CATARACT FALLS: Big Water Tumbling Down Mt. Tam Ravine Effects Mysterious Influence over Mind and Soul
Cataract Falls, where, as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, "water flows from high in the mountains, water runs deep in the earth, miraculously water comes to us and sustains all life." Cataract Falls: now showcasing daily matinees of miraculous water crashing through a narrow, steep ravine cutting a boulder-choked, log-strewn watercourse down the lushly forested northwest flanks of Mt. Tamalpais. If this sounds seductive to you waterfall and cascade lovers, you're in for a special treat at this time of year, right after the first big rains drench and saturate the earth.
But of course, every waterfall and cascade lover in nine counties and countless countries - it's touted as the place to check out in all the tourist guidebooks - has the same notion as you. . .and let me tell you! - the two-legged critters -- pole-wielding, fleece-wearing, techno-obsessed -- are out in droves! Everyone and their aunt and uncle is side-stepping and jostling their way past one another, waiting to take their place in line at the best viewing perches. If what you're craving is a genuine get-away, then don’t bother coming first thing on a Saturday morning after big rains. (Or, go check out Steep Ravine or Carson Falls instead. But, no doubt, there's plenty of foot traffic at those delectable natural settings as well.)
Parking is quite limited along the pull-out at the trailhead, but no matter, people are squeeze-parked a mile up and down Bolinas-Fairfax Road. Sure, you expect crowds, but this is more like an amusement park. In days past, you might get positively riled up over it - wanting the place selfishly all to yourself, of course. And who wouldn't? But on this day, you don't let the chaotic overflow of humanity betray your spirits, because you realize you're just one of 'em, merely a part of the procession paying homage to the brilliant and ephemeral spectacle, just one of 'em making the pilgrimage in queue with, oh, two hundred dozen other people who have come to ooh and aah along with you. Thankfully, everyone's fairly respectful and quiet enough, as quiet as noisy jibbering people in groups can be; mostly, they seem humbled to be witness to such raw, powerful, sublime beauty. You think, c'mon, it's just water flowing down a ravine, after all!
Well, it's a lot more than that, which is why you're here, after the same thing as all the others – scenic respite from urban harriedness, appreciation of pretty wild lands, the thrill and joy of discovering big water. In droves you've all come out of the woodwork to worship at the shrine of Tlaloc, or some other mystical Water God, at a place where pure white water crashes over rock shelves and pours relentlessly over carved pool lips from on high, torrentially gushes down whoopy chutes, races through swirling channels and drowns out all the world's clamor with its lulling sound of meditative white noise, hurried along by the inexorable pull of gravity's relentless tug. Cataract Falls attracts throngs of onlookers, gawkers, and admirers for the simple reason that its beauty is so accessible and the payoff is instant, as the best of the falls are appreciated right off the bat, no matter if you’re hiking from Rock Springs trail off Ridgecrest Boulevard from up top, or starting your hike from the bottom of the ravine. A few hundred yards either way and you're in waterfalls heaven. Don't forget to give thanks and praise!
But what is it about water that draws you to it, that fills you with surges of primeval energy, envelopes you in pristine ecstasy, hijacking your central nervous system for the day? D. H. Lawrence observed that "Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing, that makes water and nobody knows what that is." Maybe that's Helen Keller's "mystery of language" that was revealed to her in an epiphany when she suddenly knew that " ‘W-A-T-E-R’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, joy, set it free." Yes, despite the madhouse atmosphere of kids running and jumping and screaming and playing, everybody, including your normally irascible self when surrounded by so many yapping people, appears to be very happy and carefree, the sagging burdens of life lifted merely in the presence of this water. Attribute it to the soothing balm of negative ion energy saturating the air and permeating your core with the unseen molecules’ beneficial biochemical reactions which elevate and lighten your mood by raising serotonin levels and increasing oxygen flow to your brain. Add to that the natural abundance of oxygen produced by photosynthesizing trees, and it really is that simple. Being in nature really does makes you a better person. Ah, yes, you're thinking: everybody should be required to get a dose of this natural elixir as often as possible! And got to give props to Whitman, for his timeless sentiment, "Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.") . . well, we’re getting there, Walt, bit by bit.
Beginning at the pull-off on Bolinas-Fairfax Road, the trail twists and ascends to the top of the ridge, up at picnic haven Laurel Dell, covering about 1.6 miles, which isn't much in terms of distance, but elevation-gain-wise, you’d better be prepared for a knee-knocking and ankle-wrenching experience – it's relentlessly up, up, up, and then down, down, down, or down, down, down, and then up, up, up, depending on where you begin the hike. All told, you'll end up doing about 2000 killer ft. of total elevation in just over three miles – the good news is, even if you’re just in so-so shape, you can still get a taste of what Cataract Falls has to offer. If you're adventurous, and have good wheels, you can add on loop trails that take you high up on the ridge's flank, where you'll see about zero dozen others, then the roller-coastery descent, with numerous creek crossings, back down to Alpine Lake's placid shores, where Cataract Falls spills into. Options abound. Excitement awaits. Get off your lazy duff and join the crowds! Or make your own crowd!
