CASCADE CANYON OPEN SPACE PRESERVE: Seasonal Riparian Splendor, Exquisite Sylvan Beauty, Tantalize and Enchant in the Coast Range Foothills of Mt. Tam
This scenario is not far-fetched. In upper San Anselmo Creek in the Corte Madera Creek Watershed northwest of the 2571 ft. peak of Mt. Tamalpais, artificial barriers to fish migration have been removed and now, if you're lucky or your timing is right, it's no longer uncommon to witness the age-old spectacle of anadromous Steelhead trout returning from the ocean to secluded mountain pools where they originated, to lay and fertilize eggs, rear young, and then return to the deep sea in a life cycle that may take up to seven years to complete.
The relatively non-impacted upper reaches of San Anselmo Creek, and perhaps Cascade Creek, primordially was ideal trout habitat -- bedrock pools, riffles and cascades, a balanced mix of sunlight and canopy, and unpolluted water -- and, like many a Marin County creek, supported indigenous populations of Steelhead; but only recently have they been able to return to spawn and rear young in these traditional backwater habitats. The (re) appearance of Steelhead here is a triumphant victory for preservationists, conservationists, ecologists, and others who worked tirelessly with local agencies to rehabilitate the severely perturbed ecosystem, for O. mykiss is a key indicator species of the health and sustainability of aquatic systems and watersheds of the Bay Area.
As seen and experienced during the rainy season - when ninety-nine point nine percent of visitors see and experience it - Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve, including the Elliot Nature Preserve, is flat-out pretty, no two ways about it, the next best thing to Kaua'i in your backyard. A miracle of preservation, its existence proves the remarkable point that in the heavily urbanized and industrialized Bay Area nature gems are readily "at hand" (make that "at foot".), just waiting to be "discovered" for your outdoorsy pleasure and enjoyment! Grab a map and see for yourself the many splendored shades of green surrounding, contiguous to, and abutting our cities and towns. These atolls of wilderness are heaven-sent open spaces, serving as respite from the harried world, if the world be too much with you, and, more importantly -- step aside humans! -- these places provide badly needed home, habitat, refuge and sanctuary to over 50 "species of concern" and thousands of other species of plants and animals in the Bay Area. Among the species of concern: Alameda whipsnake, California red-legged, Foothill yellow-legged and Pacific tree frogs, Southwestern pond turtle, several hawks, Peregrine Falcon, Burrowing Owl, Alligator lizard, California Tiger salamander, and many notable rare, threatened and endangered grasses and flowers hanging on in serpentine soils and marsh lands. Indeed, it is a fragile, tentative existence for these beleaguered plants and animals, whose fates are unknown, in jeopardy, unless we can set aside more land for wildlife preserves than we do for shopping centers and housing developments.
When seasonal rains transform the thirsty land, a dormant homing instinct awakens, compelling you to return to familiar but unknown places, to seek out some unheralded gem of nature, right on the world's doorstep. This gem of nature is a secretive redoubt of local hikers and waterfall lovers, but somehow it's always been off your radar as a place worthy of visiting; after all, you want big adventure, big water, big views. What could possibly be of interest at such a "nowhere little place" and so encroached upon by civilization? Besides, is there any real hiking to be had here? And what about rude mountain bikers, awkward encounters with horsemen, and the inevitable hordes of people marching in bee-line fashion along the easy trail, for a perfunctory look-see at the waterfalls, before bee-lining it back to the "real world"? - put-offs and distractions all to be expected in a small nature preserve plunk in the middle of the Marin County urban corridor.
But waylaid by the prospect of a never before seen waterfall, you end up spending the whole day here, traipsin' around aimlessly, hanging out leisurely, having fun exploring, hiking and back tracking through this riparian woodsy wonderland located in a seemingly insignificant parcel of land existing on the purlieus of the ultra-hip hamlet of Fairfax, California.
Situated barely 300 ft. above sea level, in the coastal range foothills a ridge or two over from the spacious Marin Municipal water district lands holding fabulous acreage of non-recreational lakes and miles of hiking trails, Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve is immediately sandwiched on four sides by mostly more open space. To the north/northwest, lie the even smaller White Hill Preserve (you've never been there yet either), and contiguous to the preserve, a big romping land known as Camp Tamarancho, owned by the Boy Scouts (a de rigueur mountain biking experience for the serious fat tire single track devotee). A luxurious golf course - Meadow Club - borders to the south (paradise for you duffers), and Fairfax lies to the west. Despite its untoward proximity to the town, CCOSP is a difficult nature venue to access via the dead end, narrow, and mostly off-limits for parking Cascade Canyon Road. But there are other routes, hiking in by way of - oh, get your map and figure it out yourself! - if you want to see, experience and enjoy this delightful, surprising place.
