2.6 mile out and back hike climbs along Cataract Falls in a wooded canyon.
Distance, category, and difficulty:
This 2.6 mile out and back hike is short but moderate. Trailhead
elevation is about 680 feet. The trail climbs to about 1100 feet in 0.5
mile, then continues to a high point of about 1400 feet in another 0.8 mile.
Some sections, mostly sets of steps, are very steep, and both trails and
stairs can be slippery when wet. A trekking pole is a good accessory any
time of the year, particularly if you've got troublesome hips or knees.
Almost totally shaded.
Dirt trail with lots of steps.
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 the town of Fairfax. Turn
left on Pastori, right on Broadway, and left onto Bolinas Road. Drive about
8 miles (on the way the road becomes Fairfax-Bolinas Road), to a small roadside
parking area immediately before a sharp hairpin curve to the right (a short
distance past Alpine Dam). The nearest mileage marker is 8.13.
From US 101 in Marin County, exit Mill Valley/Stinson Beach. Drive
on Shoreline Highway to the junction with Almonte, about 1 mile (a bit less
if you've exited southbound). Turn left and drive about 2.5 miles to the
junction with Panoramic Highway. Turn right onto Panoramic and drive about
1 mile to the junction with Muir Woods Road; continue straight (right lane)
to stay on Panoramic. Drive about 4 miles to the junction with Pantoll Road,
then turn right onto Pantoll and drive 1.5 miles to the junction of East
and West Ridgecrest. Turn left and continue about 3.7 miles on West Ridgecrest
to the junction with Fairfax-Bolinas Road. Turn right and drive downhill
on Fairfaix-Bolinas Road about 2.2 miles, to a small roadside parking area
immediately after a sharp hairpin curve to the left. The nearest mileage
marker is 8.13.
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 in Fairfax. No camping in the immediate
A few side-of-road parking spots. No entrance or parking fees. No maps,
toilet facilities, or drinking water. No designated handicapped parking
spots, and the trails are not wheelchair-accessible. There is no direct
public transportation to this trailhead. Note: A fellow hiker tipped
me off that Marin County is enforcing the facing-the-wrong-way parking law
here -- so park accordingly or risk a ticket.
Trails are open from sunrise to sunset. Most district trails are multi-use.
Some trails, including Cataract Trail, are open to hiking only. Dogs are
permitted on the hike described below: they are allowed on leash only on
MMWD trails, but are not permitted on trails in the adjacent state park.
The Official Story:
Sky Oaks Ranger Station: 415-945-1181.
map from MMWD (pdf)
of this hike is described and mapped in 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: San
Francisco, by Jane Huber (yup, that's me, the creator of this website). Order
this book from Amazon.com.
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).
Mount Tam Trail Map, published by Tom Harrison Maps (order
from Tom Harrison Maps). Comparable to the Olmsted map.
Tamalpais Trails, by Barry Spitz
(order this book from Amazon.com), has a simple map and good descriptions
of Cataract Trail.
Don and Kay Martin's Hiking Marin has a useful map and descriptions
of this trail (order
this book from Amazon.com).
Falls in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured
photos from this hike.
Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page
all the waterfalls in Marin County, Cataract Falls is probably the most popular. Even if it's not your favorite, judging the
series of falls on the north slope of Mount Tam is like critiquing the
high school beauty queen who is headed for Harvard and volunteers in her
spare time -- it's hard to say one harsh word.
Cataract Trail, which runs along Cataract
Creek and the waterfalls, can play a part in a loop hike, but most people
prefer to visit the falls on an out-and-back trek, beginning either at
the Fairfax-Bolinas Road pullout, or from staging areas on West Ridgecrest
Road. If you start at the Rock Spring trailhead you can follow the entire
Cataract segment from beginning to end, about a 6 mile out-and-back trip.
