This loop is a tour de force of the mountain's magic: you'll experience
dense forests, aromatic chaparral, rushing creeks, waterfalls, and flower-dotted
Distance, category, and difficulty:
6.5 mile moderate loop
Back and forth through shade and sun.
Moderate on Cataract Trail, otherwise .light
Dirt fire roads and trails
4 hours (includes lunch break)
Good any time; trails are muddy in winter
From US 101 in Marin County, exit #445b CA 1/Mill Valley/Stinson Beach
and drive on Shoreline Highway to the junction with Almonte (look for
the CA 1 sign), about 1 mile. Turn left, continuing on Shoreline, and
drive about 2.5 miles to the junction with Panoramic Highway. Turn right
on Panoramic and drive about 5.5 miles to the junction with Pantoll Road.
Turn right onto Pantoll and drive another 1.5 miles to the Rock Spring
Trailhead, which is at the junction of East and West Ridgecrests.
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:
Restaurant, and stores either west at Stinson Beach or east at Mill Valley.
Gas in Mill Valley. The only camping option in the immediate area is the
Pantoll campground, a walk-in site just off the parking lot at Pantoll.
No fee. Pit toilets at the trailhead and at Laurel Dell.
Dogs are permitted on leash only and are not allowed in the adjacent state
The Official Story:
Sky Oaks Ranger Station:
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).
Mount Tam Trail Map, published by Tom Harrison Maps (order
from Tom Harrison Maps). Comparable to the Olmsted map.
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.
Tamalpais Trails, by Barry Spitz
(order this book from Amazon.com), has a simple map and good descriptions
of Cataract Trail.
101 Great Hikes of the San Francisco Bay Area, by
Ann Marie Brown (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and descriptions of a
Ann Marie Brown's California Waterfalls (order
this book from Amazon.com) has a simple map and trail descriptions.
Don and Kay Martin's Hiking Marin has a useful map and descriptions
of this trail (order
this book from Amazon.com).
Cataract Falls-Potrero Meadows loop in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only
guide to the featured hike (coming soon).
One of Mount Tamalpais's
most compelling assets
is its broad variety of possible hikes. Like a San Francisco burrito,
you can have your hike hot or mild, small or grande, just with rice and
beans, or with "the works." This 6.5 mile loop is one the mountain's wildest,
with only two short segments on fire roads, and the rest on narrow and
rocky hiking-only trails.
In the past few years, Marin Municipal Water
District mothballed some of Tam's oldest northside trails by removing
their signage and ceasing trail maintenance. Many of these well-worn paths
followed too close to creekbeds, were badly eroded, and/or steeply routed,
but were scenic and lonely. The hike described here sticks to sanctioned
well-signed trails, but a detailed Tam map is still highly recommended.
Begin at the meadow just off the Rock Spring
parking lot. Here Cataract Trail begins a long journey from Tam's
high ridges down to the shores of Alpine Lake. Follow Cataract Trail
0.1 mile to a junction with Simmons Trail, and continue to the left on
At a slight
descent, the narrow trail skirts a grassy meadow where patches of blue
and white lupine are common in spring, and begins to follow its namesake
creek, here just a trickle. Huge Douglas firs line the trail and creek,
mixed through huckleberry, tanoak, California bay, and madrone. The trail
was rerouted a few years back and the old segments are occasionally visible
on the opposite bank, but the trail only crosses Cataract Creek on a series
of small footbridges -- if you're stymied, look for a bridge; don't cross
the creek without one. Although the grade is easy, the trail is quite
rocky in places, and some big boulders loom on the sides of the trail.
Where Cataract Trail steps out into grassland, we saw gorgeous orange
leopard lilies near the creekbed on a July 4th weekend, and hundreds of
swallowtail and California sister butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies
drifted lazily over the meadow. Back in the woods on this same hike a
powerfully sweet smell
lead our noses to an azalea bush in full bloom right at the trail's edge.
As Catract Trail continues downhill into a canyon, the tree cover becomes
thicker and the creek swells with water feeding in from side streams.
Once on a February hike here I saw a giant salamander eating a mouse!
At 0.8 mile, a signed connector path crosses the creek toward Laurel
Dell Fire Road. Continue straight on Cataract Trail.
This is a good stretch to look for little pink
Calypso orchids in late winter. Micky O'Brien Trail departs on the
right at 1.1 miles, but stick to the left on Cataract Trail as it continues
to Laurel Dell.
The trail passes some pit toilets and reaches
a junction with Laurel Dell Fire Road at 1.2 miles. Cross the fire
road and remain on Cataract Trail.
Once past a few picnic tables, the trail begins
to descend again along the right bank of Cascade Creek. In winter and
early spring the water flows swiftly, and you'll pass the first cascade.
Maples mix through the California bay and Douglas fir in the forest, where
birdwatching is often sublime. On one winter hike I caught the orange
flash of a varied thrush flitting through the woods, and watched a brown
creeper earn its name -- this little brown bird
scrambles up tree trunks, looking for insects. At 1.4 miles, Cataract
Trail meets High Marsh Trail at a signed junction. Continue on Cataract
downhill a short distance to the waterfall viewpoint.
After winter storms water crashes down over huge
boulders here -- this is one of the most scenic waterfalls in the bay
area. The trail (and creek) continue steeply downhill toward Alpine Lake,
but for this hike, retrace your steps back uphill, and turn left onto
High Marsh Trail.
