Some of my photos are now for sale at ImageKind.

Nature Index
(My hiking and camping adventures in Northern California.)

Culture Index
(NorCal cities, highways, restaurants, museums, architecture, historic attractions, vintage neon signs, roadside attractions, etc.)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Mt. Tamalpais Watershed: Cataract Falls

20080126 Some Stream

When my friend Erik and I hiked a couple of weeks ago, he had hoped we'd be able to do an additional hike to see the waterfalls along Cataract Trail, but the closure of Ridge Crest Boulevard. prevented us from getting there. So this time, we planned to get there from the other side, coming from the east. We cruised down I-80 towards San Francisco, then cut west at Vallejo on CA 37, took a detour into Novato because a portion of the express way was closed, headed south on US 101 to San Rafael, and then drove through several lovely towns of Marin County on Sir Frances Drake Boulevard, finally to Fairfax-Bolinas Road. We slowly climbed up the narrow winding road from Fairfax, only to discover that the road was closed at Meadow Club golf course, more than 5 miles from where we planned to park. I quickly pulled out the map of Marin Municipal Water District's Mt. Tamalpais Watershed, and decided to head back to the turn off for Lake Lagunitas and Bon Tempe Lake, where we hiked more than a year ago with our friend Dana.

After paying $7 for admission, we parked at the Lake Lagunitas picnic area, and I tried to figure out our route for hiking. I remember being totally disoriented when we were here last time, and I was again. I was looking at the map and looking around and checking my compass. Erik also had trouble figuring out which direction it was to the trails on the map.

Finally an older gentleman came over and asked us if he could be of help. We said we wanted to hike to Cataract Falls.

"Oh, that's a long ways off. That's much to far to go in this stormy weather," he responded, seemingly amazed that we'd think of doing it.

Erik asked, "Is it supposed to storm today?"

"This is just a break in the storm."

I asked him about hiking to Collier Spring, which caught my eye on the map.

"Can you pole vault?" he asked us. He went on to explain that there are three creek crossings that are a challenge after rains like the area was recently hit with. He claimed to be the only one to make the last crossing, and described to us how he pole vaulted across it with a long branch in the water.

He told us we could shorten the distance to Cataract Falls by driving down the gravel road we had passed to Bon Tempe dam, crossing that, and hiking down Kent Trail. That looked good on the map, so I decided that's what we'd do.

"But that's got to be about a 10 mile hike!" he warned.

"Yeah, 10 miles. That sounds good," I responded. We've had plenty of longer hikes.

He then suggested that we leave a note telling where we were headed in the car window, and said he would tell man back at the entrance kiosk. Apparently he thought there was a chance of us not making it back before nightfall.

I rushed us off from there, as I did want to give us plenty of room for error in making it back to the car before dark. He definitely wanted to talk some more, and I was sorry to cut it short, since his trail advice proved very useful.

So we parked over at Bon Tempe Lake, and crossed the dam. The spillway had plenty of water flowing down it, and there had been water flowing all over Fairfax-Bolinas Road. From there we headed right on Kent Trail, which was a dirt road at first, before narrowing to a footpath that followed the shoreline of the badly misnamed Alpine Lake.

Along the way we laughed about the man's exaggerated concern for our welfare, repeating some of the things he had said with incredulity. Then I told Erik that this is just how many of the near-death adventure stories in the book I'm reading now, No S*** There I Was, started--people being warned of danger, and not taking it seriously.

Every little gulch in the hills was flowing with muddy water feeding the lake. It's cool and wet there most of the year, so it is mostly green--the minty, pale green of whatever that is on the white-barked trees, and the deeper green of the moss growing on every available surface.

We were constantly crossing small seasonal creeks, some just easily walked across without any, others that forced us to choose rocks to step across on.

Our route took us 2 miles to a junction with Helen Markt Trail, which we followed. We started to climb and came across masses of mushrooms and other interesting fungi. I was somewhat embarrassed that a man came jogging by while I was lying on the ground getting a macro shot of one.

