Carson Falls/Pine Mountain,
Marin Municipal Water District,
Marin County
In brief:
3 mile partial loop on the lower flanks of Pine Mountain, outside of Fairfax. Very pretty waterfall hike for winter, but trails are poorly marked.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 3 mile partial loop hike is moderate. Trailhead elevation is about 1060 feet. The featured hike climbs to 1400 feet, descends to 1020 feet, returns to 1400 feet, and descends back to the trailhead. Although it's easy enough to navigate the broad fire roads, the trails are faint, undersigned, and tough to find. The trail down to the falls is steep and slippery in wet months.

Exposure:
Mostly exposed.

Trail traffic
:
Light-moderate.

Trail surfaces
:
Dirt fire roads and trails.

Hiking time
:
Less than 2 hours.

Season
:
Best in late winter for waterfall.

Getting there:
From US 101 in Marin County, exit San Anselmo/Sir Francis Drake. Drive about 5 miles west on Sir Francis Drake to Fairfax. Turn left on Pastori, right on Broadway, and left onto Fairfax-Bolinas Road. Drive about 4 miles on Fairfax-Bolinas Road to the parking lot on the left side of the road.

Get driving or public transit directions from Transit and Trails
:
http://www.transitandtrails.org/trailheads/91

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 3757'49.17"N
Longitude
12237'29.68"W
(* based on Google Earth data, shown as degrees, minutes, seconds)

Gas, food, and lodging
:
Gas, pay phone, restaurants, and stores about 4 miles northeast in Fairfax. No camping in the immediate area.

Trailhead details:
Side-of-road parking in a dirt lot. No entrance or parking fees. No toilet facilities, or drinking water. Map under glass at information signboard, but there are none to take with you. No designated handicapped parking spots, and the trails are not wheelchair-accessible. There is no direct public transportation to this trailhead.

Rules:
Most trails are multi-use. A few are hiking only. Dogs are permitted on the hike described below.

The Official Story:
Sky Oaks Ranger Station: 415-945-1181.
MMWD recreation page

Map Choices:
• Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
Trail map from MMWD (pdf)
• Olmsted Brother's A Rambler's Guide to the Trails of Mt. Tamalpais and the Marin Headlands is the best map for this hike (order this map from Amazon.com).
• Don and Kay Martin's Hiking Marin has a useful map and descriptions of area trails (order this book from Amazon.com).


View 48 thumbnail photos from this featured hike
View 60 thumbnail photos from an alternate hike (5 mile hike, partly on trails no longer signed or maintained)




Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page


Marin County's Carson Falls is hardly a secret, but a visit to the dramatic cascades on a rainy winter day can be a lonely experience. TrailheadCarson Falls, on the flanks of Pine Mountain, is accessed by most visitors via Pine Mountain Road, a fire road very popular with cyclists. During the dry months, Pine Mountain trails are hopping with bikes, but winter brings wet empty trails, and cool temperatures perfect for hiking.
     From this trailhead on Fairfax-Bolinas Road you can explore the huge hunk of land just north of Mount Tam and Fairfax-Bolinas Road, known as Pine Mountain. The Marin County watershed, divided between the Marin Municipal Water District and the Marin County Open Space District, hosts just a handful of trails, most of them long fire roads. The terrain is rugged, and is distinguished by serpentine soil that supports many unusual native plants. Pine Mountain RoadPine Mountain Road climbs to its namesake mountain, then continues on a steep grade to meet San Geronimo Ridge Road, and Gary Giacomini Open Space Preserve. With companions and an extra car, hikers can trek all the way from Fairfax-Bolinas Road to Sir Francis Drake near Samuel P. Taylor State Park. This hike can be difficult to navigate, as you must patch together information from several different maps to string together a route (the reliable Olmsted Brothers map doesn't reach all the way to Sir Francis Drake, and I have yet to find a source that shows the whole route).
      Pine Mountain Road also offers access to Cascade Falls, a pretty waterfall in Cascade Canyon east of Pine Mountain.View north to Pine Mountain, from Oat Hill Fire Road  Parking is just about impossible in Cascade Canyon, but you can park at the Pine Mountain Trailhead and hike in via Pine Mountain Road and Repack Road, a round trip of almost 9 miles.
      Kent Lake, the most remote of the MMWD's reservoirs, can be explored on 2 long hikes beginning at this trailhead. To explore the southern portion of Kent Lake, take Pine Mountain Road to Oat Hill Road, Old Vee Road, and Alpine-Kent Pump Road. For a jaunt along the northern shore, head uphill on Pine Mountain Road, and stay to the left at the junction with San Geronimo Ridge Road. After a long bit of lonely fire road, with no intersecting trails for ages, the trail drops down to Kent Lake and Big Carson Creek. All of these options are best undertaken by experienced hikers in good physical condition. Bring lots of water, and choose a cool day.Oat Hill Fire Road  There is virtually no shade on the mountain's south-facing slope, although you'll find some tree cover on the paths near Carson Falls, and on parts of San Geronimo Ridge and Pine Mountain Ridge.
     Except for one ill-timed visit on a hot summer day, I've only hiked Pine Mountain in winter. Winter and spring are temperate and good seasons to observe the plants growing in Pine Mountain's serpentine soil. You might see manzanitas, several species of ceanothus, and wildflowers blooming in the grassland. I would like to make a special visit just to see the gnarled buckeyes near Little Carson Creek in bloom.
     MMWD has stopped maintaining and signing an unnamed trail (previously described on this page) leading to the lower portion of Little Carson Creek. Hikers are encouraged to follow what MMWD calls Little Carson Trail, the shortest route to the falls from Oat Hill Road (now described below). Little Carson Trail
      For the hike to Carson Falls, start from the parking lot and carefully cross Fairfax-Bolinas Road to the gated fire road. Wide Pine Mountain Road, open to hikers, equestrians, and cyclists, begins an easy climb through the rocky and exposed slopes of lower Pine Mountain. You may see stunted-looking manzanitas hunched close to the ground, along with chamise, chaparral pea, coyote brush, and varieties of ceanothus. Almost right away, if you stop and look back you'll have a view of Alpine Lake and Mount Tamalpais. On a clear day, grassy Pam's Blue Ridge may be visible to the northeast. Carson FallsAs you climb, trailside vegetation gets a bit taller, but the trees, an assortment of live and deciduous oaks, California bay, and madrone, stand back too far from the trail to provide shade. Soon the grade picks up and you'll climb through oak, chaparral pea, manzanita, monkeyflower, ceanothus, chinquapin, and yerba santa. Large boulders perch on the sides of the trail, which is rocky and prone to ruts. After a steep stretch, Pine Mountain Road flattens out, and you'll reach a signed junction at 1 mile. Turn left on Oat Hill Road.
      The wide multi-use fire road descends through manzanita, toyon, ceanothus, and silk-tassel. Oat Hill Road skirts a hill, then makes an abrupt transition into grassland. At 1.2 miles, look for a trail and power pole with MMWD "no bikes/horses" signs on it. Turn right onto this trail, know to some as Little Carson Trail.
     The very narrow path roughly follows a power line downhill through grassland. Where small seasonal streams rush downslope in the winter the path is often slippery and muddy in winter. To the left a stream descends through a wooded gulch, heading for a union with Little Carson Creek. The path drops into a shallow valley, levels out, and curves left. Returning down Pine Mountain RoadThe path follows the creek on the right, passes a huge swale of serpentine on the left (where an unsigned and hard to spot trail heads back uphill to Oat Hill Road), and reaches the top of the falls area. Several large, old, and gnarled buckeyes grace the area. A path hops across the creek to the right, but continue straight to the rock formations overlooking Carson Falls, at 1.5 miles. From here there are great views downhill to the falls first, most dramatic drop out of the valley into a wooded ravine. When ready, retrace your steps back to the trailhead. On clear days, savor the views of Mount Tamalpais to the south. Be sure to stay alert for cyclists zipping downhill.

Total distance: 3 miles
Last hiked: Monday, January 10, 2005