Monday, February 08, 2010

MARIN COUNTY OPEN SPACE DISTRICT: Waterfall Heaven Awaits / Cascade Paradise Found at Small Nature Preserves of Ignacio Valley and Pacheco Valle

Warning - superlatives and hyperbole ahead! How else to communicate the flat-out wonderment and uncontained astonishment, the thrilling sense of adventure - normally reserved for “truly spectacular sights” - in discovering a new place? In this case, a series of waterfalls - fossil bedrock most of the year – in a long-ignored, nay, never once visited, part of Marin County. These nearby but remotely situated plungers are now flowing heartily thanks to the recent efflorescence of major rainstorms. They are now – just temporarily - pouring their ample cargo over sculpted volcanic shelves and drop-off cliff faces and down obliquely slanted beds of carved rock more effusively than words and descriptions, even photographs, can convey.

Funny thing is, I've sought out waterfalls for years, but somehow, these babies escaped detection, because after all, if they're not touted in guidebooks, or if Gambolin' Man hasn’t heard of 'em, then they must not exist! Besides, what marvels could possibly await that aren't more worthwhile and easily gotten to elsewhere? What hidden secrets could conceivably be coaxed out of, what magic and mystery pried from, such tiny parcels of land bordering the very edges of Marin's bustling cities? Well, surprise, surprise! Thanks to California's indefatigable waterfalls-chasing guru, Leon Turnbull, of, I now know of two open space preserves, totaling little more than a combined 600 acres, that harbor within their rugged expanses of chaparral and woodland, the Bay Area's most tantalizingly attractive, supremely powerful, and mind-blowingly beautiful Hawaii-like waterfall settings you can find anywhere. . . outside of Hawaii! (I warned you!) Learning about their existence has come as a shock – but seeing them for real, when they’re flowing at full peak, is, so far, a once in a lifetime - okay, merely a seasonal - experience you won't want to miss!

Let's get something straight right off – these are not majestic grandeur type waterfalls. They will never be written about, immortalized, endlessly photographed and reproduced, visited by the masses or otherwise celebrated....except right here! For these are your basic ephemeral here one month gone the next kind of falls. Best appreciated the day after or day of a big rain. And yet forgetting about height, width, cubic flow, and other factors that contribute to, say, the staying power and truly sublime and incomparable magnificence of a Yosemite Falls or Havasupai Falls or an Angel Falls or Iguaçu Falls, these falls and cascades deserve their props, their due respect and recognition, because they are, in their own right, given the right feeder circumstances - up to a foot of rain - miniature versions of earth’s iconic, legendary gushers. (I warned you. And I can't help it.)

I dislike making unfair comparisons – and am criticized by Gambolin' Gal, for example, for opining, “Oh, this place reminds me of that rainforest gorge in Oregon” - because every place is unique, carries its own special charms. But I must confess - the waterfalls found here, especially in Arroyo de San Jose in the little-visited open space district of Ignacio Valley, and not to downplay the 100 ft. double-decker plunger at Pacheco Valle, blow away most of the notable Bay Area waterfall attractions. You name 'em, and I've been to 'em, written about 'em, seen ‘em in full force - Murietta Falls in the Ohlone Wilderness, Pacheco Creek Falls in Henry Coe State Park, Steep Ravine and Carson Falls on Mt. Tamalpais, Donner Falls deep in Diabloland, Alamere Falls at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, Berry Creek Falls in the Santa Cruz mountains - and yet, yet, how can it be, that in two little old unheralded, unwritten about, secretive locales - Ignacio Valley and Pacheco Valle - are found - if you can find them, for the going is rough, slippery and treacherous! - what I now consider to be the absolute cream of the crop? Is that blasphemous or what? Is that putting Gambolin' Man's falls cred on the line or what? You’ll just have to judge for yourself the extent of the hyperbole involved in my reasons for catapulting to top-tier status these little-known, unheard of jet streams of water cascading through lush rainforesty gorges in mountainous settings abutting the very fringes of developmental sprawl.

What makes these waterfalls so deliciously enticing - and worth the diligence and effort required to gain difficult access to them - is the topographical nature of the open space preserves. These small parcels of land come in big chunks of rugged natural beauty. You're hardly remote, but a world away. You've barely walked the equivalent of a mile maybe, and yet within such a limited distance, you're transported to otherworldly realms, far removed from the leaf blower you heard on the way in. The ridges top out at nearly 1900 ft. - Black Rock Ridge - which lends the landscape a mini-"North Forkian" character (as in North Fork of the American River in the Sierra foothills – probably another unfair and hyperbolic comparison). The hills are really more like those foothill ridges and mountains – replete with rugged, steep, treacherous trails – if you can call them that – that are more like deer paths, that twist and wind ever upwards through changing scenery and ecozones to vertigo-inducing heights, whereupon once attained you’re suddenly perched on the precipice of a slippery ledge and, one little mis-step, could send you tumbling to your death a hundred, two hundred feet below. It's serious business, this waterfall chasing.

