The Cataract Falls Hike Disaster: Hiking in the Bay Area, California

Our disastrous hike of beautiful Cataract Falls in Marin, California.

For Lia and I, “hiking” and “absolute disaster” go hand in hand.

It’s an unfortunate pattern that popped up over and over again during our year-long honeymoon. There was the injured wrist on the Valle de Cocora hike in Colombia. There was the injured knee on the Quilotoa Loop hike in Ecuador. There was the altitude sickness that prevented one of us from attempting Laguna 69 in Peru. There was the injured pride after our failed attempt at hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

And at that point, we just gave up on hiking altogether and hi-tailed it to Europe to eat croissants and drink beer and forget about our #fitnessgoals altogether.

But today, we’re going back in time to before all of those disasters, before we even knew what to expect on our trip. The post below was originally written before our trip, way back when we were still planning to hike the Appalachian Trail after our 4 months in South America. And we all know how those plans turned out.

But hey, posting a year late is better than never, right?

This is the story of our very first hiking disaster. The one that really, honestly, should have been a giant neon flashing warning sign. Although it wasn’t our first travel fail together – that award goes to the Mono Hot Springs Incident, – it was the first time that we actually feared for our safety.

So without further ado, let’s step back in time to a simpler time … before everything went to sh** and we all still thought Hillary would win… before hurricanes and fires and the impending nuclear war between the US and North Korea…. Let’s go back to 2016! *whooshing noises and harp music*

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Training for Our Trip

Lia and I will be the first to tell you we’re slow hikers. With just our trusty Camelbak Hydration Packs strapped to us, we average about 2.5 miles an hour – on a good day. In anticipation for our year-long honeymoon and the many planned treks we’ll be attempting, we’ve been training by hiking every single week on our favorite hikes near the Bay Area. We’re working on speed, endurance, and difficulty, ramping up on each one every single week so we can be as prepared as possible for what’s ahead of us.

Insert 2017 us laughing at our naivete. Sorry, I’ll stop interrupting.

This is a story about how all of that training went out the window, and a lesson on why you should always, always expect the worst (particularly if you’re disaster prone, like us).

We know The Appalachian Trail is no joke.

We also know why outdoor outfitting store employees always take a beat to process after we say “We’re going to do The AT.”

Frankly, we don’t exactly look like your mental image of through-hikers. We’re in shape, but not visually “fit.” There are definitely several pounds of unnecessary weight that we’re carrying around – and I’m not talking about what’s in our packs.

Honestly, the assumption isn’t totally off base. I grew up hating hikes. As a kid, I would drag my feet and take sit-down breaks every twenty feet. I’d whine and complain the whole way.

I think my goal was to make my parents never want to take me on another hike again. And, unfortunately for me, I succeeded.

When I grew up, I realized I love hiking. It’s work, sure, but it’s rewarding work. Not only do you have the sensory rewards along the way – the air never smells as good as it does when you’re on a hike, not to mention the views! – but you also have the feeling of accomplishment when you reach your camp/car/peak. You can look out on the land you conquered and feel insignificant and invincible all at once.

Plus, the huge burger I always eat afterwards is a plus.

Our problem with hiking the Appalachian Trail – other than being slightly too heavy and far too slow – is that we’ve never really backpacked. We’re day-hikers: we usually just bring a lot of water and some snacks for fuel.

So we set our goal for the months before our trip to finally go backpacking. We scheduled a multi-day backpacking trip for Valentine’s Day (because there is nothing more romantic than being dirty and sweaty in a hammock with your fiancee).

One of the most popular backpacking trails in the Bay Area is Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur. Sykes is about 20 miles total out and back, through a lot of up and down elevation.  20 miles sounded doable – we often hike 13 in a day, after all, and this was 3 day trip. So, after reading up on leave no trace and making sure we were fully educated and prepared, we decided to go for it.

