Cataract Falls

Mt Tamalpais, California, USA

About Cataract Falls


Hiking Distance: 3.2 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 2-2.5 hours

Date first visited: 2010-04-09
Date last visited: 2019-04-21

Waterfall Latitude: 37.92426
Waterfall Longitude: -122.62944

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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.

Cataract_Falls_066_04212019 - One of many waterfalls and cascades comprising Cataract Falls
One of many waterfalls and cascades comprising Cataract Falls

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 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) and 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.

Cataract_Falls_156_04212019 - The Laurell Dell Picnic Area at the top of the Cataract Falls hike
The Laurell Dell Picnic Area at the top of the Cataract Falls hike

However, I was aware that it might have been possible to take a longer trail to Laurell Dell from a different starting point, then do an 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. 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

Cataract_Falls_027_04212019 - Looking across Alpine Lake on the Cataract Falls Trail
Looking across Alpine Lake on the Cataract Falls Trail

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.

Cataract_Falls_047_04212019 - One of the cluster of cascades and waterfalls on Cataract Creek on the initial steep climb
One of the cluster of cascades and waterfalls on Cataract Creek on the initial steep climb

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.

Cataract_Falls_088_04212019 - This waterfall was just upstream from the footbridge over Cataract Creek
This waterfall was just upstream from the footbridge over 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.

Cataract_Falls_141_04212019 - Looking upstream at the 'sixth' and part of the 'seventh' cascade on Cataract Creek
Looking upstream at the ‘sixth’ and part of the ‘seventh’ cascade on 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.

Cataract_Falls_160_04212019 - Making it up to the Laurel Dell, which was my turnaround point of the hike
Making it up to the Laurel Dell, which was my turnaround point of the hike

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, but for all intents and purposes, this was my turnaround point of the hike.

Authorities

Cataract 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.

Cataract_Falls_002_04092010 - About to start on the Cataract Falls Trail, which you can see that it begins by skirting Alpine Lake
Cataract_Falls_014_04212019 - Looking towards the serene (but man-made) Alpine Lake as seen from the Cataract Falls Trail
Cataract_Falls_008_04092010 - The trail skirts Alpine Lake
Cataract_Falls_009_04092010 - Then it starts to climb
Cataract_Falls_018_04092010 - The first major cascade we saw on the way up
Cataract_Falls_041_04212019 - This was how the first cascade looked in 2019
Cataract_Falls_028_04092010 - One of the lower cascades
Cataract_Falls_037_04092010 - Another notable cascade higher up on the trail
Cataract_Falls_042_04092010 - Another one of Cataract Falls' cascades
Cataract_Falls_053_04092010 - After the lower set of cascades, the trail crosses over the creek via this bridge
Cataract_Falls_057_04092010 - This cascade was not far above the bridge
Cataract_Falls_062_04092010 - The trail continues to climb alongside cascades
Cataract_Falls_106_04212019 - For a while, the Cataract Creek Trail follows along the creek for nearly a half-mile without major waterfalls along the way
Cataract_Falls_112_04212019 - I spotted this salamander along the Cascade Creek Trail during my early morning hike
Cataract_Falls_113_04212019 - I also spotted this interesting snail on a rock by the Cascade Creek Trail
Cataract_Falls_071_04092010 - We took a short detour to see this attractive cascade
Cataract_Falls_120_04212019 - Another one of the Cataract Creek waterfalls that I did a short detour to see
Cataract_Falls_083_04092010 - Yet another cascade along the trail
Cataract_Falls_115_04092010 - We saw what looked like redwood-like trees along the trail
Cataract_Falls_084_04092010 - This cascade was near the grand finale
Cataract_Falls_107_04092010 - This Cataract Falls cascade was what we determined was the grand finale
Cataract_Falls_095_04092010 - For the last Cataract Falls, I used to be able to scramble to right in front of its foot
Cataract_Falls_145_04212019 - A more distant look at that last waterfall in 2019
Cataract_Falls_168_04212019 - I chilled out at the Laurel Dell Picnic Area to have a short picnic before returning the way I came alongside the Cataract Falls
Cataract_Falls_172_04212019 - Another look back at the last of the Cataract Falls on the way back down to the trailhead
Cataract_Falls_199_04212019 - There were many more hikers on the Cataract Falls Trail when I was making my return
Cataract_Falls_223_04212019 - Back at the Cataract Falls Trailhead, where all the parking spaces were taken up

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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.

Cataract_Falls_001_04092010 - Looking back towards the hairpin turn at the Cataract Creek Trailhead shortly before starting the hike to the Cataract Falls
Looking back towards the hairpin turn at the Cataract Creek Trailhead shortly before starting the hike to the Cataract Falls

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, follow Sir Francis Drake Blvd for about 4 miles to Pacheco Ave on the left.

Cataract_Falls_003_04212019 - Another look back at the hairpin turn at the Cataract Creek Trailhead, which can fill up pretty fast so you'd want to get an early start
Another look back at the hairpin turn at the Cataract Creek Trailhead, which can fill up pretty fast so you’d want to get an early start

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 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. 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.

Bottom up sweep of the uppermost section of the lowest of the grand cascades we saw on this hike


Slow bottom up sweep of a cascade we saw beneath the trail with a fallen log leaning against it


Bottom up sweep of the topmost cascade we saw on this hike


Long video showing the uppermost of the Cataract Falls just downstream of the Laurel Dell Picnic Area


Long movie of a side cascade that I had to leave the main trail to witness


Movie of the descent from the third Cataract Falls towards the one responsible for the first Cataract Falls

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