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

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 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!”

Cataract_Falls_095_04092010 - Closeup look at one of the uppermost tiers of the Cataract Falls as seen on our first visit back in April 2010
Closeup look at one of the uppermost tiers of the Cataract Falls as seen on our first visit back in April 2010

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.

Cataract_Falls_027_04212019 - Looking across Alpine Lake, which was where I started and ended the hike up along the Cataract Falls using the Laurell Dell Picnic Area as the turnaround point
Looking across Alpine Lake, which was where I started and ended the hike up along the Cataract Falls using the Laurell Dell Picnic Area as the turnaround 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.

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

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.

Cataract_Falls_015_04212019 - The Cataract Creek Trail skirting alongside the headwaters of the man-made Alpine Lake
The Cataract Creek Trail skirting alongside the headwaters of the man-made Alpine Lake

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.

Cataract_Falls_083_04212019 - Looking back down at the footbridge spanning the Cataract Creek with some cascades of Cataract Falls tumbling around the trail
Looking back down at the footbridge spanning the Cataract Creek with some cascades of Cataract Falls tumbling around the trail

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, which someone called the Helen Markt Falls
This waterfall was just upstream from the footbridge over Cataract Creek, which someone called the Helen Markt Falls

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.

Cataract_Falls_117_04212019 - Looking across the top of a sloping waterfall fed by a smaller and thinner temporary waterfall as seen along the Cataract Creek Trail
Looking across the top of a sloping waterfall fed by a smaller and thinner temporary waterfall as seen along the Cataract Creek Trail

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.

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

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.

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

Authorities

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.

