Cataract Falls and Potrero Meadows Loop,
Mount Tamalpais (Marin Municipal Water District),
Marin County

In brief:
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 meadows.

Distance, category, and difficulty:
6.5 mile moderate loop

Exposure:
Back and forth through shade and sun.

Trail traffic:
Moderate on Cataract Trail, otherwise .light

Trail surfaces:
Dirt fire roads and trails

Hiking time:
4 hours (includes lunch break)

Season:
Good any time; trails are muddy in winter

Getting there:
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:
http://www.transitandtrails.org/trailheads/86

GPS Coordinates* for Trailhead:
Latitude 3754'39.12"N
Longitude
12236'45.90"W
(* 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.

Trailhead details:
No fee. Pit toilets at the trailhead and at Laurel Dell.

Rules:
Dogs are permitted on leash only and are not allowed in the adjacent state park.

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

Map Choices:
 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.
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).
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-Potrero Meadows loop in a nutshell -- a printable, text-only guide to the featured hike (coming soon).




Go to Bay Area Hiker Home page

One of Mount Tamalpais' most compelling assets is its broad variety of possible hikes. TrailheadLike 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 Cataract.
     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. Cataract TrailHuge 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.Falls
     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. High Marsh Trail
     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. 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. Kent Trail
     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 extend 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). Benstein TrailOnce 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.
     Look for 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. Turn right.
     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. Simmons Trail
     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