The trail immediately begins to climb a series of switch backing wooden stair steps built into the ledge of the hillsides, your only railings being the occasional branch to grab onto. Pity poor you if you happen to latch onto a bramble of poison oak! The steps are slippery as hell now, so watch your footing. People do get injured. Most people use hiking poles. You, not being the sensible accessorized type, go without, and later regret it as you limp back to the car, although your ailment is nothing, probably, that could be ameliorated by simple hiking poles. It's a short hike to the top, but it takes a while to get up there, thank Goddess - you wouldn't want to rush this experience! You're forever stopping to admire, gawk, take pictures, rest, eat a snack, check out lichen and fungi, hug a tree, sit in peace and quiet - if you can find it - and engage in small talk with a fellow hiker. ("Oh, my, we are blessed, aren't we!") Let’s face it – you're not out here to get away from it all, to escape the crowds, to find the shelter of peace and sanctuary of sanity – if you were, it would be Tuesday morning - because you and I’m guessing a thousand other people are all seeking the same thing today: nature’s eye candy. Even so, you manage to find quiet nooks of respite here, serene crannies of solitude there, just by diverting a bit off the autobahn to traverse a snaky little footpath leading somewhat treacherously down to an overlooked bend in the creek. . .which is why you have this little slice of paradise all to yourself, this sublime spot that is all yours to revel in, however briefly, before joining forces with the hoi polloi again on the dirt conveyor belt.
The near verticality of the trail – 1000 ft. over a mile or so – exacts its achy toll on bodily joints, that’s for sure, but it’s so charmingly beautiful and refreshing and the adrenaline's flowing through your body like the water flowing through the ravine that it doesn't matter, doesn't hit you squarely until you stop to rest at the top and suddenly feel that bum ankle of yours, those creaky knees and arthritic hip, maybe - you spit in the face of age – why, you're just getting younger by the minute in this rejuvenating setting!
The cataracts are six or seven series of waterfalls, really, with only one stretch where Cataract Creek flattens to remind you of a simple mountain brook flowing ever so gently toward some enchanted destination. Up top, at Laurel Dell, two branches of the creek's origins merge, neither amounting to much, seemingly, and yet together, once a bit of altitude is lost and gravity begins to do its thing, their combined force galvanizes in a tremendous payload of water . . .then it's simply an amazing miracle of nature what the architect of water does when left to its own blueprint, evidenced by the bedrock-carved ravine, deeply scoured pools, and series of slides, chutes and drops that roaring Cataract Creek has sculpted over the years. The falls plunge anywhere from 25 ft. to 50 ft. – master photographer and California waterfalls authority Leon Turnbull of Waterfallswest.com lumps four of the falls together and pegs this section of the aqueous tumult as being a single 230 ft. falls, making it "the highest waterfall in the SF Bay area." You have no reason to quibble – it is a jaw-dropping sight that makes you giddy with excitement. . . until you’re elbowed out of the way by a group of six tourists speaking three languages setting up their elaborate photography equipment as you catch an out-of-place whiff of something acrid - is that actually a cigarette he's smoking!? Boo! Hiss!
Mt. Tamalpais, rising nearly 2800 ft. above the bay, shelters healthy forests that exude dampness and radiate a lushness and sensuousness of color and impart a strong olfactory ambrosia for the senses to delight in. The red in redwood trees stands out with surreal, heightened tones; the green of moss is otherworldly bright and velvety luscious to the touch; bay trees exude a mentholated scent that is almost intoxicating; and other great trees abound, such as Douglas fir whose height and girth exceed most of the redwoods in the forest. Nutmeg, tan and canyon live oak trees round out the forest primeval, whose bark scintillates with life, whose branches are smeared in chartreuse lichen tones and festooned with strands of pear green stringy moss. Fallen logs and branches, maculated with algae and mushroom growth, are works of art there at your feet. Freshets come spilling down from the hillsides. At once cathedral, museum, arboretum, and botanical garden of Eden – the forest is sacred and inspiring.
Winter and Spring is the time to experience the power and sublimity of Cataract Falls, but come Summer, when flow is reduced to a trickle of its former glory, you will have the place to yourself. Imagine! Guidebooks have actually written it's only worth checking out after big rains. I suppose if you're Leon Turnbull coming from the Sierra foothills three hours away, and used to spectacular sights, “it won't be worth your time to come here," but if you live within a short driving distance (45 min.), why wouldn’t you want to visit Cataract Falls, regardless of the season?
Discover for yourself that it is no less awesome of a sanctuary to escape to during hot summer days. The coolness of the shaded forest draws you in to seek out pretty spots to plop down, take your shoes off, soak your tired feet, and kick back and listen to the soft sounds of the forest - Thoreau's "vibration of the universal lyre" - a woodpecker hammering away, the "chance note of some arriving bird," or a visiting breeze gently rustling the treetop canopy. Close your eyes and let the sing-song gurgle of the trickling water lull you into a meditative state, where, like Chuang Tzu 2300 years ago, "the sound of water says what I think." You become rapt in reverie, and "the voice of the wood" is at long last heard, and the tickle of the wood nymph once again comes to titillate you in your dreamy idyll.