There's nothing quite like spring in Northern California. There are those among us—East Coast transplants probably—who tell us that California has no seasons, but they're dead wrong. They're just more subtle than in other places. I'm not going to go into a treatise on the subject here, but if you're really interested go and read Steinbeck's monumental East of Eden, where he describes the situation in a much more articulate way than I can. Spring is perhaps the most definite season here in California. It's warm, the hills are a bright verdant green, creeks are running, and wildflowers about. It's a fantastic time to go hiking and to take in those fleeting seasonal sights.
We recently hiked the Pacheco Creek Trail in southern Novato in the Pacheco Valle Open Space Preserve. It's perfect for a hike with small children—not too long or too steep, and it's magical in the spring, with a winding burbling creek and a waterfall at the end. You'll find the trailhead in at the end of Pacheco Creek Drive, in a residential neighborhood. There's plenty of street parking in the area. Head up the trail into an oak and bay forest. The narrow single-track trail meanders through woods and meadows full of wildflowers. We spotted plenty of buttercups, Douglas iris, and bluedicks along the way.
Pacheco Creek actually crosses the trail at several points, so it helps to wear waterproof boots on your walk. I hiked the trail with my four-year-old daughter and when it came time to ford the creek, I just picked her up and walked across through the water with my Gore-tex hiking boots. It's not particularly deep water, and you could probably jump across the creek if you were so inclined.
About half a mile or so up the trail you'll come to a spot—just after the fallen tree that you climb over or under… your choice—where the trail moves steeply uphill. If you're hiking with small kids this is a good place to stop, as the trail gets steep and potentially dangerous. Continuing on will take you to some great vantage points for the twenty-foot or so waterfall, but you can also see it if you walk down to the creekside and follow it for a few yards. It's a nice spot to relax, eat a snack, and listen to the gentle gurgling of the stream as it flows over rocks and logs.
OK, so it's not the most impressive waterfall in the world, but it's easier to get to than going all the way up on Mt. Tamalpais and, at about a mile round trip, it's manageable for little kids. To get there, take Highway 101 north or south to the Alameda del Prado exit at the very south end of Novato. Go left (south) on Alameda del Prado and continue into the Pacheco Valle neighborhood. Follow Alameda del Prado to Pacheco Creek Drive, where you'll turn right. Drive to the end of Pacheco Creek Drive where you'll find the trailhead. No restroom facilities or water, but you always bring your own so that shouldn't be a problem.
You can learn more about the Pacheco Valle Open Space Preserve download a PDF trail map at the Marin County Open Space District's website, www.marinopenspace.org.