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 visit 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 (I counted 6, but Julie counted 9). Personally, I only counted the falls 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!”
The trail to see Cataract Falls pretty much followed Cataract Creek alongside the falls. Since we started from Alpine Lake, that meant it was all uphill to see the falls before coming back. However, it would have been an upside down hike had we started from Laurel Dell. Of course the ideal way to do this (assuming we had a pair of vehicles and some buddies to do this with) would be to do the entire hike as a one-way shuttle hike.
Considering the quantity of falls, we ended up spending a lot more time than we anticipated for such a relatively short hike distance-wise. Our GPS records show that we hiked 4.4 miles round trip, but that might be an overestimate due to lost satellite lock in some of the forest cover. 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.
As for the Cataract Falls themselves, I’d guess that each notable cascade was between say 15ft to maybe 70ft (keep in mind this was a total guess and just our gut feeling). I swear it was easy to double book some of the falls as some viewpoints were of the same cascade from a different vantage point. Then again, we thought we saw so many waterfalls on this excursion that we probably ended up being waterfall-saturated.
I’ve heard that the falls does have a fairly short season so you probably want to time a visit here for the late Winter and Spring months and not long after the last rain storm. Moreover, the rainfall of the current year must also be at least average or above average since we’ve had instances where there were dry Winters. In our situation, we showed up in 2010 (a heavy rainfall year) and we didn’t think it rained significantly for a few weeks (at least in our neck of the woods, it didn’t rain for a month). So the photos you see on this web page probably reflect something close to average waterflow.
To get to Cataract Falls, we drove up from Stinson Beach roughly 4 miles north on Hwy 1 (Shoreline Hwy) to the Fairfax-Bolinas Road on the right (it’s 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.
Note that had we been coming from Olema, we’d go south on Hwy 1 for about 9 miles until we would see the unsigned junction with Fairfax-Bolinas Road to our left. Then, we’d follow the Fairfax-Bolinas Road for about 10.6 miles to Alpine Lake where a hairpin turn would have the pullouts to park the car.
Alternately, we could have driven up Ridgecrest Road to the Laurel Dell Trailhead, but we didn’t do this. Personally, we prefer to go uphill first from Alpine Lake anyways as opposed to going downhill first and getting all that elevation back on the way back to Laurel Dell.
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