DOWNSTREAM El Nino creates a windfall of waterfalls

A SUDDEN hammering shakes you from your work stupor. You try to look through the window, but the glass seems to be melting as torrents stream down. Just in time for your break, you think as you rifle through your drawer contents. Conspicuously dangling a cigarette, you pass huddled co-workers who stare, bemused, as you walk in your sheerest Gore-Tex out the door. The rain is falling so hard it bounces off the asphalt. You affix yourself to the door jamb to soak in your guilty pleasure and toss the Marlboro in a garbage can.

After all, the cigarette was just a prop so you could get outside. Eventually, your co-workers will figure out you don’t smoke, but in the meantime it’s best to hide your passion for inclement weather from the embittered waterlogged. The tempestuous El Nino has wreaked damage, but you can’t help but greedily breathe in the purer air and admire the stunning green hillsides. And for your devotion, the storm rewards you with the most spectacular waterfalls in recent memory.

Undeniably, a little more than a half-day ride will bring you to the staggering cascades that spill down Yosemite Valley and rank among the best in the nation. But the rainshave also filled local parkland creeks and urban watersheds so that even runoffs take on cascade proportions. Forget the fountain of youth and seek out instead these gorgeous backyard gushers.

A quick foray into terminology: Waterfall denotes any sudden descent of a stream. Cascades have a smaller volume of water, although they can drop enormous heights like Upper Yosemite Falls’ 1,430 feet. Cataracts apply to larger volumes like Niagara Falls or a series of falls, such as on the Nile and Orinoco rivers. Rapids are smaller, more gradual cataracts like the Sault Ste. Marie at the outlet of Lake Superior. Most of the falls described here will be of the cascade variety.

We’ve provided ranger or visitor numbers, so call ahead to check trail conditions. The cruel paradox of a breathtaking waterfall is the impassable route to get there. We’ve denoted which should be spring destinations, when the ground has had a chance to dry out a little. Equipment for any trip should include good rubber boots, warm attire (higher elevations means lower temperatures), food and water. Always notify someone of your departure and expected return times.


For general directions to parks, call the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) at 562-7275. RT designates round trip.

Abrigo Falls, Briones Regional Park, 229-3020, three miles RT: Unflappable cows grazing at the lands have made the sodden grounds even more difficult to negotiate, so prepare for some ankle-deep wading along the Abrigo Valley Trail. Park at the Bear Creek Staging Area and pass Oak Grove to get to the trail, which turns into Valley Trail at Maud Whalen Camp less than a mile up. Continue for more than a third of a mile past Wee-Ta-Chi Camp. The footpath lies off the main road, and it may be a bit difficult to find. Finally, Abrigo Falls will come into view with its 10- to 15-foot drop. The waters will probably flow until late spring or early summer.

Murietta Falls, Ohlone Wilderness Regional Trail, 373-0332, 11 miles RT: The required regional trail permit costs $2 and expires one year later; you can obtain one from the entrance kiosks of Del Valle Regional Park and Sunol Regional Wilderness, the visitor center for Coyote Hills Regional Park, or you can call the district reservations office at 636-1684. Ned MacKay, EBRPD public information supervisor, warns that “this is a long tough hike to get in there and back. It’s up and downhill, but mostly uphill going in.” Drier weather will obviously ease hiking conditions, so you can also wait until spring for this hike.

The closest access originates at Del Valle Regional Park. Leave the vehicle either at Lichen Bark Picnic Area or at the start of Vallecitos Trail, which links to the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. More than five miles later, the trail will reach Johnny’s Pond and a 3,350-foot elevation. Head west away from the reservoir for another mile. You need to go past the top of the falls by continuing another half-mile along the fire road and hiking up the creek to appreciate the spectacular waterfall with a 75- to 100-foot drop. The five-hour trek should be worth it.

Upcoming hikes: 9 a.m. March 14, Greenbelt Alliance (1-415-398-3730). Join the organization’s last outing in its Winter Waterfall Wonderies Series. Excessive mud cancels; otherwise, join this serious climb up a steep ridge over 4,100 feet.