Highwater Trail leads into the small confines of the preserve. Thirty yards in, you stand slack-jawed in kid-like wonder marveling at "little old" San Anselmo Creek, gravid with an amazing amount of fast-flowing water cutting a sinuous course through the preserve and on through the town of the same name, and, via Corte Madera Creek, dumping into the bay (when it's not overflowing its banks and flooding downtown businesses). High inaccessible slopes, steep-cut gullies, and the forested ravines characteristic of these coast range foothills contribute to the pristine nature of the Corte Madera Creek Watershed and the creation of San Anselmo Creek. Thanks to abundant winter rains, arteries of water originate as seeps or springs -- Upper San Anselmo, Pine Mountain, Cascade and other small creeks -- and flow down sharp defiles for up to a mile before their voluminous "discharge" converges into a 12-mile long creek - San Anselmo / Corte Madera - flowing uninterrupted to San Francisco Bay.
One sweeping look around, not fifteen hundred feet into your hike - hike? what hike? - and you can't help but stop for a timeless eternity - turns out to be only a few minutes -- bathing in warm sunshine, oohing over the lush, fragrant forest, freshly glistening after recent rains, aahing at the stately specimens of bay, madrone, buckeye, redwood, maple, alder, and oak. Lollygaging endlessly, as you're wont to do when the water's flowing, the earth is green and the sun is shining, you leisurely take in the splendid natural setting, trying to remain hushed in thought, attuned to a pure sensual feeling of oneness, or nothingness, with your surroundings. . . you even take your shoes and socks off to feel the earth. You're moving slowly, blaming it on the bum ankle, and stop to soak it in a cold pool. It helps. You give thanks and praise. Now, you're just truly happy to be alive, with no agenda, so you can just kick back (like you're doing) and languorously soak in the magical ambience of the sounds and vibrations - melodious water flowing, sweet chirpings of harmonious birds, soft wind chimes through tree tops.
You walk some more. There's no hurry, no sense of destination, even though the magnet of nearby Cascade Falls pulls relentlessly. With each and every step, a world of beauty and intrigue is revealed unto its own, slowing your pace to a lackadaisical saunter until suddenly you're again motionless as a tree, watching, looking at, observing life around you. Although nothing seems to be happening, and there is nothing to see, seemingly. . .until you begin to notice the little things -- Thoreau's "meanest flower that grows," Whitman's "unseen buds, infinite, hidden well", Emerson's "God in a blade of grass," and countless other subtleties of Mother Nature's never-ending, unfolding pageantry of life . . .none of it meant to inspire AWE and DREAD, mind you, nor conjure up ultramontane visions of the "remote and stupendous," but rather, as American writer and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch reminds, it's more about "the daily and hourly miracle of the usually unnoticed beauty that is close at hand. . .not the unfamiliar but the power to realize that the familiar becomes unfamiliar once we really look at it, and that every aspect of the natural world is in its own way 'awful'."
The lovely preserve is a mini-wilderness of ancient, gnarled oak trees, festooned with stringy white moss in spooky groves; mushroom penises popping out everywhere in the fecund earth; psychedelic lichen designs on rocks; freshets and small tributary streams, miniature in their awe and grandeur, captivate, tantalize, and enchant, ever powerful in their evoctions of the one true literal metaphor - life blood of the planetary organism. And, how can it be, on a day so blessed with perfectly balmy mid-winter weather, that you're all alone for the most part?
You eventually pick up your pace, following the contour of fern-choked Cascade Creek, downright lovely in its cut bedrock channel, lured by the sound of tumbling water. Rounding a bend in the trail, there's the falls. What falls? On first sight, it doesn't look like much, but, with no people about, it's an easy postcard view to fall in love with. You perch atop a big outcrop facing the 25 ft. tall falls, watching in awe as jet streams of water methodically, rhythmically cascade over the bluish black lip of the rock face, breaking off into rivulets streaming down in different directions, spraying, spuming, putting on a decent show. Certainly not Vernal Falls, but nonetheless stunning in its own little way. You become lost in meditative reverie, hypnotized by the repetitive mantra of water plunging to pool. Soon, you find a route up over the top and bushwhack from on high to see what's back there. The geology changes - pink and green and blue boulders ajumble in a tight twisted ravine, layered with small pools, little falls, miniature chutes, a fascinating hidden world - does anyone else come back here? Billy-goat fashion, you jump-hop up, up, until you can squeeze up the defile no farther. Now, hemmed in by high rugged walls, there's only one way out, back down, down, to your rocky perch, now occupied by several adults, with a bunch of cute kids scampering around playfully on the slippery rocks. Your cue to pack it up and move on. Perhaps you'll get ambitious and climb the gut-check 800 ft. trail up Repack way to the top of the ridge, then return by way of some unnamed game trail for a nice ankle-busting 8 mile loop . . ah, yes, real adventure and hiking indeed await! Time to break that sweat! You don't think you're getting off that easily, now, do you?!