Cataract_Falls_002_04212019 - Looking back across the familiar hairpin turn at the Cataract Creek Trailhead where you can see it pays to get an early start, even as of my latest visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_004_04212019 - Starting on the hike to the Cataract Falls from the Cataract Creek Trailhead during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_014_04212019 - Looking towards the serene (but man-made) Alpine Lake as seen from the Cataract Falls Trail during the start of my April 2019 hike to the Cataract Falls
Cataract_Falls_019_04212019 - The Cataract Creek Trail skirting alongside Alpine Lake as seen during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_020_04212019 - Continuing towards the head of Alpine Lake along the Cataract Creek Trail during my hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_032_04212019 - Looking back down at the head of Alpine Lake as the Cataract Creek Trail started to climb in pursuit of the Cataract Falls during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_035_04212019 - The Cataract Creek Trail starting to ascend alongside some of the waterfalls on Cataract Creek as seen early on in my hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_040_04212019 - The Cataract Creek Trail ascending alongside the first of the Cataract Falls as seen during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_041_04212019 - Looking towards the bottom of the first of the significant Cataract Falls during my hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_047_04212019 - Looking down across the bottom of the first of the significant Cataract Falls during my climb higher on the Cataract Creek Trail in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_051_04212019 - Ascending on the steep Cataract Creek Trail as it continued to climb above the first of the significant waterfalls on Cataract Creek as seen during my hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_056_04212019 - Looking across at a pair of converging segments towards the top of the first of the Cataract Falls as seen along the Cataract Creek Trail during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_057_04212019 - Continuing the ascent on the Cataract Creek Trail early on in my April 2019 hike
Cataract_Falls_069_04212019 - This was the probably the second or third significant waterfall on Cataract Creek that I noticed during my Cataract Creek hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_070_04212019 - The relentless ascent up the Cataract Creek Trail continued beyond the second or third of the significant Cataract Falls as seen during my hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_075_04212019 - Approaching a footbridge over Cataract Creek on the hike to the Cataract Falls from the Cataract Creek Trailhead during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_081_04212019 - Looking along the footbridge spanning Cataract Creek during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_085_04212019 - Looking upstream from the footbridge over Cataract Creek towards the so-called Helen Markt Falls as seen during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_100_04212019 - Looking back at the trail as it climbed higher than the Helen Markt Falls during my Cataract Creek hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_101_04212019 - Continuing to climb alongside more cascades above the Helen Markt Falls along Cataract Creek during my hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_104_04212019 - Context of the Cataract Creek Trail as it continued to skirt Cataract Creek while ascending past more waterfalls as seen during my visit in April 2019
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 as seen during my April 2019 visit
Cataract_Falls_112_04212019 - I spotted this salamander along the Cataract Creek Trail during my early morning hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_113_04212019 - I also spotted this interesting snail on a rock by the Cataract Creek Trail during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_115_04212019 - The Cataract Creek Trail continuing to climb higher as it ascended alongside more waterfalls during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_116_04212019 - Context of more waterfalls on Cataract Creek with the trail still keeping to the left alongside it during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_120_04212019 - Another one of the Cataract Creek waterfalls that I did a short detour to see during my April 2019 hike
Cataract_Falls_128_04212019 - The Cataract Creek Trail continuing its climb higher up alongside Cataract Creek as seen during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_131_04212019 - Looking across another tier of Cataract Creek during my morning hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_134_04212019 - The Cataract Creek Trail continuing to climb up switchbacks on the way up to the Laurel Dell during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_135_04212019 - Just to give you an idea of how much more climbing I had to do in this stretch of the Cataract Creek, here's a look back towards Cataract Creek and the many steps and switchbacks alongside it as seen during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_139_04212019 - Descending a short spur trail leading to the bottom of the next series of cascades on Cataract Creek (which I think I called the sixth or seventh, I lost count by this point) as seen during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_145_04212019 - A more distant look at that last Cataract Falls in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_154_04212019 - Beyond the last of the Cataract Falls, the trail continued to climb higher in the forest before eventually reaching the Laurel Dell Picnic Area as seen during my visit in April 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 during my April 2019 visit
Cataract_Falls_172_04212019 - Now that I headed back down the Cataract Creek Trail I got to see the same Cataract Falls again during my April 2019 hike
Cataract_Falls_184_04212019 - Another look upstream at the context of the last pair of Cataract Falls with some hikers continuing higher up during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_190_04212019 - During my return hike along Cataract Falls, I made a quick detour to see this attractive waterfall during my return hike in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_194_04212019 - Looking back at the context of more hikers making their way further upstream alongside Cataract Creek as I was making my way back down during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_197_04212019 - Continuing the Cataract Creek Trail in context with Cataract Creek during my descent back to the trailhead in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_199_04212019 - Looking back at the context of more hikers on the Cataract Falls Trail ascending above the Helen Markt Falls as I was making my return to the trailhead in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_206_04212019 - By this time in the morning of my return hike from the Cataract Falls, the sun was starting to penetrate and strike parts of the head of Alpine Lake during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_214_04212019 - Context of the Cataract Creek Trail alongside Alpine Lake with the morning sun striking the area during my visit in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_219_04212019 - Continuing to skirt by the head of Alpine Lake on the return hike to the trailhead in April 2019
Cataract_Falls_223_04212019 - Finally back at the Cataract Falls Trailhead, where all the parking spaces were taken up by the time I ended my April 2019 visit
Cataract_Falls_002_04092010 - About to start on the Cataract Falls Trail in April 2010, which you can see that it begins by skirting Alpine Lake. I noticed that the signage seemed to be brighter and more pronounced back then as compared to my April 2019 visit
Cataract_Falls_008_04092010 - The Cataract Creek Trail skirting Alpine Lake during our April 2010 visit
Cataract_Falls_009_04092010 - Julie on the steep climb of the Cataract Creek Trail as seen during our visit in April 2010
Cataract_Falls_018_04092010 - The first major cascade or Cataract Falls that we saw on the way up in April 2010
Cataract_Falls_028_04092010 - Another look at one of the lower cascades of Cataract Falls during our April 2010 hike
Cataract_Falls_037_04092010 - Another notable cascade higher up on the Cataract Creek Trail as seen in April 2010
Cataract_Falls_042_04092010 - Looking towards a converging pair of segments on Cataract Creek as we continued hiking higher on the Cataract Creek Trail during our April 2010 hike
Cataract_Falls_044_04092010 - Looking towards the next series of Cataract Falls higher up on the Cataract Creek Trail during our visit in April 2010
Cataract_Falls_053_04092010 - After the lower set of cascades on Cataract Creek, the trail crossed over the creek via this bridge as seen during our April 2010 visit
Cataract_Falls_057_04092010 - This cascade called the Helen Markt Falls was directly upstream from the bridge over Cataract Creek as seen duringo ur April 2010 hike
Cataract_Falls_062_04092010 - Julie on the Cataract Creek Trail as it continued to climb alongside cascades during our April 2010 visit
Cataract_Falls_071_04092010 - We took a short detour to see this attractive cascade on Cataract Creek during our April 2010 hike
Cataract_Falls_083_04092010 - Yet another cascade on Cataract Creek along the trail during our April 2010 visit
Cataract_Falls_084_04092010 - This cascade was near the grand finale of the Cataract Creek Trail during our April 2010 visit
Cataract_Falls_107_04092010 - This Cataract Falls cascade was what we determined was the grand finale during our April 2010 hike though we were fighting the morning sun at the time
Cataract_Falls_115_04092010 - We saw what looked like redwood-like trees along the Cataract Creek Trail during our April 2010 visit

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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.

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

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.

Cataract_Falls_001_04212019 - Contextual look from the top of the hairpin turn at the parking situation for the Cataract Creek Trailhead
Contextual look from the top of the hairpin turn at the parking situation for the Cataract Creek Trailhead

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.

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


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


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


Bottom up sweep of what I called the rivuleted cascade


Bottom up sweep of the attractive cascade seen a short ways above the bridge over Cataract Creek


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

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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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