Stairstep Falls

Olema / Fairfax / Samuel P. Taylor State Park, California, USA

About Stairstep Falls


Hiking Distance: 2.4 miles round trip
Suggested Time: about 90 minutes

Date first visited: 2019-04-18
Date last visited: 2019-04-18

Waterfall Latitude: 38.03510
Waterfall Longitude: -122.72178

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Stairstep Falls was one waterfall near the San Francisco Bay Area that had eluded us over the years for one reason or another.

Part of the reason why it was so elusive over the years despite it being easily accessible was that the waterfall trail had been closed since August 2014!

Stairstep_Falls_071_04182019 - Stairstep Falls in low flow and fronted by lots of deadfalls
Stairstep Falls in low flow and fronted by lots of deadfalls

Nevertheless, the trail sat within the Samuel P. Taylor State Park so one would think that it would typically get some maintenance from the state park fees.

In fact, the trail to Stairstep Falls also allowed me to witness some wildflowers within the Devil’s Gulch as well as one tall coastal redwood tree.

In any case, I’ve personally found this to be one of the more obscure waterfalls of Marin County.

That’s because most people in these parts tended to spend their time either in Point Reyes National Seashore just minutes further to the west or the larger, more well-known waterfalls in the Tamalpais Watershed.

Stairstep_Falls_119_04182019 - The giant coastal redwood tree seen during the hike to Stairstep Falls
The giant coastal redwood tree seen during the hike to Stairstep Falls

The end result of all this doubt surrounding Stairstep Falls was one of the most tranquil waterfalling experiences that I got to enjoy in this part of the Greater Bay Area.

The only catch was that the trail closure was ongoing as the park authorities would continue to remove deadfalls and reinforce some of the eroding hillsides.

Hiking to Stairstep Falls

While one could visit Stairstep Falls from one of the campsites near Devil’s Gulch Creek, I’m describing this hike as a day user.

I began from the fairly large pullout on the south side of Sir Francis Drake Blvd, which was right across from the Devil’s Gulch turnoff (see directions below).

Stairstep_Falls_131_04182019 - The trail along Devil's Gulch Creek branching off the paved Devil's Gulch Campground Road
The trail along Devil’s Gulch Creek branching off the paved Devil’s Gulch Campground Road

From there, I crossed the road then walked along the narrow paved access road leading to the Devil’s Gulch campsites.

At roughly 0.2 miles along the access road, the trail then left the pavement and followed along Devil’s Gulch Creek to the right.

I then followed this trail for another 0.1-mile as it continued along the northern bank of Devil’s Gulch Creek before approaching a footbridge over the creek.

Along the way, I noticed some spur trails leading down from the closest campsites also access this same trail.

Stairstep_Falls_122_04182019 - Looking through the base of the coastal redwood tree next to the footbridge over the Devil's Gulch Creek en route to the Stairstep Falls
Looking through the base of the coastal redwood tree next to the footbridge over the Devil’s Gulch Creek en route to the Stairstep Falls

Just before the footbridge, there was also an interesting and impressive coastal redwood tree.

It was big enough and hollowed out enough to duck in and pass through its trunk.

On the other side of the bridge, the trail split off into an upstream path and a downstream path.

I went left and followed the upstream path, which continued along Devil’s Gulch Creek as the trail steadily climbed.

Stairstep_Falls_046_04182019 - The trail to Stairstep Falls followed the contours of the Devil's Gulch Creek drainage
The trail to Stairstep Falls followed the contours of the Devil’s Gulch Creek drainage

The path continued hugging slopes as it followed the contours of the Devil’s Gulch Creek drainage for the next 0.6 miles.

Along the way, the trail continued a gentle climb flanked by the shade from trees and a few odd wildflowers in bloom.

Because the trail was technically closed, I did encounter a handful of deadfalls as well as erosion-control sandbags en route.

At the trail junction, I then kept left to descend along Devil’s Gulch Creek as the trail skirted beneath the stabilizing walls holding up the upper trail that I didn’t take.

Stairstep_Falls_053_04182019 - Following along the lower trail from the junction leading to the Stairstep Falls alongside some retaining wall supporting the upper trail that I didn't take
Following along the lower trail from the junction leading to the Stairstep Falls alongside some retaining wall supporting the upper trail that I didn’t take

After another 0.2 miles, the trail veered away from Devil’s Gulch Creek and into a separate drainage feeding it.

This was a side stream supporting Stairstep Falls.

At the end of this trail, there was a dead-end and lookout area right before the 40ft Stairstep Falls itself.

However, there was a nasty deadfall that covered the last few feet of the trail, making it tricky to get past to get a proper view of the waterfall.

Stairstep_Falls_061_04182019 - Contextual look at a big deadfall obscuring the end of the trail to the base of the Stairstep Falls
Contextual look at a big deadfall obscuring the end of the trail to the base of the Stairstep Falls

Thus, this was the turnaround point of the hike as the rest of the return hike was pretty much downhill.

When I returned to the trailhead, I had spent around 75 minutes away from the car at a fairly leisurely pace.

