Cataract Falls,
Marin Municipal Water District,
Marin County
In brief:
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.

Exposure:
Almost totally shaded.

Trail traffic
:
Moderate.

Trail surfaces
:
Dirt trail with lots of steps.

Hiking time
:
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 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:
http://www.transitandtrails.org/trailheads/90

GPS coordinates* for trailhead:
Latitude 3756'12.26"N
Longitude
12238'16.53"W
(* 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 area.

Trailhead details:
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.

Rules:
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.
MMWD recreation page

Map Choices:
Trail map from MMWD (pdf)
 A variation 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).

Cataract Falls in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike.

View photos from this hike.



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Of all the waterfalls in Marin County, Cataract Falls is probably the most popular. Side of road parkingEven 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. Cataract Trail 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. Cataract TrailMy 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. Cataract Trail 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. Upper falls 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