LAGUNITAS CREEK: Exploring A Turbulent and Nearly Inaccessible Stretch of Marin County's Famous Salmon-Spawning Stream
Life-giving, replenishing rains, coming none too soon on the heels of the third driest January on record, have drenched the long-parched Bay Area, courtesy of a series of Pacific Rim storm systems in February and March that brought great relief with over eight inches soaking Marin County foothills. Thankfully, the badly needed precipitation fell in a steady absorption pattern instead of all at once, an all too typical California storm scenario which would have created hazardous flood and mudslide conditions. Instead, the rains have endowed the earthly hills with wellsprings of gradually released water to bring streams, tributaries and freshets roaring back to life as well as enabling reservoirs to inch back up to respectable capacity levels from drought-stricken lows. What better way to set the stage for a beautiful waterfall and bountiful wildflower-strewn season?
Nowhere is the spectacle of running water – the transformation from trickles or dry bedrock to gushing run-off - more powerful and flat-out remarkable than at Lagunitas Creek, just below the spillway dam at pretty Lake Alpine, where brownish water turns snow white as it crashes over stepped ledges 50 ft. high to begin a riparian journey through a boulder-choked section of wild and scenic creek that twists and turns for two miles until waylaid by draining into Kent Lake and then released on the other end at Peter's Dam spillway to continue its free flowing course through Samuel P. Taylor State Park and eventually to its terminus drainage point into Tomales Bay wetlands. Along the way, the 20+ mile long creek – fed by tributary streams such as Nicasio, San Geronimo, Olema, Devil's Gulch and Deadman's Gulch Creeks -- drains the hill country surrounding the West Marin communities of Woodacre, Forest Knolls, Lagunitas, and Pt. Reyes Station, covering an area of over 100 square miles. The watershed, perhaps Marin’s largest, provides ancestral home and hearth to redwood trees, newts, and coho and steelhead salmon who find their way upstream and into birthing tributaries by a near magical sense of what fish biologists call olfactory conditioning. In the very upper stretches, the creek originates out of Alpine Lake's impounded waters, fed from several classic ravine tributaries born on the northern flanks of Mt. Tamalpais - including the East Fork of Lagunitas Creek, Van Wyck and Swede George Creeks. Here, below the spillway, looking down from the trail about 50 ft. up, you get an eyeful of the raw force and jaw-dropping beauty of the swollen creek. An Aussie we met called it "the river" – at this time of year, it truly invites comparison to a much wetter Cascade Range temperate rainforest climate where snow melt and run-off create major tumultuous flows.
Setting off down the Kent Pump Road, at first glance, might not seem like much of an exciting hike, descending as it does into shaded forest with little variation and obscured views. The sprawling Bolinas Ridge - the major westerly running spur off Mt. Tamalpais - creates some decent topographical relief as it rises to heights of 1500 ft. but the elongated humpback forested formation with its many clefts and defiles isn't fully appreciated until the trail opens up a bit and you can get a sense of its dramatic contours. Below, the raging creek tantalizes with its white-water fury and force, but it's difficult to get up close and personal to really check it out unless you take a few risks. Your best bet is take the spur trail to the left at a quarter mile and explore the creek in this vicinity; it will be your first, last and only chance to do so because the four mile trail to Kent Lake winds high above the creek and views, let alone access, are completely lost the farther you traverse. You might see more people than you'd like here, since there are wonderful trailside views of the swirling creek gushing through the small canyon, and it's but a ten minute stroll from parking areas. . .but not a one of them will do what you do -- engage in a twenty minute detour by bushwhacking down 50 ft. on a 75 degree inclined slope to get better positioned for photographic vantage points and – more importantly! – to gain intimate communion with the spirit of this transcendent water. Passage downward is more dangerous and slippery than it looks - at water's edge, while rock-hopping, all it takes is one slip and you could be a goner. Huge, beautiful, mossy boulders line the shore’s edge; making your way from one to the next requires balance, coordination, extra-cautious footing, and just the right amount of foolhardy bravado. Tread with caution if you’re one of the few who can’t resist and need a dose of magic and negative ionic energy penetrating the core of your being! Certainly, this trail and smaller spurs leading down comprise the most exciting aspect of this hike for the next 3.4 miles until you reach the base of the rugged track taking you up the Little Carson Creek drainage with its giant redwoods, riffling pools and cascade drop falls. (Magical indeed!)
Inevitably, the desire to see what's beyond the next curve in the road leads us out of the sheltered nooks and crannies and into more open country through sun-splotched and boulder-lined patches of trail winding through redwood groves and oak, bay and madrone forests, replete with sensuous earthy aromas, ferns galore, puddles with swimming newts, and sideshow freshets gushing down from hillsides which spawn plenty of leisurely occasions to stop, gawk, picnic and generally while away the sunny day marveling at the wilderness-like setting and paucity of human beings in our presence. We finally make it past Old Vee Road, and, the allure of Carson Falls notwithstanding, we decide to turn around and head back, making it about a six mile out 'n back. All in all, a soul-satisfying, good work-out and not a bad adventure to boot.
Along the way back, we revel in the splendid isolation and moist lushness of the relatively untouched forest - how many people didn't we see? – and appreciate the extensive views opening up of Bolinas Ridge, looking rugged and majestic, with teaser glimpses far down into the canyon of Lagunitas Creek. Our imaginations strain to visualize what this place must have been like in pristine times – maybe like a mini-Alaska - when the salmon ran free and plenty, when the grizzly came to the shoreline to catch and eat them, when bald eagles and condors roamed the skies, and when native Miwok peoples, reigning supreme in harmonious consort with all creatures great and small, held their joyous ceremonies of renewal and rituals of supplication and propitiation each spring to celebrate the return of, not only life-giving rains, but sustenance borne from the tiny acorn and great inexhaustible runs of the salmon God.