Cataract Falls on Mt. Tamalpais


Well folks, I’m back! It’s been a while since I’ve posted on here. After a strong start to 2016 in filling my weekends with hikes, I started to taper off during the summer as life got in the way. Then, winter brought a deluge of rain to California that was much needed at first, but quickly became too much of a good thing. Flooding became widespread all over northern California and the number of sunny days to get out hiking became very thin. But, today we finally had a sunny weekend where I wasn’t busy, so I was determined to make it out onto the trails and kick off the 2017 hiking season. With all of the recent rains, finding a good waterfall to hike to seemed like a natural choice. I chose Cataract Falls, one of the more popular waterfall hikes in the Bay Area. It certainly did not disappoint!

Cataract Falls is located on the west slope of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. The falls itself is on land owned by the Marin Municipal Water District, in the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed. One of the things that has always amazed me about Marin County is the vast amount of open space and parks accessible to the public considering the county’s relatively small land area. In addition to several national and state parks within the county, there are countless parks and open space lands owned by the Marin County Parks, Marin County Open Space District, and Marin Municipal Water District. Many of them run together, creating miles and miles of parkland in the otherwise crowded Bay Area. As you might imagine, hiking and other outdoor activities are very popular in Marin, so in order to beat the crowds, I got an early start to make the 1 hour and 20 minute drive to the trailhead. My early bird tendencies paid off; when I arrived at the trailhead there were only a handful of cars in the lot. By 8am, I was on the trail heading towards the falls.

Due to the main parking area for Cataract Falls on Fairfax-Bolinas Road being closed from storm damage, I started my hike at the Rock Springs trailhead, located at the corner of Ridgecrest Blvd and Pan Toll Road west of Mill Valley. It’s a long, twisty ride up here but scenic at every turn. My inspiration for this hike came from a trip write up on Bay Area Hiker in which the writer suggested a loop hike starting at Rock Springs, passing by Cataract Falls, then making a large loop back to the parking area. Perfect, just what I wanted.

Cataract Trail with Cataract Creek to the right

Starting out, I followed the Cataract Trail as it very slowly descended towards the falls. The path is well maintained and follows alongside Cataract Creek, which grows larger as you get closer to the waterfall. You’ll cross the creek a couple of times as you hike under a nice canopy. I’m sure that In the summer this provides respite from the sun, but this particular morning, it made it a tad chilly. At 1.2 miles you’ll pass by the Laurel Dell picnic area and junction with the Laurel Dell fire road. Stay straight on the Cataract Trail. Continue to gently descend as Cataract Creek grows larger. At 1.4 miles you’ll see the junction with the High Marsh Trail. Continue a short distance on the Cataract Trail to reach the falls. Like many good waterfalls, it’s the type where you round the corner and exclaim, “wow!”


Cataract Falls was especially impressive from all the winter rains and I expect it will remain so for at least a couple more months. Though it flows year round, it’s best to go in the late winter or spring so that you’ll get the full effect of the falls. I took a few minutes to savor the falls and take a few pictures before continuing on with the loop. I retraced my steps back to the junction with the High Marsh Trail, and turned left onto it.

The trail bends away from Cataract Creek and comes out onto a grassy bald with good views to the north and west.

Looking back into the Cataract Creek canyon

Behind me was a good view of the canyon containing Cataract Creek and the falls, enveloped in a canopy of douglas firs. Fog hung in the air to the west, obscuring any possible ocean views but still pleasant to look at. The trail ascends slightly then heads back into forest. Most of the remainder of the High Marsh Trail was an up and down roller coaster through dense forest, ascending to a ridge before descending to a creek, then repeating the process. Some of the grades can be quite steep, but they never last for very long before leveling out or descending.

Surprise waterfall along the High Marsh Trail

Along the way I passed a surprise waterfall that I can’t seem to find the name for. I also crossed a boggy section of trail, supposedly where the name High Marsh comes from. I crossed several trail junctions but stayed on the High Marsh Trail until reaching the Kent Trail at 3.5 miles, turning right onto it. The Kent Trail ascends through forest and chaparral, providing interludes of views. It’s a bit rocky in spots to watch out for slippery rocks (as I found out on this hike). At 4.5 miles the Kent Trail ends at Potrero Meadow picnic area.

Potrero Meadow

Pass through the picnic area to the Laurel Dell Fire Road, and turn left. After about 50 yards, make a right onto the Benstein Trail. Here you’ll have to really watch for slippery rocks as this section of trail is quite rocky. The trail climbs moderately up a grade before leveling out and reaching the Lagunitas-Rock Springs Fire Road at 5.5 miles. Follow it for a very short distance before turning onto the Benstein Trail as it branches off to the right. The last mile to the parking area is a nice, easy descent through a pleasant canopy of firs, madrones, and oaks. You’ll need to make just a couple more turns, left onto the Simmonds Trail as the Benstein Trail dead ends into it, then left onto the Cataract Trail once more before returning to the parking area.

Trip Stats

Distance: 6.5 miles

Time: About 3 hours

Elevation gain: 900 feet

Fees: Parking is free at the Rock Springs trailhead (but get there early on sunny weekends, it fills up fast!)

Directions: From US-101 in Mill Valley, take Highway 1 towards Stinson Beach. Turn right onto Panoramic Highway and follow it as it twists and winds up Mt. Tamalpais. Turn right onto Pan Toll Road at the Pantoll Campground. The Rock Springs parking area is where Pan Toll Road dead ends into Ridgecrest Blvd.

Trail map from the Marin Water District can be found here. Or another from the California State Parks here (it includes the watershed area in addition to the adjacent Mt. Tamalpais State Park).