High Marsh Trail

Mt. Tamalpais

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Post-election, I felt a buildup of negative energy, something that had been gathering steam for a year or more over the stressful primary season, finally given shape in the form of a devastating result. I wanted to do my best to dispel this burdensome feeling on the trail. I’d wanted to check out some trails and longer loops on the north side of Tamalpais for some time and High Marsh fit the bill.

When I reached the Rock Springs area around 1pm, I had already passed many full lots and turnouts. I was witnessing the full force of Mt. Tam’s popularity. Knowing that Laurel Dell fire road was accessible from the west, I continued on, and not far from that access point I was able to leave the car in a modest turnout.

At 1:20pm I was getting a much later start than I’d hoped, especially with the park closing at sunset (5pm). I set off at a brisk pace down Laurel Dell and found relief from the heat in the shade of the forest. It didn’t take long to be able to hear the rushing waters that eventually form Cataract and Helen Markt Falls. The fire road meets Cataract Falls Trail at about 3/4 of a mile. Laurel Dells picnic area and the Cataract Falls Trail, while crowded, was blanketed in fallen orange leaves. It felt like walking from summer into autumn. The occasional leaf drifted down in front of me.

I was only on Cataract Falls trail for a quarter mile before bearing to the right. High Marsh trail lifted me above the hubbub of the falls and its many visitors, though their sound could still be heard as I rounded Bare Knoll. Here I paused to appreciate the northern view. From here on out, I saw very few people. With much of the hike among trees and closed in at the right by the mass of Tamalpais itself, it was quiet and almost lonely.

The path became narrower and harder to negotiate for the next two miles with some moderately steep sections. High Marsh Trail is aptly named. I suspect a lot of moisture runs down this side of the mountain, gathering in Alpine Lake. The trees became short and somewhat sparser, the ground a little springy, and only croaking frogs broke the silence. I took a break to stretch – my right knee was complaining about the fast pace and high impact. Now a bit hindered, and knowing I had to be back at the car by sunset, I pulled out the map and amended my route.

california newt
footbridge in forest with fallen leaves

At 2.9 miles I reached the junction with Cross Country Boys Trail. I was in for another steep climb and began to regret my choice, but as I pushed ahead with my eyes on the ground, I noticed some movement. A small, lizard-like creature with red pebbled skin was making its way across the path. It moved quickly but was not as easily startled as other common lizards whose basking I’d disturbed. I managed to get a picture and later identified it as a California Newt. I had heard you could find them in this area and it was really cool to see one.

At 3.3 miles, Cross Country joins the Kent trail and the climb becomes less strenuous. I eventually reached Potrero Meadows and walked a short distance there to see what I could see – not much, with the sun already dipping behind the treetops. At this point, I felt I needed to be heading in the direction of my car. At the junction of Kent and Laurel Dell, I decided to get back on the fire road, which runs in a westerly direction, and would eventually get me back on familiar trails for the final leg.

I was grateful for the wide road and more forgiving grade. Laurel Dell brought me through fresh-scented trees until I noticed a path leading back up to Bare Knoll. Unsure of the time, but with the light growing ever more interesting, I headed up that way and got some great shots. I made the effort to get the camera on my tripod and try different lenses. I experimented with Pentax’s pixel-shift feature and was able to get some really sharp images. Using the tripod forced me to slow down and think more carefully about my framing and settings.

trailhead signpost
man observing sweeping landscape

I checked my phone for the time – 4:20pm, with 1.3 miles still to go, and sunset about 5pm. As I made me way back along High Marsh, I couldn’t resist cutting across to Cataract Falls to catch one of my favorite spots adorned with autumn leaves.

With a personal goal of seeing a bit of autumn in California satisfied, all that remained was to negotiate the last uphill gravel stretch of Laurel Dell fire road. I huffed and puffed, convinced I was going to get a ticket or something. Instead I found a wonderful scene of many people gathering to watch a striking sunset over Bolinas. I’m sure the rangers clear out the parking areas not long after the park is officially closed, but for future reference it was good to know they don’t crack down on everyone right at sunset.

small waterfall enclosed by rocks
sunset landscape

Mt. Tam is very popular, and it’s easy to see why. It’s relatively accessible and yet you feel far from the noise and routine of normal life. The trails are well-maintained and it’s easy to amend your plan as you go. Though not as raw and primeval as some of our National Parks can feel, you can hardly go wrong with Mt. Tam’s definitively Californian beauty.