Wildcat Creek, Tilden Regional Park, 525-2233, two miles RT: The normal route to the waterfall, which would go north from Lake Anza to Jewel Lake, has disintegrated into a sea of mud. Naturalists advise starting at the south end of Meadows Play Field (park at Indian Camp where Caon Drive becomes Central Park Drive), bear left at the stone restroom and take the trail to the creek. A test of agility will come at the creek crossing, so postpone the sightseeing for another day if you can’t make the leap. Otherwise, the cataract lies only 20 yards upstream.

Another impromptu winter waterfall pours over the dam at Jewel Lake. From Indian Camp, go past the Environmental Education Center and walk a mere half-mile along the road to Jewel Lake.

Amorous newts have closed off South Park Drive to cars for the winter. This means an on-foot, uphill exploration past the botanical gardens, steam trains and golf course. If you look east, you may spot the occasional cascades that run down steep hillsides in the distance. The path is ideal for relative mud-free albeit long-distance admiration.

Mountain climbing

Waterfall Loop, Mount Diablo, Clayton, 685-2175, six miles RT: Not one, not two, but three waterfalls greet you up Mount Diablo. With the downpours, additional smaller cascades have been flowing down the ridges of Donner Canyon. Ken Lavin, who leads hikes with the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association, describes a slower but more scenic route starting at Donner Canyon Road from Regency Gate, which begins on Regency Drive off Marsh Creek Road. The turnoff to Hetherington Loop Trail lies behind the site of Donner cabin, which burned down about 10 years ago. By the by, Lavin notes that the name Donner “is kind of a mystery. It’s not named after the Donner family at all.”

Hetherington, a foot path that crosses a bridge, links back up with Donner Creek Trail but avoids the latter’s steep spots. Take a detour north at the junction to Meridian Point for some nice views, then backtrack to Middle Trail and loop east to the Falls Trail.

If you want to get behind the middle fall, which is the most photographed, take Wild Oat Canyon and follow the creek 100 yards. You can take a seat behind the rushing waters in an alcove. To return to Regency Gate, continue on Falls Trail to Cardinet Trail.

The hike can last between three and four hours, and Lavin recommends catching the falls right after a big rain. As for upcoming hikes, the Sierra Club meets at 10:30 this morning at the west end of Regency Drive and the Orinda Hiking Club (leader, 254-8563) and at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Orinda Community Center, 26 Orinda Way. The next interpretive association Falls Loop hike will be April 5; call 927-7222.

Cataract Trails, Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, 1-415-388-2070, seven miles RT: Some of the most spectacular photographs of local waterfalls come from this spot on the north side of the Mount Tamalpais watershed. In this deep forest country, thick damp layers of moss cling to boulders and ferns flourish in brilliant green shades.

The Marin Municipal Water District ranger station (1-415-459-5267) maintains this route; call to check on trail conditions. To get to the top part of the trailhead, take the Highway 1 exit off U.S. 101, then proceed four miles and make a right at the Mount Tamalpais sign. Five winding miles up the mountainside, make another right turn at the Mt. Tam sign and park at the Rock Springs parking lot. The trail itself reaches a 1,200-foot elevation.

According to the ranger, you can cut the walk to a scant two-mile round trip by going past the Rock Springs parking lot and turning left on Ridgecrest Boulevard. Take the first fire road on the left, which is Laurel Dell. A one-mile ride takes you right to the middle of the Cataract Trail.

In the event of road washouts, Patricia McVay of the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council (1-415-388-0880)) recommends the Fairfax route, which requires taking the Sir Francis Drake Boulevard exit off U.S. 101. Go west through Fairfax, veer right to Broadway and turn left onto Bolinas Fairfax Road. Beyond Alpine Dam, the parking area is located near the hairpin turn.

Steep Ravine Trail, Mount Tamalpais, four to seven miles RT: At the south end of the Pan Toll parking lot, a sign for Steep Ravine Trail wends for two miles down and along Webb Creek in the damp canyon. The 10- to 12-foot falls don’t have the drama of Cataract Trails, but McVay, who hiked the area recently, describes the surroundings as gorgeous and dramatic. The trail normally joins up with the Dipsea Trail, which connects to Stinson Beach, but the Dipsea is closed for maintenance until further notice.