Authorities

Stairstep Falls resides in the Samuel P. Taylor State Park near San Rafael in Marin County, California. It is administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. For information or inquiries about the park as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Stairstep_Falls_001_04182019 - Sign dictating that there's no overnight parking at the Devil's Gulch day use parking area along Sir Francis Drake Blvd
Stairstep_Falls_004_04182019 - Walking along the narrow Devil's Gulch access road leading to some picnic areas and campsites
Stairstep_Falls_007_04182019 - Continuing to walk along the paved Devil's Gulch Camp Road
Stairstep_Falls_009_04182019 - The start of the trail leading to Stairstep Falls along Devil's Gulch Creek
Stairstep_Falls_015_04182019 - Out of curiosity, I continued walking along the Devil's Gulch Road and arrived at this horse group campsite complete with clearing, grill, picnic table, and toilet facility
Stairstep_Falls_017_04182019 - On the narrow trail descending from the group campsite towards the trail along the creek en route to the Stairstep Falls
Stairstep_Falls_019_04182019 - Continuing along the Devil's Gulch Creek where I was about to approach an eroded section by the burnt tree
Stairstep_Falls_020_04182019 - This was an eroded part of the creekside trail while I was making my way to Stairstep Falls
Stairstep_Falls_021_04182019 - Approaching a tall coastal redwood tree while en route to the Stairstep Falls
Stairstep_Falls_023_04182019 - Approaching an impressive redwood tree near the bridge over Devil's Gulch Creek
Stairstep_Falls_026_04182019 - Crossing the bridge over Devil's Gulch Creek
Stairstep_Falls_028_04182019 - Looking up at the top of the coastal redwood tree towering over the bridge over Devil's Gulch Creek
Stairstep_Falls_031_04182019 - Looking back across the footbridge over Devil's Gulch Creek towards the lone coastal redwood en route to the Stairstep Falls
Stairstep_Falls_032_04182019 - Technically, the Stairstep Falls Trail was closed during my visit in April 2019
Stairstep_Falls_035_04182019 - There was a smattering of deadfalls along the Stairstep Falls Trail as a result of the apparent lack of trail maintenance
Stairstep_Falls_039_04182019 - Some parts of the Stairstep Falls Trail had stones, which I'd imagine were set up to prevent some sections from getting too muddy
Stairstep_Falls_051_04182019 - This was the trail junction where I took the lower path to get down to the Stairstep Falls. I wasn't sure where the upper trail went
Stairstep_Falls_058_04182019 - Looking at Stairstep Falls hiding behind some overgrowth and fallen trees during my April 2019 visit
Stairstep_Falls_062_04182019 - Contextual look at Stairstep Falls barely hanging on to its flow during my April 2019 visit
Stairstep_Falls_065_04182019 - More zoomed in look at the Stairstep Falls
Stairstep_Falls_072_04182019 - Zoomed in landscape look at the Stairstep Falls in low flow during my April 2019 visit
Stairstep_Falls_078_04182019 - Contextual look at the Stairstep Falls and creek surrounded by overgrowth and deadfalls as seen during my April 2019 visit
Stairstep_Falls_084_04182019 - After this brief uphill stretch as I was leaving Stairstep Falls, the trail was pretty much downhill the rest of the way
Stairstep_Falls_085_04182019 - Enjoying the nice tranquil walk from the Stairstep Falls as I was returning to the trailhead
Stairstep_Falls_086_04182019 - Approaching a non-shaded part of the Stairstep Falls Trail on the return hike in the late afternoon
Stairstep_Falls_088_04182019 - Some of the trees along the Stairstep Falls Trail had lots of moss growing on them, which attested to the amount of moisture this area can get
Stairstep_Falls_097_04182019 - Closer look at some cut up tree stumps or trunks placed on the Stairstep Falls Trail
Stairstep_Falls_102_04182019 - Passing my more of these stumps on the Stairstep Falls Trail as seen during my return hike
Stairstep_Falls_107_04182019 - Some of the wildflowers blooming alongside the Stairstep Falls Trail
Stairstep_Falls_110_04182019 - Still pushing along the Stairstep Falls hike on the return to the trailhead
Stairstep_Falls_114_04182019 - Looking downstream at the Devil's Gulch Creek as I was pretty much opposite some of the camp infrastructure
Stairstep_Falls_116_04182019 - Back at the footbridge over Devil's Gulch Creek and the lone redwood
Stairstep_Falls_124_04182019 - The redwood tree was large enough that it was possible to crawl through its hollowed out trunk
Stairstep_Falls_129_04182019 - Following the Devil's Gulch Campground road back to the day use parking area by Sir Francis Drake Blvd
Stairstep_Falls_132_04182019 - Finally back at the day use parking area to end my Stairstep Falls visit

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Since I visited Stairstep Falls from San Francisco, I’ll describe the most direct driving directions from there.

After crossing the Golden Gate Bridge (US101 north), I then followed the US101 north for the next 10 miles before getting off exit 450B for the Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

I then followed Sir Francis Drake Blvd for the next 15 miles as it curved its way west towards Samuel P. Taylor State Park.

Stairstep_Falls_003_04182019 - The signed turnoff (looking east on Sir Francis Drake Blvd) for the Devil's Gulch on the left
The signed turnoff (looking east on Sir Francis Drake Blvd) for the Devil’s Gulch on the left

However, instead of going into the main park entrance, you actually have to drive an additional mile to the Devil’s Gulch turnoff.

The day use parking area is the large pullout on the left side of Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

The paved turnoff on the right is for the Devil’s Gulch Campground.

Overall, this drive took me about 90 minutes due to heavy rush hour traffic.

Stairstep_Falls_006_04182019 - Looking across Sir Francis Drake Blvd towards the Devil's Gulch day use parking area from the Devil's Gulch Camp turnoff
Looking across Sir Francis Drake Blvd towards the Devil’s Gulch day use parking area from the Devil’s Gulch Camp turnoff

However, under more normal circumstances, I’d imagine this 32-mile drive would take roughly an hour or so.

For geographical context, San Francisco is 37 miles (over an hour drive) south of Olema, 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.

Right to left sweep then back and forth sweep of the falls from the unsanctioned other side of the creek

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Tagged with: olema, samuel p taylor state park, fairfax, larkspur, california, waterfall



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Johnny Cheng

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Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of the award-winning 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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