About Carson Falls
Carson Falls is another series of waterfalls (though not as extensive a series as the nearby Cataract Falls).
Because it sits near the top of the drainage around Pine Mountain and Oat Hill (part of the Mt Tamalpais drainage), I suspect this waterfall has a short season.
Both times I’ve been to this waterfall, I made my visits in the Spring of heavy rainfall years (April 2010 and April 2019 to be exact).
During each of those visits, I managed to see decent flow, but not as much as I had seen in the literature (like on our Ann Marie Brown book).
As for the falls itself, there’s a topmost tier, which consists of two minor plunges (I’m guessing about 20-30ft in total height for this section). I happened to see some blooming larkspur flowers fronting this section of the waterfall.
Below that section, the falls then descends down an attractive 20-30ft drop before going down a few more cascades, and then finally a dramatic 40-50ft drop into a shadowy, well-forested cove.
Beyond this falls, stream continues cascading down minor drops and rapids, but they’re not photogenic. I actually did hike to the very bottom and didn’t find it particularly worth it except that it was quite peaceful and naturesque down there.
Hiking from Azalea Hill Trailhead to Oat Hill Road
The 3.5-mile hike begins at a parking area right across the Fairfax-Bolinas Road from the gated Pine Mountain Fire Road. I believe this was called the Azalea Hill Trailhead.
After crossing the Fairfax-Bolinas Road, I then went past the gate and hiked on the Pine Mountain Road, which was totally exposed to the sun.
This initial climb was hot and pretty relentless as it ascended up a minor hill, then dropped briefly before making a longer climb up to the summit of the Pine Mountain Road near some power lines.
It was along this stretch of the trail that I was treated to nice views of the northern San Francisco Bay, the Richmond Bridge, a country club near the town of Fairfax below, and even a view of Alpine Lake when I looked towards the southwest.
Given the width of Pine Mountain Road, I noticed there were also mountain bikers sharing this road. It was slow going for them going uphill.
However, when they were going downhill, a few of them screamed by me as they were gunning it down the road from its apex near the phone lines. I generally stayed to the sides of the road to avoid a collision.
Hiking from Oat Hill Road to Carson Falls
Beyond the apex of Pine Mountain Road, there was a signed junction with Oat Hill Road.
I took the Oat Hill Road on the left (another fire road) downhill towards the next signed junction with the Carson Falls trail itself.
This was actually the new Carson Falls trail thanks to some public funding that went into the trail restoration project that completed some time in 2009.
Thus, the old trail, which more closely followed the telephone lines down to the falls, was closed during my visit.
The Carson Falls trail continued to descend passing briefly through a small grove of trees as well as descending a handful of switchbacks before being exposed to the open sun again.
After another brief stint through the shade of trees, I then found myself right at the uppermost of the Carson Falls series.
There was an easy-to-miss trail that continued over a bridge above the top of the falls then curled around towards two more overlooks showcasing the next tiers of the Carson Falls.
The trail kept descending beyond the last viewing spots for Carson Falls, but it turned out that it wasn’t necessary to proceed further since the falls was my goal of the hike.
I wasn’t sure where that trail kept going, but it moved away from the falls the further it down it went.
And the whole time I descended, I had to keep in mind that all that I had to regain all that elevation back on the return.
Overall, I wound up spending about 2.5 hours on this 3.5-mile out-and-back hike.
Carson Falls resides in the Mt Tamalpais Watershed in Marin County. For information or inquiries about the park as well as current conditions, visit their website.
Since we came from Cataract Falls to get to the car park for Carson Falls, we can say that the trailhead is on the Fairfax-Bolinas Road a little over 4 miles east of the trailhead for Cataract Falls or about 5 miles west on the Bolinas Road from Fairfax.
Even though the trailhead we discussed on this page is for the Azalea Hill Trailhead and is unsigned for the falls, it’s a pretty large car park and it’s near the apex of the Bolinas Road.
I’ve noticed that there are some other trailheads that may be shorter than the one described on this page to reach Carson Falls. However, I haven’t done those so I can’t say more about them.
As for a more complete directions write-up, I’ll describe how I managed to do this drive San Francisco.
From San Francisco, the most direct approach would be to head north on the Golden Gate Bridge (US101) for about 9 miles or so to the exit 450B for Sir Francis Drake Blvd. Then, follow Sir Francis Drake Blvd for about 4 miles to Pacheco Ave on the left.
Pacheco Ave then quickly intersects with Broadway Blvd / Center Blvd. Turn right onto Broadway Blvd, and follow this street to the three-way stop at Bolinas Rd in 500ft, then turn left onto Bolinas Rd.
Then, I followed Bolinas Road to the aforementioned Azalea Hill Trailhead (for Carson Falls) after 5 miles on the narrow and twisty Bolinas Road.
Overall, this drive took me a little less than an hour with free-flowing traffic. It might take longer depending on traffic.
For geographical context, San Francisco is 24 miles (about 45-60 minutes drive) south of Stinson Beach, 11 miles (over 30 minutes drive) west of Oakland, 55 miles (over an hour drive) north of San Jose, 52 miles (about 90 minutes drive) south of Napa, 96 miles (over 2 hours drive) south of Sacramento, and 382 miles (6 hours drive) north of Los Angeles.
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