The trail descends through woods away from Cataract
Creek, then begins to contour across steeply sloped Bare Knoll. As the
name suggests, the open sunny knob is grassy, with only a few Douglas
firs here and there. Views north are the best you'll get on High Marsh
Trail, which from here on is mostly wooded, and passes through no other
grassland. Pass Bare Knoll Trail, heading uphill toward Laurel
Dell Fire Road at 1.7 miles, and as High Marsh Trail prepares to head
back into the woods, look on the left side of the trail for canyon live
oaks. These evergreen trees
are easy to pick out -- their glossy oval leaves are dusted with gold
on their undersides. Once under tree cover again, High Marsh Trail begins
a campaign of rolling ups and downs, with some level interludes. From
time to time the trail crests and steps out into sunny chaparral dominated
by manzanita, but the majority of time you'll be hiking beneath California
bay, madrone, tanoak, and Douglas fir. At around the 3 mile mark, unsigned
Music Stand Trail heads uphill on the right. Continue straight on signed
High Marsh Trail.
As the trail drops into a canyon surrounding
Swede George Creek look for iris in May. This part of High Marsh Trail
is moist and almost completely shaded -- it can be chilly here in winter
but in the summer you'll be glad for the shelter. High Marsh Trail steps
across the creek (transformed into a waterfall in winter) and at 3.3 miles,
you'll reach a two part junction with Swede George Trail (also known as
Willow Trail). The first leg of Swede
George Trail is unsigned and doubles back to the right, then climbs along
the creek. To the left Swede George and High Marsh run together briefly,
then Swede George departs to the left (the High Marsh part of this junction
is now signed). Continue on High Marsh.
The trail begins to climb at this point, then
levels out -- High Marsh, on the left, is a tiny pond ringed with cattails,
coyote brush, and Douglas fir. In winter the trail becomes a bit swamped
here, but by summer the trail (and sometimes the marsh) is dry. Cross
Country Boys Trail departs to the right at the edge of the marsh, at 3.4
miles. Continue straight.
The trail heads back into the woods. At 3.5 miles
you'll reach a junction with Kent Trail. Turn right and begin a
moderate climb alternating between quiet dark woods and patches of chaparral.
This narrow path is very rocky in stretches.
Kent Trail meets Cross Country Trail at 4.1 miles -- continue straight.
We encountered a coiled and rattling rattlesnake
here on a summer hike. Since it showed no interest in moving, we took
a wide path around it. Kent Trail emerges from the woods and passes through
a big patch of manzanita dotted with towering Douglas fir. Here the views
far to the north. As the trail continues uphill, bunch grasses line the
way in places. At 4.5 miles, Kent Trail ends at the Potrero Meadows picnic
area, on the right. In hot weather the shaded tables make perfect lunch
stops. Another option is Potrero Meadows proper: turn left and at a
level grade, pass along the edge of a small flat grassy spot (this
is the lesser of the two meadows). Once through a pocket of woods, the
trail emerges to a wide, open meadow. This oasis of grassland surrounded
by forest is one of Mount Tam's special places. On a winter weekday it
can be surprisingly lonely, but in the thick of spring you'll likely see
plenty of people in and around the meadow. The area's name may annoy grammar
sticklers; it's redundant, since potrero means meadow in Spanish. Little
carpets of flowers brighten the grass in May, when you might see buttercups,
goldenfields, California poppy, and linanthus in bloom. When ready, retrace
your steps back to the picnic area, then turn left onto a wide unsigned
dirt service road.
azaleas in bloom on the left here in early summer, as the road climbs
briefly then ends at a T junction with Laurel Dell Fire Road. Turn
left and walk about 50 yards to the signed junction with Benstein Trail.
The trail begins to climb. The initial section
is very rocky, and can be slippery when wet. Nestled in the woods is a
little chaparral pocket of Sargent cypress and manzanita. But as Benstein
Trail ascends, it becomes enveloped by a very dense forest of tanoak,
chinquapin, Douglas fir, and madrone -- so thick that there is little
understory vegetation. The going is steep, but the trail soon levels out
a bit, to the left of a manzanita thicket. At 5.5 miles Benstein feeds
into Lagunitas-Rock Spring Fire Road. Go with the flow to the right
briefly, then abandon the fire road for the path as Benstein veers off
to the right.
This well-cared-for segment of trail is delightful.
At an easy descent, Benstein drifts downhill through madrone, Douglas
fir, and live oaks. Some switchbacks drop the trail away from a fragile
serpentine meadow. Milkmaids, shooting stars, and hound's tongue are common
late winter flowers along the trail. You may hear Ziesche Creek rushing
in winter; you'll cross two tiny streams that head downhill to the bigger
creek. At 6.0 miles a signed path heads left toward Ridgecrest Boulevard. Bear
right, remaining on Benstein.
The descent through madrones is still easy. Look
left for a peek at a huge serpentine swale, a conspicuous greenish blue
swath of rock in a sloping grassy meadow. Benstein Trail ends at 6.3 miles.
Turn left onto Simmons Trail, which sweeps across a meadow back
toward Rock Spring.
At 6.4 miles, turn left onto Cataract Trail,
and retrace your steps back to the trailhead.
Total distance: July 3, 2006
Last hiked: 6.5 miles
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