Others like to begin near Laurel Dell, from an unannounced pullout along
West Ridgecrest. A start from Fairfax-Bolinas Road
is best-suited to beginning hikers, since you can turn back if the ascent
gets too steep -- the first half mile is a particularly harsh climb mostly
on rock and wooden stairs. I once created a loop including Cataract Trail
that was spectacular until the final segment. I began at the intersection
of West Ridgecrest and Fairfax-Bolinas Road on Coastal Trail, crossed
West Ridgecrest and descended to Laurel Dell, then dropped down into the
canyon on Cataract Trail. All was fine until I decided to walk back uphill
on Fairfax-Bolinas Road. It doesn't look so bad on the map, but the 2.4
mile ascent was nasty. Work crews were trimming trees along the upper
reaches of the road, and all the way uphill I righted each of their cautionary
orange pylons that had tipped over, a task that recalled Homer's Odyssey.
Weather greatly alters the landscape on
this part of Tam. After a series of winter
storms, Cataract Falls gushes with profusion, and in the surrounding canyon
plants become lush and vibrantly green. Be alert for slippery steps and
fallen trees on the wettest days of the year. Wildflowers sprawl through
the forest in spring and early summer, and the shaded canyon provides
cool relief on scorching summer days. My favorite time of year may be
autumn. The water flow is low in the creek, but the bigleaf maple foliage
display is breathtaking, particularly in November. All year round the
murmur of running water on Cataract Trail helps drown out sounds from
the outside world, and this is a very quiet meditative part of the mountain.
In fact I call this hike one of my "mind sweeper" treks, for
I always return home calm and serene.
Begin at the roadside parking area along
Fairfax-Bolinas Road. Cataract Trail enters a forest of California
bay, tanoak, bigleaf maple, redwood, and Douglas fir. Ferns are common in the understory, and you might also see
wild rose, hazelnut, and huckleberry. The hiking-only trail curves right
and runs along an arm of Alpine Lake. After about 300 feet the trail forks. Stay to the right, and head uphill (a small trail sign is attached to
a tree). Initially the elevation changes are minor. Cataract Trail crosses
a bridge and then ascends a little, on some steps, the first of many sets
on the trail. Where the creek meets the lake the canyon opens up and the
falls make their first appearance. A sign reminds visitors that the creek
feeds into domestic water supply -- keep your dogs (and feet) out of the
water. As the trail rises through the woods, look for nutmeg trees mixed
through Douglas fir, tanoak, California bay, and canyon live oak. The
climb begins, and although the trail utilizes some switchbacks, it's still
steep going. At about 0.5 mile you'll reach a bridge crossing the creek.
A massive boulder guards a pool and falls. Helen Markt Trail departs
a few feet uphill, from a signed junction. Continue uphill to the right,
on Cataract Trail.
A fallen tree, notched for purchase, has
well-worn handholds to assist in navigation. There's one short steep scramble
over a rocky shoot, and then the trail levels out considerably. You'll
still be ascending, but at a much more gentle rate, through a forest of
redwood, Douglas fir, tanoak, California bay, and bigleaf maple. The creek
moves quietly downstream on the right. More steps (one set now thankfully
fortified with fencing) creep around huge, moss-coated rocks. A group
of buckeyes huddle near the creek, heralding a slight shift in trailside
vegetation. You might notice madrone, canyon live oak, and creambush mixed
through the forest, and on the left side of the trail the understory is
grassy. A rerouted segment of steps and switchbacks is a welcome upgrade
from a particularly slippery and rocky section of trail. Cataract Trail
approaches its last significant waterfall, a cascade sliding down tremendous
sloping boulders. There are steps leading to the creekside on the right.
On a December hike I watched a huge pileated woodpecker shyly flitting
from tree to tree along the trail; on a later hike I saw both brown creepers
and a varied thrush here. The base of the waterfall, at about 1.3
miles, is a good spot to rest before returning to the trailhead.
If you're not sure of your location, the signed junction with High Marsh
Trail is less than 0.1 mile further up the trail. You could continue out
and back to Laurel Dell, about 0.4 mile uphill. When you're ready, retrace
your steps to the trailhead.
Total distance: about 2.6 miles
Last hiked: Monday, December 2, 2002