Elizabeth and I pulled into Mount Tamalpais‘s Rock Spring trailhead at 9 in the morning. There were no other cars there yet, just cyclists taking breaks after early morning rides up the mountain.
We got out, crossed the road, and hiked up a minor hill for a view. It was about 50 degrees and the sky above us was perfectly clear. The mountainsides were covered in bright grass; the valleys brimmed with dark conifers. An uneven fog filled the air below us, thinning to a haze in places, piling into clouds in others. It covered the Pacific Ocean to the west and San Francisco to the south. We saw only the sky, the fog, and the silhouettes of mountains.
We turned around and started our hike. Our goal was Cataract Falls, reputedly the most impressive in the Bay Area. We’d never been there, but I thought they might be flowing well after all the recent rains. Most people don’t hike to the falls from Rock Spring. Sure, we could have driven up to within a mile of the falls, which is what most visitors do, but I wanted to make a dayhike out of our visit. We’d make a loop, descending 1,300 feet to the Alpine Lake reservoir and climbing past the falls on the way back.
We left the sunny meadow near the parking lot and entered a shady forest of lichen-covered Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). A small fern-lined creek trickled by the trail. It was so chilly under the shade of the trees that we put on our jackets and gloves.
A few minutes later, we left the forest for the chaparral. The rocky ground was still wet from yesterday’s rain and sent me sliding a few times. The plants around us were tall and diverse. Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) was most apparent. But there was also wedgeleaf ceanothus (Ceanothus cuneatus) and at least one kind of Arctostaphylos, hoary manzanita (Arctostaphylos canescens). I was delighted to find some Sargent’s cypress (Cupressus sargentii), a tree endemic to California that I rarely find on hikes.
We stopped for a break at Barth’s Retreat, a picnic area next to a stream. After the forests and chaparral we’d walked through, the place felt remote, so I was surprised to find picnic tables, a water pump, and a barbeque grill there. But as we left, we found a dirt road leading to the site, explaining the amenities.
We took the Kent Trail down the north side of Mount Tamalpais. The vegetation consisted of spindly trees and shrubs, but every so often we’d walk by an old Douglas-fir, its trunk a massive black column breaking through the brush to the sky above. Each change in aspect and elevation revealed new plant communities. We walked through a patch of manzanita so tall and thick that it formed a tunnel around the trail. We also found a nearly pure stand of giant chinquapin (Chrysolepis chrysophylla).
We hadn’t seen any other hikers for an hour. Then the trail grew faint and split. We could go left or right, but there was no sign of what either direction led to. My map didn’t help—it had plenty of intersections that could have been ours. Well. We needed to go downhill toward Alpine Lake, and with no other indication of the correct route, we took the trail that went downhill. If that didn’t work out, we could just come back and try the other one.
We could barely see the trail through the pine needles, leaves, and fallen branches. But we stuck to it, if only to see if the next intersection would give us a clue to where we were.
The trail wrapped around a marsh and disappeared into a patch of mud. But just beyond the marsh I spotted a trail sign: we’d just finished the aptly named Cross Country Boys Trail. I checked my map: the marsh we’d passed was High Marsh and we were right where we wanted to be.
Back on the Kent Trail, we descended another 800 feet to Alpine Lake. The trees became taller and the forest became cool and shady. Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) showed up. Wild-sounding calls of frogs, acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus), California quails (Callipepla californica), and northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) echoed through the forest.
Once at Alpine Lake, we hiked through a forest of redwood and Douglas-fir to Cataract Falls. Blooming next to the trail were Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora), hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum grande), and fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii).
Whereas we’d seen just two or three hikers for the last four hours, we now entered a stream composed of couples, families, dogs, kids, babies, dress shoes, denim pants, cotton shirts, and video cameras. Everyone had come to see the falls.
One look at Cataract Falls and we understood why everyone had come. They were spectacular. After a good soaking rain yesterday they were flowing at their peak, filling the air with mist as they tumbled out of the forest, splashed over boulders, and dropped down ledges before finally plunging into a pool below the trail. A local who’d been coming here for years said they were at the best he’d ever seen.
We took our obligatory photos then hiked uphill. The crowds thinned with each wooden staircase we climbed. By the time we got to Laurel Dell, there was only a handful of people sitting at its wooden picnic tables. We stopped for snacks, then walked the last leg of our hike to our car.
We got back to the parking lot at 5 and were stunned to see it entirely filled. So much had changed since the morning: the air was warm, the fog was gone, and the road was busy with cars and bicycles. We were glad we had started early.