Urban jaunts

Concrete plasters over many of our local creeks, but nature manages to spout up now and then. Carol Schemmerling, Bay Area coordinator for the Urban Creeks Council (540-6669), describes the tributary to Codornices Creek on Keith Avenue in Berkeley as “fabulous.” From Tilden Regional Park, come down Grizzly Peak Boulevard, turn right on Shasta Avenue, then right on Keith Avenue. About 100 yards up, a waterfall surrounded by bay trees streams 40 feet down a rocky structure.

Schemmerling also recommends checking out the possibly humble but sincere cascades behind the amphitheater at John Hinkel Park at Southampton Avenue and San Diego Road; Canyon Trail Park at Gatto and Tapscott avenues, El Cerrito; and Alvarado Park at McBryde Avenue and Arlington Boulevard, Richmond. The last has a man-made trough that water dips over and then drops 5 feet.

Outer regions

Another Greenbelt Alliance recommendation from outings coordinator Ryan Lamberg is Uvas Canyon Park (1-408-779-9232) in Morgan Hill. Some of the falls, ranging from 20- to 50-foot drops, are “natural springs that shoot out of the mountain, so it’s year-round.” Take U.S. 101 south to the Tennant Avenue exit, turn left on Monterey Road, right on Watsonville Road, right on Uvas Road, and left on Croy Road.

Torrents can spill over nearby Anderson Dam (1-408-779-3634) on the way to Uvas Canyon Park. You can see Anderson Lake overflow from U.S. 101 south or up close by taking the Cochran Road exit and turning left at the traffic light onto Cochran Road.

Mark your summer or autumn calendars for Berry Creek Falls, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Santa Cruz (1-408-338-8860), and Alamere Falls, Point Reyes National Seashore (1-415-663-1092). The routes to both are wiped out, but fortunately both are year-round drops. Berry Creek normally entails an 11-mile round-trip excursion from Wildcat camp to the beach for a visit to its 60-foot descent, while Alamere Falls takes 13 miles round trip and falls 40 feet into the Pacific Ocean. Call to check trail status or, as Big Basin senior park aide Bobbee Myers Rigby suggests, volunteer to do trail restoration.

If you’d rather hunt for waterfalls than gold this spring and summer, sesquicentennial or not, consult Ann Marie Brown’s “California Waterfalls” (Foghorn Press, $17.95). Precision timing could allow a morning of downhill skiing and an afternoon of cascade hikes. Make sure you call ahead because the access routes may no longer exist or territories may have changed ownership:

Rush Creek Falls, Nevada City, Bridgeport Ranger Station 1-530-432-2546, three miles RT: Part of the South Yuba River State Park, this first “identified wheelchair wilderness trail” ducks under a tunnel beneath the highway. Take Interstate 80 to Highway 49 beyond Nevada City and look for the sign to Independence Trail. Hike down river along the trail to Plume 28.

The falls are flowing right now, but if you choose to make this a warm-weather destination, the ranger station advises that a swimming hole lies just a few miles more down Highway 49. Remain on that road, turn left on Pleasant Valley Road and you’ll reach the longest single-span bridge in the United States. The 251-foot wooden bridge dates to 1862. It’s also one of the few covered bridges remaining in California.

Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, 1-530-573-2600; Visitor’s Center, 1-530-573-2674. A bounty of gushers can be reached via trails maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

Cascade Falls, Bay View Campground trail, 1.5 miles RT. Drive-by sightseeing is possible for these falls. From Interstate 80, take Highway 50 to South Lake Tahoe and go straight on Highway 89 about seven miles to Bay View Campground ($3 parking fee).

Eagle Falls, half-mile RT. Visitors crowd this popular site spring through summer to camp or picnic by the 200-foot waterfall. There may be some views now, but call ahead to check for avalanche dangers. The Emerald Bay picnic area ($3 parking fee) lies just one mile from the Bay View Campground.

Glen Alpine Falls. A roadside attraction, these falls can be seen right before the Glen Alpine Trailhead. Take Highway 50 to Highway 89 north and drive 2.5 miles to Fallen Leaf Lake Road. From here, it’s eight miles to the vista point.

Horse Tail Falls, El Dorado National Forest, 1-530-644-6048, three miles RT. This is another sight visible from the road, although the Twin Bridges Trail follows along the falls, which drops 300 to 400 feet. The route steeply drops and rises and can be dangerous, so only accomplished hikers should consider this. Take Highway 50 until you near Twin Bridges, about 45 minute east of Placerville.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features