20080126 Mushroom

Despite the warnings about the distance, we encountered people returning from Cataract Falls. One man told me, "The falls are fantastic," while a woman let me know that I was "in for a treat." None of them looked like serious mountaineers or anything, yet they didn't seem to find the hike a challenge.

And then we came upon our first major obstacle--a creek that looked difficult to cross. Erik was thinking of trying to walk across a large tree that had fallen over it, only the tree was about five feet above the water, and there was a waterfall right after that. My thoughts, on the other hand turned to pole vaulting.

I found a good straight and sturdy branch and stuck it in the water and prepared to make my crossing. Erik didn't think it was a good idea. But it wasn't really pole vaulting. I was at a spot where it didn't take much of a jump to reach the other side. The only problem was that on the other side I would be landing on an uneven, wet rock. I thought the stick would enable me to keep my balance.

I made it across, surprisingly easily. Seeing that, Erik followed, and reported that he also found it surprisingly easy. I'm curious about the people we had seen earlier, and if they had considered the crossing a challenge.

Then we hit Cataract Trail, and a big waterfall. It was impressive and we took some time taking photos, getting long exposures and the like. My thought was to continue up from that junction .8 miles and turn back on another trail. That would mean we would miss the lowest .6 miles of the trail between the junction and Alpine Lake. Seeing how beautiful the cascades looked below, Erik thought we should descend some first, so we did. Then he found someone coming up, and asked about what was below, and his response was enough to assure us that we should continue the full .6 miles before doubling back and climbing steeply up the gulch.


I've never seen anything like it. Water was flowing from everywhere in massive amounts and dropping in beautiful waterfalls and cascades. We walked from one major waterfall along some cascades to another major waterfall, with the water from that joining the water from another waterfall coming down another wall of the gulch. There were plenty of people there enjoying this incredible display at peak conditions.

20090219 Cataract Creek
(A photo from our 2nd trip there, a year later.)

We stopped to take pictures frequently on the way down, and then started up. It was a steep climb, and I realized we had taken the wrong approach. We should have sped down, and then taken pictures on the climb back up, when we needed the rest. But instead we just kept climbing at a slow pace.



We continued on Cataract Trail past the junction with Helen Markt Trail, and Cataract Creek quickly became calm. I thought perhaps there were no more waterfalls, but that was not the case. They just came more infrequently in the last .8 miles of the trail. The final one, though, was a fantastic one. We saw a photographer with a tripod there, waiting patiently for everyone to leave the viewing area, so he could get a shot without any people in it. That must have been a long wait, as there were plenty of people enjoying the display.

20080126 Waiting for the People to Leave

Here we hit the junction with High Marsh Trail, which I planned on following to make the hike a loop, for greater variety. We quickly climbed up above the gulch, on the side of a steep hill covered with grass. We could see the narrow gulch we had followed below, choked with trees that obscured the creek and the waterfalls and all the hikers from view, a separate world unto itself.

We quickly left the open, grassy area and entered forest, occasionally crossing streams again. We were confused by a couple of trails that led off in other directions, but which were not marked on the map. There were signs there indicating that if we kept straight we would be continuing on High Marsh Trail, but not indicating where those other trails went. I just hoped the last one we crossed wasn't Kent Trail, a small portion of which we wanted to take next. But we soon passed a signed junction that let us know we were on the right path.

And then we had our next major crossing, a raging creek at the foot of a waterfall. Most of the year this is undoubtedly an easy crossing, but after a week of rain, the water was really flowing.

Erik and I rock hop across creeks all the time. What made this more of a challenge was that the some of the rocks we would have to step across were wet, and the water was flowing with enough force that we would likely be knocked off our feet if we ended up stepping in the water, not that there was any danger we would be swept away. I'm just always worried about hitting my head on a rock if I fall.

Erik went ahead and crossed, while I was still searching for an easier route. But I couldn't find one. I followed Erik's advice, holding onto a boulder for balance on the first step, and using the same stick he had used in the water to help my balance on later steps, and finally grabbing his hand to make it to the other shore. I didn't have good balance on that last rock, and might have fallen if he wasn't there. Fortunately, he had decided to help me out rather than film me crossing.

