About Cataract Falls
Cataract Falls is really a long series of waterfalls and rapids starting near the Laurel Dell and eventually spilling into the man-made Alpine Lake.
During our visits to the falls, there were so many of these cascades that I don’t have a whole lot of faith in my count as to how many there were in total.
Case in point, I counted 6, but Julie counted 9 on our first visit.
When I came back, several years later, I counted at least 7 or 8 of them.
Personally, I only counted the falls that I thought were big enough to be photo-worthy, but that was totally subjective.
In any case, things like this are best described by a former college roommate of mine who’d say with half annoyance and half indifference, “DETAILS!”
I’ve heard that this waterfall has a short season, but both of my visits have taken place in the month of April (in 2010 and in 2019) when Cataract Creek has had good flow each time.
Hiking Options for the Cataract Creek to Laurell Dell and back
The trail to see Cataract Falls pretty much followed Cataract Creek alongside each of the waterfalls.
Since we started from Alpine Lake, that meant it was all uphill to see the falls before coming back.
However, I was aware that it might have been possible to take a longer trail to Laurell Dell from a different starting point.
If true, then that would involve doing a longer upside down hike to Alpine Lake before returning back up to Laurel Dell and the alternate parking lot.
I’m only going to describe the approach from Alpine Lake to Laurell Dell and back since that was the only way we’ve experienced the Cataract Falls.
Thus, that made for a 3.2-mile out-and-back hike with a pause for a picnic at Laurell Dell Picnic Area.
Considering the quantity of falls, we ended up spending a lot more time than we anticipated for such a relatively short hike distance-wise.
In the literature, Ann Marie Brown has it at 3.2 miles round trip while I’ve seen another website report the distance at 2.6 miles return.
From my latest GPS logs on an April 2019 visit, I more apt to believe the 3.2 miles round trip number.
Cataract Creek Trail Description
Starting from hairpin turn at the Cataract Creek Trailhead (see directions below), the trail followed along the southern shores of the manmade Alpine Lake.
The trail continued towards the headwaters of Alpine Lake, where Cataract Creek fed into it.
This was about 0.4 miles into the hike.
At this point, the trail started to climb steeply as it passed by one cascade or waterfall after another.
In this breathtaking stretch (quite literally), I counted at least three significant cascades on Cataract Creek.
The climb eventually momentarily petered out at a footbridge traversing Cataract Creek.
Then, the trail started climbing some more.
Just upstream from the footbridge was a fourth waterfall that had a bit of a segmented appearance as it spilled into a plunge pool.
This was roughly 0.6 miles from the trailhead.
Beyond this “fourth” waterfall, the trail more or less gently climbed as it continued to follow along Cataract Creek.
The waterfall density was a bit less in this 0.4-mile stretch as the scenery shifted from the action of falling water to the more tranquil scene of Cataract Creek providing white noise broken by bird songs.
Then, the trail started climbing once again as it went past a couple of waterfalls that weren’t immediately visible from the trail.
However, I managed to scramble to them as one featured a small cascade plunging into a wide pool in an idyllic setting.
Another waterfall sloped and twisted with a thin temporary waterfall adding to its flow.
This particular one was near the start of a series of steps continuing the ascent higher along Cataract Creek.
After another 0.2 miles, the trail reached what I dubbed to be the sixth waterfall though it very well could have been the eighth one.
This one consisted of a small series of cascades, and it had a spur trail leading to its bottom.
However, this spur also allowed me to have a distant view of the last of the Cataract Falls in the distance as it sloped and provided a backdrop to the sixth cascade.
As the trail got closer to that last waterfall, trail closure signs prevented the frontal views of it that I used to get.
However, as I climbed higher on the Cataract Creek Trail, I could clearly see the sloping nature of that last waterfall.
As the trail continued to climb, it reached a junction with the High Marsh Trail.
And in another 0.2 miles of flat hiking along Cataract Creek, I finally reached the Laurell Dell Picnic Area.
This was the perfect spot for a picnic break as there were a handful of picnic tables all situated by the idyllic Cataract Creek.
Beyond Laurell Dell, there were more trail junctions leading to other destinations.
However, for all intents and purposes, this was my turnaround point of the hike.
Cataract Falls resides in the Mt Tamalpais Watershed near San Rafael in Marin County, California. It is administered by the Marin Municipal Water District. For information or inquiries about the park as well as current conditions, visit their website.
To get to Cataract Falls, we’ll describe two different approaches that we took.
From Stinson Beach to Cataract Falls Trailhead
The first time we did this hike, we drove up from Stinson Beach roughly 4 miles north on Hwy 1 (Shoreline Hwy) to the Fairfax-Bolinas Road on the right.
This turnoff is unsigned, but it’s right at the end of the Bolinas Lagoon opposite the Olema-Bolinas Road.
Then, we drove on the twisty Fairfax-Bolinas Road for a little over 10 miles going uphill into a redwood grove before descending towards Alpine Lake.
As we descended towards Alpine Lake, there was a hairpin turn with lots of pullouts and a sign with litter/recycle bins marking the trailhead.
We managed to park our car in this pullout space which should have room for about a dozen cars.
This 11-mile drive took us about 45-60 minutes.
From San Francisco to Cataract Falls Trailhead via Fairfax
The second time I did this hike, I took the approach from Fairfax and followed the Bolinas Road for about 8 miles to the Cataract Creek Trailhead at the same hairpin turn.
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, I’d 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.
Turning right onto Broadway Blvd, I’d 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 Cataract Creek Trailhead after 8 miles on the narrow and twisty Bolinas Road.
Overall, this drive took me about an hour with free-flowing traffic, but 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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