Our first step to prepare for our very first backpacking trip was to get a backpack.  After a LOT of trial and error and stuffing weights in various bags and then returning them, we finally found our ideal bags: a Gregory Jade for Lia, and a Deuter ACT Lite for me.

Backpacks packed according to detailed Excel sheets filled with ultra-light gear that we’d meticulously weighed and recorded, we were only one week away from our proposed Sykes date. We had a regular day hike planned, but Lia had the brilliant and very practical idea to wear take our packs for our hike in order to test drive them.

I cannot stress how good of an idea this turned out to be.

The Cataract Falls Hike in Marin, California

Our planned day hike was the Cataract Falls Loop in Marin. In total, the hike is a little shy of 8 miles. By our average, it would normally take 4 hours with breaks. We gave ourselves an extra hour due to account for pack weight and arrived at 1 PM.

A ridiculous amount of people come from all over the San Francisco Bay Area to see the famous Cataract Falls. If you take a day trip out to see them, you can do a much shorter version of the hike we did. But you’re not going to be alone.

After passing dozens of families, most of whom were side-eyeing us with our giant packs and trekking poles, we hit our first snag.

We saw a kind of sort of trail that branched out from the main one. Our instructions were a little flimsy, and we stood staring at this trail-ish path trying to decide whether or not this was the right way to go. Lia was skeptical: she insisted on hiking another half a mile out of the way just to be sure. I rolled my eyes, but followed her instinct.

This was the second time listening to Lia paid off on this journey.

We shortly reached the real trail – which did not look like a tiny half-trail into the wilderness at all – and were treated to gorgeous and varied vistas along the next two miles. By now, most of the families had cleared out and we finally began to feel truly alone. With the exception of a group of three older women, we hadn’t seen anyone for over a mile.

As it turns out, those would be the last people we saw until we reached civilization again, many hours later.

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Hiking Cataract Loop: The Beginning

With plenty of time ahead of us – we assumed – and already well into our hike – we thought – Lia wanted to take a snack and water break. We got a little bit of cell service, so I checked Google Maps just to make sure we were tracking correctly.

Google’s instructions were clear: to get to the end of the loop, we needed to turn around and go back.

But what does Google know, right? We decided to keep going. After all, we were only about half a mile from the halfway point.

A quick lesson about Google Maps: it takes elevation into account in it’s walking instructions. Listen to Google.

What Google was warning us about was how long the loop would take. Distance wise, we were near halfway. Time wise, we were only about 33% done.

Turns out, the second half of the trail is rough. But we didn’t know that yet. By our calculations, things were OK. Distance wise, we were tracking fine. At least, that was my argument.

After another hour or so, Lia was starting to get skeptical. We were moving slowly – far more slowly than our usually, packless selves – and we were already tired. It was now nearing 4pm, and the sun was alarmingly low. She didn’t think we’d be able to finish the trail by nightfall.

I told her we could make it. I never stopped telling her we’d make it.

Spoiler alert: we didn’t make it.

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Panic Sets In

As the sun began its ominous descent, we quickened our pace. We were racing against nightfall, and it was an uphill battle. Literally. Yes, that’s a grammatically correct usage of the word “literally.” You’re welcome.

At a certain point, we were running uphill – or, as close as we could physically get to running while carrying an increasingly heavy 25 lbs each.

In between huffs and puffs, we started to talk strategy. “We have our hammocks with us, so we can camp overnight if we have to. You have a knife for protection against bears, right? Can this food last us through tomorrow? What’s our water level? Is that enough?”

The three miles after the last people we saw and the last cell phone signal we were able to get was a blur of creek crossings, second guessing, me reassuring us both that we’d make it, panic, and bursts of energy.

It came to a head on a precarious portion of the trail. The path was narrow and there was a cliff-side to our right. Lia was in a panic and slipped stepping up onto a rock. She hit her knee, grabbed me, and we both tumbled over one another, landing about an inch from the edge of the cliff.

That was it. Sitting on the ground in pain, terrified from the adrenaline of the fall and fear of the impending nightfall, Lia lost her s***.

