Winter may not be the most conventional season for a hike, but the gushing cascades on Marin County’s Cataract Trail will have you heading out even on a chilly winter day. Make the most of the rainy season with this approximately three-mile out-and-back hike, as you climb to the top of Cataract Falls in California.
With a climb of over 700 feet, what the hike lacks in mileage it makes up for in elevation. Overall, the hike is moderate in difficulty, but it’s important to note that the way up is very steep and will definitely get your leg muscles burning. The trail is almost entirely shaded beneath the trees, so be sure to layer up and come prepared for cooler temperatures. While some days may be dryer than others, hiking boots are advised as the trail can get muddy and slippery.
Access the trailhead from Fairfax-Bolinas Rd on the north side of Mt. Tamalpais, parking immediately as you come to a sharp hairpin turn. There isn’t much space for parking, just a limited gravel area, so come early to avoid any hassle. If the limited space is fully occupied, you’ll have to find parking further up or down the steep road, adding a little more labor to the hike.
The hike begins as you enter a lush forest of trees and ferns. Follow the trail to the right as it leisurely runs alongside the southwestern arm of Alpine Lake. You’ll come to a fork in the trail, at which point continue right and begin the ascent.
The initial climb is relatively easy, and you will soon reach the first of many encounters with the falls. After a narrow wooden bridge, the steepness increases and you’ll begin climbing a series of wooden steps along the switchback trail.
With the trail never straying from the Cataract Creek, you’re consistently within minutes of the next cascade, making this hike exciting all the way to the top. There are endless photo opportunities, so be prepared to make multiple stops and have your camera or phone close at hand.
You’ll come to a final fork in the trail with a sign directing you to the Laurel Dell picnic area. At that point, head right and take the final climb to the top of the falls while passing by a fenced lookout point.
At the Laurel Dell picnic area, you’ll be greeted by flat land and a surprisingly quiet Cataract Creek. Take a break or enjoy a snack at one of the many picnic benches along the water.
The Laurel Dell picnic area marks the top of the trail, so after you’re done catching your breath simply turn around and head back down the same way you came up. While going down is considerably easier, it’s also very slippery, so take your time and watch your footing. The return trip is also a great opportunity to snap any photos you may have missed on the way up.
With gorgeous greenery, exciting cascades, and the sound of rushing water echoing beneath the trees, the hike to Cataract Falls is undeniably one of the best in Marin. After the next big rainfall hit the Cataract Trail for an unbeatable experience.