Cataract Falls Hike at Mount Tamalpais
The dog-friendly, six-mile Cataract Falls hike near Mount Tamalpais is a waterfall wonderland. This is a stair-stepping, butt-busting challenging trail that rewards visitors with over 2-miles of waterfalls.
The trail follows Cataract Creek as it cascades down Mount Tamalpais and flows into Alpine Lake. The Cataract Falls hike in Marin is a pleasant hike year-round, but its full beauty unfurls in the wet months. In winter and spring the ferns are lush, trees are fuzzy with moss, the waterfalls gush, and wildflowers are abundant. As the year progresses the Maple trees glow with autumn hues but the waterfalls are dry.
Two Options for Hiking Cataract Falls
The Cataract Falls hike is an out-and-back hike that can be done in either direction. Hikers can begin the trek at the Rock Spring Trailhead (off of Pan Toll Road) and walk down to the waterfalls. Or hikers can start at the trailhead on Bolinas Fairfax Road, just west of Alpine Dam and start their hike walking uphill to the waterfalls. Most hikers who start the hike at the Bolinas Fairfax Road trailhead only do a portion of the trail, and end up turning around before reaching the Rock Spring Trailhead.
Rock Spring Trailhead
I recommend beginning your hike at the Rock Spring Trailhead (where Pan Toll Road intersects with Ridgecrest Blvd.) because there is a parking lot and there’s less of a scene on this side of the trail. The other benefit of starting at the Rock Spring trailhead is that it allows for a nice gradual warm-up walking through rolling meadows and along babbling streams before tackling the steep downhill and uphill climbs along the waterfalls.
This trail guide begins at Rock Spring Trailhead. If you choose to begin your hike from the other direction, be sure to pull off the road when parking on Bolinas Fairfax Road. Cars blocking the roadway often get ticketed. Plan some extra time to walk along the road to get to the trailhead if you attempt this hike from Bolinas Fairfax Road on a weekend.
When to Hike Cataract Falls
If you want to see the waterfalls plan to hike this trail in the Winter or Spring months. The waterfalls are dependent on rail and they go dry in the summer and fall months. This popular trail can get extremely busy on the weekends. If you are hiking on the weekend, try to start your hike early in the morning (before 9am) or late in the afternoon (after 2pm) if you want to experience this hike with less crowds.
What to Bring on the Hike
This trail can get very slippery in the winter months and parts of the trail can be muddy. Wear shoes with good traction and consider bringing hiking poles for extra stability. Bring water, snacks, and plenty of layers. Most of the hike is in the shade and the temperatures can get pretty chilly. Bring a bag for your trash so you can leave nothing behind- yes, even orange and banana peels are trash that should be hiked out with you.
Cataract Falls Hike from Rock Spring Trailhead
From the Rock Spring Trailhead parking lot look for the trail marker for Cataract Falls Trail. The trail begins in a small meadow, when you reach the trail junction near the water tower stay to the left to continue on the Cataract Falls trail. The trail continues through the meadow before leading into the trees. You’ll cross a series of bridges as the trail criss-crosses the creek and winds through the trees before arriving at the Laurel Dell Picnic Area.
There is a vault toilet at the far end of Laurel Dell. Pass through the picnic area and follow the trail as it begins its descent into the canyon. The Cataract Falls hiking trail becomes narrow and much of the lower half of the trail is made of steep stairs that can be slippery in wet months. There will be a few trail junctions, but if you stay to the left at each junction and follow the signs you’ll have no problem staying on the trail.
There are several viewpoints along the trail to enjoy the waterfalls. If there’s a crowd at the viewpoint as you’re heading downhill, don’t worry because you’ll get another chance to enjoy the view on your return climb.
The trail comes to an end shortly after passing Alpine Lake. When you reach the end of the trail, turn around and retrace your steps. As you ascend over 700 feet in less than 1.5 miles you may be surprised at how suddenly this “easy” walk turns into a challenging hike. You’ll be glad that you didn’t start with this climb!
Begin your hike at the Rock Spring Trailhead and follow the Cataract Falls trail until it dead-ends at Fairfax-Bolinas Road. Then, retrace your steps and climb back up the mountain.
Follow the Cataract Falls trail out and back. The first half of the hike is all downhill, but remember what you go down you must go back up! The Marin Municipal Water District’s website has a map of all of the trails in the area.
- Parking: The Rock Spring parking lot can fill-up quickly on weekends. It is best to get to the trail early.
- Fee: No fee
- Restrooms: Port-a-potties are available on both ends of the trailhead and pit toilets are located in Laurel Dell Picnic Area, about 1-mile from the Rock Springs trailhead.
- Hours: Open from 7am to sunset
Like all outdoor pursuits, hiking can be dangerous. It is up to you to assess your fitness level and education yourself about any potential dangers. While I try to regularly update these hiking guides, you should always research trail conditions before heading out.
Being prepared means arriving at the trailhead with water and some basic provisions. Each and every time I hit the trail I bring a backpack with more water than I think I need, a small first aid kit, and a snack. I also share my itinerary and plans with friends or family and I carry an InReach so I can summon help if needed. If you want to know what I carry in my pack during day hikes check out my blog post about essential gear for day hikers.
Stay safe, enjoy the trail, and soak up the magic of nature!
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