Through tears and choking sobs, she echoed what we had both been too afraid to admit: we could actually die here. We were in legitimate danger. Once nightfall hit, those cliff-sides and tricky, slippery stretches became more than a physical challenge: they became an actual risk to our safety.

I tried to reassure her by repeating my mantra for the past few hours – “we’ll make it” – but it was already 6pm. Clearly, we weren’t going to make it.

That was when I lost it too. I knew we had no chance of making it. I’d known that for miles. But one of us needed to keep it together, so I had decided to be blindly positive.

We sat on the slippery stone step where we’d fallen, looking down into the cliff-side abyss below us, watching the sun set, and bawling our eyes out.

When traveling with your companion, it’s important that if one panics, the other keeps it cool. As a particularly disaster prone couple, we knew this already. We knew it when we totaled our car in the mountains. We knew it when Lia saw a bunch of jellyfish the first (and last) time she attempted to go surfing.

But now, we were both full on ugly crying panicking.

It was not a pretty sight. Luckily (…?) there was nobody around for miles to hear us.

A few weeks later, when Lia – who has a pacemaker – would visit her cardiologist for her regular checkup. Together, they would review the printout of her heart rate over the past several months. It would look fairly normal, except for one enormous spike: this moment of panic and ugly crying during our Cataract Falls hiking disaster. Her rate rate shot into the Danger Zone. Luckily, her pacemaker’s job is to regulate those exact situations, or she would probably have gone into tachycardia, had a panic attack, hyperventilated/gone partially numb, and made the entire situation roughly a zillion times more terrifying and dangerous. So, major props to Lia’s robot heart for keeping us both alive.

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Hiking Cataract Loop in the Dark

In a moment of clarity after letting out her fear and frustration, Lia remembered that in her insistence to pack accurately for our training hike, we had packed our headlamps.

This was huge. This was everything. We were saved!

Headlamps reduce a night-time hike from “entirely likely you’ll die” to “watch your step, but you’ll be OK.”

Through sniffly tears, we dragged ourselves out of our collective panicking and forced ourselves to trudge on.

Night fell. We pulled out our headlamps and continued hiking in the growing darkness, making plenty of noise so as to discourage curious bears and other wild critters.

Slowly, step by cautious step, we continued through the sketchy terrain as best as we could. The trail never seemed to end. Our hiking pace slowed from “we’re pretty slow hikers” to “I lost both of my legs in a horrible accident and I’m doing a crab-walk on my hands.”

Eventually, after hours of slipping and sliding and sniffling and stepping,  we made it back to the once bustling staircase leading to the falls: the very last people to exit the park that day. We took slow deliberate steps down the stairs, which were wet from the river’s mist. Just our luck that our very first accidental night-hike also happened to be one involving wet , slippery, mossy stone stairs.

If anyone reading this is considering a casual Cataract Falls hike after dark: let me tell you from experience that that is a truly terrible idea. We have no idea if the scenery is pretty or not, but I can tell you that the terrain is absolutely miserable after dark.

Finally, after 8 grueling hours, we made it back to the car at 9pm. We were supposed to finish the hike at 5. Our packs had halved our hiking speed.

But, we made it. We lived!

So of course, we headed immediately for food. There is nothing quite like the feeling of surviving a miserable hike, fearing for your life, and then stuffing  your face with the most delicious, juicy burger, giant fries, and a milkshake.

After our disastrous hike,  we changed our Valentine’s Day plans: our very first backpacking trip was at the much shorter Vicente Flat – only 10 miles in 2 days. We still ended up hiking after dark for a ways, but we weren’t afraid for our lives this time, so overall, an improvement.

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What We Learned

Here is what we learned about ourselves. Lia, the endlessly practical one, was skeptical all day.

Me? I have a habit of being stupidly optimistic in the face of trouble. We balance each other nicely in that regard.

Our problem was that we didn’t lean on each other in our states of panic. There is a place for optimism, but we needed to both be skeptical.

