, where newts and swimming turtles can be seen.
If you follow the park map, the trail from Dempierre Park to the falls follows the Laureles Trail to the Vasquez Trail, which climbs to the Cougar Ridge Trail before descending a single, clearly marked path all the way to the bottom. From here, the path to the falls is unsigned, but pretty intuitive.
Another possibility may be to shuttle and have a car waiting at Kahn Ranch. However, there is a necessary permit process for this, detailed here, and there is no pedestrian, bicycling, or other access permitted on Hitchcock Canyon Road otherwise.
Be prepared with plenty of water, as there are no amenities anywhere beyond Dempierre Park.
The waterfall is open from sunrise until sunset daily.
Sometimes high seasonal river levels force the park to pull the footbridge that crosses the Carmel River near Dempierre Park. It may be necessary to wade across the river or find an alternate access to the trail in this instance.