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.
Dirt fire roads and trails.
Less than 2 hours.
Best in late winter for waterfall.
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:
GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
(* 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.
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.
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.
Use AAA's San Francisco Bay Region map to get there.
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
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
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. Carson 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
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
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
Pine Mountain Road also offers access to Cascade
Falls, a pretty waterfall in Cascade Canyon east of Pine Mountain. 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. 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
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).
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. As 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
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. The 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.
Last hiked: Monday, January 10, 2005