Prerequisites to enjoying the rewards, to laying your eyes on the prized sights: first, desire, will, attitude, and a sense of adventure and exploratory passion to boldly go where most dare not dare to tread; then a bit of billy-goat sure-footedness, a strong body, and a healthy aversion to the intense pain you're bound to experience in your wrecked knees, your pained feet, your aching back, your wrenched neck, your heaving lungs. (It ain't easy being fiddy-fo'!) But when you catch your first glimpse of a 20 ft. wide curtain of white water crashing over a cliff face into a catch basin 50 ft. below, and realize that it is but one section of a stunning triple-decker whose each successive layer tops the next in sheer breathtaking glory - nothing else matters but the ecstatic flush of joy-induced adrenaline overwhelming you at the moment. At least that's what waterfall heaven and cascade paradise do to Gambolin' Man. Hell (I really mean heaven), even the little side freshets, spilling down from hillside clefts in thin sparkling ribbons of delightful plunging gurgling burbling water, get me all worked up! (So, imagine what the Brobdingnagian Big Granite waterfalls in the Tahoe National Forest – remember those? – – must do to a guy like me who succumbs so emotionally and floridly to the romances and passions of the hopeless waterfall chaser. Which naturally brings up the question / issue of: shouldn’t words like “spectacular” and “magnificent’ and “incredible” be strictly reserved for the truly spectacular, magnificent and incredible, such as found at Big Granite? Doesn't their usage in the context of a little old Marin waterfall cheapen their effect? Well, dear reader, this is not up to me to decide.)

For a congested and heavily populated area right next door to San Francisco, Marin County is blessed with more open space – unbounded, contiguous nature areas – than, surprisingly, a densely forested tropical country. Photographing the purlieus of Mt. Tam from high above on a recon flight, veteran pilot Barbara Rowell gazed down on a glistening tapestry of greenbelt and remarked in awe, “This is incredible. It’s all unbroken forest down there. I’m seeing more continuous forest right here in the Bay Area than in all my flights over the national parks of Costa Rica.“

Hard to believe, but true – which helps to explain why it costs a fortune to live in Marin County! Believe me, I'm content to settle on frequent hops, skips and jumps over the Richmond Bridge for extended forays and visits to the many state parks, national recreation areas, watershed lands and – count 'em - 33 Open Space Districts found in California's toniest county. Most of the OSDs I have never visited, for reasons that at first blush seem conceited and ludicrous – “too small”, “too close to the city”, “not enough star power”….And yet, consider – there are more than 269 species of birds; 76 butterflies; 67 mammals; and 128 different types of reptiles and amphibians that call the OSDs home and hearth. A biota rich in fauna and profuse in wildflowers and flora – lushly forested, boulder-studded hillsides of starkly tentacled, lichen encrusted buckeye trees, valley, coast live and black oak, tall, sturdy manzanita trees, great stands of madrone and bay, and profuse shocks of giant western fern.

Setting off on the trail, at the edge of a residential zone, Arroyo de San Jose flows gently through an elfin forest, mostly shaded and moist, colored a green that is near blinding, and scented with the rich aromas of leaf duff, rotting logs, and where the sun's rays beam through the canopy, a rising, wondrous heady odor of heated earth. The creek picks up steam as we head upstream – gathering momentum from high up on the ridge's flanks. It begins swirling and gushing through carved bedrock channels and narrow chutes, singing the familiar lovely protean song of water chasing itself, following itself, consuming itself in a mystical journey. Soon, a booming thunderous noise – white water crashing! – signaling the first of a series of four waterfalls coming into sight, this one a real beauty dropping down about 25 ft, spraying white foamy mist into a sun-splotched patch of air to form deliquescent rainbow patterns hovering over brilliant moss and tiny delicate ferns decorating the edges of the cliff face. It is a picture perfect vision of paradise. Impossible to describe without going overboard on the descriptive flourishes.

We take a snaking trail up and around to get to the top – a fall on your ass slippery way up that proves child's play as we tackle successive and ever higher levels of the mountain to eventually get to the fourth and final falls – or so it seems. We’re probably not even halfway up to the ridge top, having climbed nearly 600 ft., so there must be more drop ledges on up, but at this point the arroyo becomes too clogged with chaparral brush and steep drop-offs, while trying to cut off the creek by climbing higher proves too difficult going. . .already it's been ultra-demanding to attain the rarefied levels of the top of the fourth falls – we have the place all to ourselves – and it quickly becomes obvious why this place is not in any guidebook or on anyone's to-do list -- unless, if and only if, you're an inveterate waterfalls lover and chaser. For the going (and coming) is slippery and steep, and turns treacherous every so often on a six-inch wide trail presenting tricky passage at some points with 200 ft. drop-offs – very reminiscent, as I mentioned earlier, of some North Forkian outings I've nearly killed myself on! All in all, a knee-buckling, ankle-wrenching, but oh-so-worth it endeavor, because once you've stood high atop these magnificent gushing spectacles of free-flowing water, you know you're in the presence of something sacred and powerful, expressive of Earth's indomitable spirit of renewal, and even death would be a fair price to exact for the privilege of having laid eyes on these waterfalls. (I warned you!)

With the sun popping out behind fluffy cumulus clouds on a cerulean day, and the white water streaming and screaming through the gorges and gullies – it's truly a small slice of paradise you've found. It's hard not to wonder where all this water comes from, and keeps on coming from. . .day and night, 24/7, endlessly, flowing, flowing. . .that is the miracle of a watershed. It rains, it collects deep in the earth, where it's held as though by a sponge, which gradually releases it until its payload is spent – in this case, without further rains, these falls will be mere trickles come April. Certainly, given the effort required to appreciate these beautiful sights up close and personal, there would be less incentive to visit this place without the magical swirl of water. . .but now, today, and tomorrow, before the gullies dry up, you may want to lace up your boots, grab your camera, pack a lunch, and head for them thar local hills – there is liquid gold awaiting!