February 27, 2009

One of the special rewards of a rainy season hike is the sight and sound of a trailside waterfall. Even in a year with little precipitation, a well-timed visit to one of the Bay Area’s larger cascades will be worth the walk. The creeks and streams that feed many Bay Area waterfalls rise with a few hours of steady rain, and the waterfalls along their courses often swell for a time during and after a storm.

Waterfalls are rather loosely defined phenomena: By the dictionary definition, a waterfall is a steep descent of water from a height, and with a little more precision, it is water flowing over an erosion-resistant rock cliff. Shaped by some of the most powerful forces in nature–water and gravity–they are ever changing. With time, the water coursing down the cliff whittles away at the often-softer underlying rock of the cliff face, leaving a larger and larger ledge at the lip of the fall. Eventually, that ledge collapses under its own unsupported weight and moves the waterfall up the stream.

Virtually every county in the Bay Area has at least one waterfall worth a visit. Some challenge those who want to experience them: Alamere Falls at Point Reyes National Seashore makes a photogenic drop off a 40-foot cliff onto the beach at the end of a 4-mile hike and tricky rock scramble, and Murietta Falls in the Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness demands a 13-mile round-trip hike with significant elevation gain and loss to view the 110-foot cascade–which might be running at just a trickle. Others are more welcoming: The walk to pretty, 25-foot Uvas Falls in Santa Clara County’s Uvas Canyon Park takes only five minutes. Every waterfall offers a unique experience of sight, sound, and atmosphere, and even the smallest and most ephemeral are worth a hike.

There are many waterfall enthusiasts in the world, and some of them like to share their passion with others. For starters, here are two good sources of information about waterfalls in the Bay Area and beyond:

Waterfall Lover’s Guide: Northern California, by Matt and Krissi Danielsson, The Mountaineers Books, 2006.

Leon Turnbull’s waterfall and photography website

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