We did a dangerous hike (well, ok – it’s only dangerous after dark. Otherwise it’s a perfectly lovely, very not dangerous, ordinary hike) and put ourselves in an even more dangerous position because of my optimism.

So if you’re ever doubting of your ability, listen to that skepticism. Don’t give up or opt out, necessarily. Just know when to turn back, or look for an exit strategy. We took these lessons to heart and have been more sensible and logical in our backpacking plans since.

Ok, back to 2017. And Jeremy, thank you for narrating an excellent story. But I’m taking the reins for a minute.

I love that last paragraph. But we did NOT take those lessons to heart. I CLEARLY remember a certain INSANELY OPTIMISTIC ginger giving me the pep talk of a lifetime 1 night before our 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.

I wanted to eat our $400 deposit and give up before we started. After 4 months of hiking disasters and failures, I knew there was NO WAY we were in shape to finish the Inca Trail.

“We have to try,” Jeremy said.

“Imagine how good it will feel if we make it,” he said.

“We can do this,” he said.

The real lesson here is never listen to my husband when it comes to hiking.

We did try. We did not feel good. And we could not do it. Instead of being realistic about our abilities, we lost our full $1,200 trek fee and learned a lesson that we CLEARLY had not taken to heart: listen to your gut when it comes to your physical limitations. Hit the gym before trying something significantly harder than what you’re used to.

Otherwise, prepare for the absolute worst. In fact, expect it. Plan on it.

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Must-Have Hiking Essentials

In the spirit of planning practically for disaster, here are our absolute must-have hiking essentials. At this point in my life, I never, EVER go on so much as a mile-long stroll through the woods without this stuff locked and loaded in my bag.

  • Headlamps: Oh my god, headlamps saved our lives. I’ll never hike without one again! They’re small and lightweight and easily fit in any pack. Bring them. YES, even on a day hike! Also, don’t opt for the dinky cheapo ultralight ones – we had 1 good one and 1 terrible one, and one of us was deeply regretting their choices in life. That headlamp has since been thrown away.
  • Trekking Poles: Trekking poles are incredibly helpful for difficult terrain or potentially tricky hikes, or if you are a person who is very clumsy (or all 3). I like the Black Diamond trekking poles because they’re lightweight and fold down easily, but they’re super sturdy. They saved my butt on every single hike in South America, while Jeremy – who did not bring trekking poles – injured his wrist and knee as a direct result of not having them. They are a safety tool. Plus, you can wave them angrily at bears, if that’s a thing that happens.
  • A good first aid kit: You need a first aid kit that covers you in the event of a variety of calamities. Ours includes a Mylar blanket, which is crucial for any cold weather hikes, especially if you find yourself on an unexpected chilly overnight. We’ve got first aid supplies from burn treatment to stuff for stitches. We’ve even got moleskin patches for when you feel a blister coming on, which can easily change your fast pace into a disastrously slow  one!
  • Never, ever, hike without a compass. If your phone doesn’t get service, if you wander off the trail on accident, or if you’re not good at navigating with things like moss and stars, a compass is the #1 best tool you can bring on your hikes! (The only exception would be a GPS watch, which is like a compass on high-tech steroids).
  • 3 Methods of starting a fire: This is a survival basic must-have. 1 way of starting a fire is not enough. You need backups for your backups. Yes, I sound like a boy scout. But seriously, take it to heart! We have a regular old lighter, waterproof matches, and a steel & flint. In a true emergency situation, this could save our lives one day.
  • 2-3 methods of filtering your water: Like fire, water is a crucial need for any survival situation. One method of filtering your water is not sufficient. On our day hikes, we bring 2. First, we have a portable Sawyer water filter that attaches to a bladder, so we can fill up in a muddy pond and sip away. We also bring potable water tablets, for when the water is clear but we want to kill any potentially icky bacteria. On backpacking trips, we add in a 3rd method: good old boiling in a lightweight pot over a fire or portable camping stove (this is our favorite little ultralight camping stove).
  • Always bring rain gear. If you don’t, not only will you be miserable if it starts to rain, but you could potentially open yourself up to a host of other health issues, like pneumonia. This Ultra-Light Rain Jacket is super lightweight and packs down to nothing, taking up almost no space in your pack. Waterproof Socks are also super handy to have, even if your hiking boots are waterproof.
  • 50-100oz of water: We have a Camelbak Hydration Pack that fits 100oz of water, snacks, AND has room for the rest of our gear, too.
  • Hiking Shoes & Socks: We both hike in Trail Runners rather than heavy duty hiking boots – they’re lightweight and travel friendly, more flexible and comfortable, and they dry super quickly when it rains or after a water crossing, so your feet will stay toasty and try. Pair them with well-made wool socks. Our favorite wool sock brand is Darn Tough: soft, durable, and they come with a lifetime guarantee in the event of holes (that’s how you know it’s real). When things start getting wet, pull your waterproof socks on over top of your wool socks to keep your feet dry and blister-free.
  • Hiking Clothes: We prefer wool hiking gear thanks to its ability to cool you down in the heat and keep you warm when you’re wet or sweaty. We also always make sure to bring at least 1 layer, because you never know – even in temperate northern California. We’ve tried a lot of different hiking clothing over the years, and these are our favorite tried and true picks.
  • Snacks: You want something nutritious, with a good mix of complex carbs, fats, protein, and electrolytes to fuel your body. My favorite hiking snacks are peanut butter filled pretzels, dried fruit (like apple rings or dried mango), and almonds. I’m also mildly obsessed with Clif Builders bars.
    • Important Caveat : if you are hiking or backpacking in California, or anywhere with bears, and you find yourself in a situation where you’re having to spend the night somewhere without a bear box, YOU MUST TIE YOUR FOOD UP IN A TREE. Always always always pack a length of rope (we bring Paracord) that’s long enough to do a basic tie-up like this one. If you have anything scented with you, tie up your whole darn pack. Anything to put as much distance as possible between you + your delicious smelling belongings!