Finally, we hit a swampy area that was the first thing we saw resembling marsh on High Marsh Trail, and were treated to the croaking of frogs. Immediately after, we reached the junction with Kent Trail.

Kent Trail descended a short ways to a spot where the map showed Hidden Lake. But we were running late, having taken a lot of time taking pictures, having done 1.2 miles more of hiking than I had planned on the outset, and having to take time to work our way across obstacles, so I didn't bother looking for Hidden Lake. Not having a map, I don't know if Erik knew there was something to look for.

This was at the junction with Stocking Trail, which we planned to follow to Rocky Ridge Road. It did not seem to be a trail as heavily traveled as the others, and was covered with much storm debris. We had to skirt around ponds covering parts of the trail at points. The second time this happened, we had trouble picking up the trail on the other side. There was a trail running perpendicular to the way we had hiked there, and we didn't know whether to go right or left. Erik thought right, and not having any idea myself, we headed that way, uphill. But while it was clearly a trail, it was far less distinct than anything we had traveled before, and finally Erik changed his mind, and we returned. Going the other direction we soon crossed what was definitely the continuation of the trail we had been on. I don't know what the story is on the intersecting trail, other than it was a trail, but it is not on the map.

20080126 Mushrooms

Started on our way again, we had another obstacle on the short .6 miles of Stocking Trail. It was another creek to cross. This one was not raging, but was broad and fairly deep. There was no rock hopping it either. There was one point at which I could have jumped across easily, had there been a firm launching point, but the mud would have probably slipped out from under me and I would have landed in the middle of the stream.

The only danger was getting wet feet and socks, which I have done before (and I carry an extra pair of socks), but we still looked for a way to work around the obstacle. Climbing over some fallen redwoods, I found three piles of bones from a kill, and shortly after saw a newt. Eventually I worked over to a spot where it was easy to step across, and Erik followed.

20080126 Bones

20080126 A Newt

From where we were there appeared to be a trail heading straight ahead, even though we had gone upstream a ways to cross the creek. I started off on it, but Erik thought it would be better if we went back and picked up the trail from where we hit the creek. "You're right," I acknowledged.

We picked our way through the underbrush. We thought we were close to the trail when Erik spotted a shovel leaning against a tree, but we didn't find anything, and soon we had gone farther downstream from where Stocking Trail hit the stream. So we headed back to the trail we had seen before. Traveling a few yards on that, we reached a bridge that made it clear that that was indeed the trail.

I still was confident we would make it back okay. As long as we hit Rocky Ridge Road before sunset, we could easily hike along a road in the dark, especially since I had both a flashlight and a head lamp in my backpack. But I was at the point of admitting that there could be a problem.

As the trees started to thin along the trail, I could see a rocky ridge up ahead, and hoped it was the Rocky Ridge. And yes, it was, as we reached the junction with the road. Although it was a road in an open area, it was still pleasant to hike on. There were views of San Pablo Bay, and one of the lakes just below us--probably Bon Tempe. And we saw bobcat prints in the mud.

We made it back to the car a little over 6 1/2 hours after setting out, on just a 10.4 mile hike. But we still had half an hour before sunset, and hadn't been touched by a drop of rain during this "break in the storm." In the end, I felt sort of cheated out of the opportunity for an adventure worthy of retelling by saying "No shit! There I was . . . ."


Anonymous said...

That was an interesting narrative. It seems like a GPS unit would be a good investment. I used to get a little lost on switchback trails. I would check my direction with the compass, sure that I was going the right way and then the trail would turn back on itself making me wonder if I would just end up going in circles forever.

Laura-Marie said...

I like the tension created by the older man's warnings. I'm glad you were safe.

brthomas said...

Quite an adventure!! Sounds like a great day to see Cataract Falls at a high flow. My hike to Cataract Falls was mild by comparison, but it was still a really great day.