Now is the best time to hike Mount Tamalpais’ Cataract Falls

The burn in my legs is real.

No, really. I still feel it as I type this. My calves and quads, more specifically, but I think you get the unflattering picture. The Cataract Falls Trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park is a must for lovers of waterfalls (and who isn’t) and now is the time to be there.

As Bill Hader’s Stefon would say: “This place has everything.”

Marin County’s hottest club has surging waterfalls, green moss and lots of steep staircases. I once did this trail with my wife a couple years ago during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. To say that the trip was muddy, slippery and crowded would be an understatement. 

Even with the extraordinary rains that just dumped on California, this most recent trip was only somewhat muddy, and the fact that I visited on a weekday morning helped with competing hikers. A weekend visit will absolutely be more crowded, so plan accordingly.

This level of water hasn’t been seen in the watershed since February 2019. “The early January storms certainly made the Mount Tam watershed a popular topic (in the media),” Adriane Mertens of the Marin Municipal Water District told SFGATE. “The falls are quite active, the creeks are replenished and all of our reservoirs are currently full and spilling.” 

Getting there can be a bit challenging. Bolinas-Fairfax Road, one of the main thoroughfares to the popular north end of the trailhead, remains closed for assessment following the most recent round of heavy rains. Google Maps took me up Highway 1 to Pantoll Campground, then up Pantoll Road to Rock Spring. If you’re looking for a slightly longer hike, simply park at Pantoll Campground, walk across the Panoramic Highway and catch the Old Mine Trail to Rock Spring.

It’s dog friendly, too, provided your furry friends are on a leash.

If you opt to start at Rock Spring like I did, it’s an out-and-back 5.6-mile hike that runs along open meadows and a lazy Cataract Creek at the start, then turns downhill with almost 2 miles of gorgeous, pumping waterfalls before the turnaround at Alpine Lake.

“You are standing on the spine of the Mt. Tam Watershed,” a Marin Municipal Water District sign at the top of the trail explained. Rain that falls at Rock Spring goes either to the Pacific Ocean or drinking reservoirs and eventually to Tomales Bay, it added.

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” an exhausted hiker said as I passed by Laurel Dell Picnic Area, situated just before the drop into the canyon. She was part of a larger group that I encountered on my way down the Cataract Falls Trail. When I next saw them, the group of 10 was still resting atop the steep trail almost 90 minutes later. If you’re looking for a sensible lunch spot by yourself or with a group, this is a good stopping point before or after the body-busting part of the trail. As I continued, an ominous sign greeted me: “Attention Hikers. Steep Terrain Ahead. Slippery When Wet. Stay On Designated Trail.” It went on to describe the trail ahead as “very rugged and demanding.”

They’re not kidding. Don’t do this hike if you aren’t ready to work for it.

Staircases — and some very challenging ones at that — dot the trail. Since it’s an out-and-back, you’ll be doing each staircase twice. Be ready to sweat. I certainly did, even on the way down. Bring water. Take lots of breaks. Quite honestly, it’s easy to do so once you’re in the canyon and you’ve got one waterfall after another, each more impressive than the last. 

The trail takes hikers through "the spine of the Mt. Tam Watershed."

The trail takes hikers through “the spine of the Mt. Tam Watershed.”

Eric Brooks

The tricky part about dressing for this hike is the weather, which is typically cooler on a mountain like this one. I also started in at about 10 a.m. and cannot say enough about how important it is to layer appropriately for the trek. My fleece lasted about an hour, as did my quarter-zip. You won’t necessarily need long pants, since your legs are doing the lion’s share of the work.

When asked about the physical endurance required to complete this hike, Mertens said: “Cataract Falls is a hike that is best traveled by persons in good shape and able to handle some endurance and uneven trails.” My body agrees.

There were also several downed trees throughout the hike and even a few large branches blocking the trail itself, so be ready to duck and squeeze to continue your journey.

A sign for the Cataract Trail on Mount Tam.

A sign for the Cataract Trail on Mount Tam.

Eric Brooks

It’s no surprise the waterfalls were gushing the way they were on this hike, given the recent weather. The falls are always moving with pace during this time of the year, so the rains provided an added bonus. Another element hikers will enjoy during the winter months is the excess of foliage throughout the route. Moss, ferns and lots of hillside greenery illuminate the hike. My trip was no exception to that rule. Woodpeckers, deer and even bobcats have been spotted foraging and hunting in this area, though I only saw woodpeckers in the early forested portion of the trail.

An unexpected highlight of this hike was the relative quiet waiting for me at Alpine Lake (compared with the loud waterfalls in the canyon). It was peaceful, serene and relaxing. One of Marin Water’s seven reservoirs and one of five on Mount Tam alone, Alpine Lake provides most of central and southern Marin’s supply.

I enjoyed the momentary zen, then turned back around for the punishing ascent.

If you’re ready for a challenging hike with a gorgeous reward, this one’s for you.

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