If you’re concerned about your own wilderness survival skills and need to study up, I highly recommend either taking a Wilderness First Responder Course at an outdoor outfitter like R.E.I, or getting a book like this one and reading up. This is absolutely crucial if you’ll be venturing into the back-country or plan on backpacking anywhere that isn’t highly populated!

Have you ever experienced a moment of panic during a hike? Share your hiking disaster stories with us below, in the comments!


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The gorgeous Cataract Falls hike in Marin, California is one of the best hikes near San Francisco. Unless you're disaster prone. Which we are. Here's what not to do! #Hiking #California #Travel

Feature photos credit: “Falls on Cataract Creek on Mount Tamalpa” (CC BY 2.0) by MiguelVieira

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Hey, I'm Lia! I'm a Kentucky native living in San Francisco. I'm extremely practical and also entirely addicted to travel, which I'm forever trying to reconcile. If I had a patronus, it would a spreadsheet. Or a llama. Possibly a llama creating a spreadsheet. I'm married to Jeremy and I'm obsessed with him and it's super gross, unless you're us, in which case it's the best.

2 Comment

  1. I ROFLed several times while reading the post because you and Jeremy have this zany sense of humor which I love, all the while secretly gloating over mine and Sriram’s fab fitness (no we both have food babies but that is a different story) since we did manage to hike to Cataract falls and back, all thanks to our four legged unstoppable hiker buddy. Anyway, this part is kinda maudlin since I stopped at the point where Jeremy revealed that you have a pacemaker in your heart. My mother did too. I miss her a lot (her death had nothing to do with the pacemaker, although that was planted due to a faulty diagnosis).

    1. Lia says: Reply

      I’m definitely tempted to give it a try without the stupid packs! It was a gorgeous hike right up until it was night, at which point I don’t know whether it was or not 😛

      I’m sorry to hear about your mother <3 Hugs from us to you, love!

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