I don’t know what it is about waterfalls, but they always make me feel happy. Thankfully, the Bay Area is teeming with waterfalls—horsetail falls, fan waterfalls, multi-tiered waterfalls, cascades, and tide falls—all within day-trip distance of San Francisco.
Bay Area waterfalls are dependent on rainfall as opposed to snowmelt. So if you are looking to see a waterfall with a strong water flow, a good rule of thumb is to go in winter and early spring when the rainy season is in full swing. It is true that some waterfalls, like Berry Creek Falls, flow year-round; however, they are likely to be a trickle in summer as opposed to their full glory in winter.
Another strategy is to watch the weather and wait for a few good storm systems to move through the area. If you hike after a series of strong storms, you have a good chance of seeing plumped up falls. Remember those waterproof boots for high water, mud, and puddles on trails.
Here are ten fantastic waterfall hikes near San Francisco in order of distance. Which ones are your favorites? Hike ’em and let me know. Mine? Cataract Falls. And Murietta Falls. And Berry Creek Falls. And…oh, bother.
1. Cascade Falls, Cascade Park, Mill Valley
Cascade Falls is a family-friendly waterfall hike in a tiny Mill Valley park that is an easy 0.3 miles round-trip. From the Cascade Park parking lot, head northwest into an airy redwood forest beside Cascade Creek. Bear right at a Y-junction to the falls. There is room for just a few cars in the Cascade Park parking lot, so an alternative is to park at Old Mill Park, and walk up Cascade Drive, a neighborly road with folks out strolling. It is 2.0 miles round-trip from Old Mill Park to Cascade Falls. To see another waterfall nearby, cross Cascade Drive from the Cascade Park parking lot and pick up an unsigned dirt path heading southeast along Old Mill Creek. Three Wells, a beautiful three-tiered cascade, will be on your right in 350 feet.
2. McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur
The 0.7-mile roundtrip hike to McWay Falls leads to a postcard-perfect view in Big Sur. The 80-foot tall waterfall flows year-round into McWay Cove with waves from the Pacific Ocean lapping at its heels. The combination of the waterfall, coves, cliffs, and ocean is breathtaking. McWay Falls is located in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, 40 miles south of Carmel-by-the-Sea off the Big Sur Coast Highway. Make it a day-trip with stops at Garrapata State Park and Nepenthe for lunch.
3. Cascade Falls, Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve, Fairfax
What’s that you say? Another Cascade Falls? Yep, this Cascade Falls is a 1.5-mile round-trip hike in gorgeous bay laurel and madrone-studded Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve. From the Elliott Nature Preserve trailhead, hike northwest on the single-track High Water Trail, keeping Cascade Creek on your left. In 0.5 miles, cross a wooden bridge and turn right onto the Cascade Falls Trail. Hike 0.25 miles to Cascade Falls at the trail’s end. Parking is very limited, with just a few spots on the shoulder of Cascade Drive.
4. Cataract Falls, Marin Municipal Water District, Marin County
Cataract Falls is pure waterfall eye-candy and surprisingly steep! Your thighs will get a workout on this 3.0-mile round-trip hike beside Cataract Creek on the northwestern side of Mount Tamalpais. Yet it feels like there is a waterfall every quarter mile—there really are that many. Some are simple cascades while others are dramatic fan and horsetail waterfalls. Is there even a downside? Well, the hike is extremely popular, and parking is limited to a few pullouts next to the road.
5. Carson Falls, Marin Municipal Water District, Marin County
Carson Falls is a 3.9-mile round-trip hike to a multi-tiered waterfall in the Marin Municipal Water District. The moderate trail climbs a wide, sunny fire road then descends on a single-track through a shady forest to the falls. Views along the way of Mount Tamalpais and beautiful rolling valleys are icing on the cake.
6. Uvas Canyon Waterfall Loop, Uvas Canyon County Park, Morgan Hill
Uvas Canyon County Park’s steep gulches and musical streams host lively waterfalls throughout the park. This 5.2-mile loop visits all the waterfalls in the park, with sunny vistas of the Santa Cruz Mountains too. As a bonus, there is a 1.0-mile Waterfall Loop Nature Trail that is a great option for families or if you are looking for something shorter. Check the Uvas Canyon County Park website to see if weekend parking reservations are required (typically January through June). To make a reservation, visit www.gooutsideandplay.org.
7. Mount Diablo Waterfall Loop, Mount Diablo State Park, Clayton
A waterfall isn’t the first thing that comes to mind in arid Mount Diablo State Park, but surprise! This 6.0-mile loop hike visits a series of modest yet pleasing waterfalls along the Falls Trail on the northern side of Mount Diablo. The hike begins in a Clayton neighborhood at the end of Regency Drive, climbs through oak savannah to views of Donner Canyon, and then loops clockwise past wildflowers, rock formations, and waterfalls for a punch of scenery before returning via Donner Canyon Road.
8. Berry Creek Falls Loop, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek
If it is movie-star waterfalls you are looking for, the 10.5-mile Berry Creek Falls Loop in Big Basin Redwoods State Park delivers. Big time. The stunning trio of Golden Falls, Silver Falls, and Berry Creek Falls flow year-round, although they do slow down quite a bit in summertime. Tall redwoods provide cool cover in the summer, and the views of Berry Creek and Waddell Creek from the trail are a peaceful accompaniment.
9. Murietta Falls, Del Valle Regional Park, Livermore
Located deep within the Ohlone Regional Wilderness, Murietta Falls is a true two-for-one. This strenuous, 12.5-mile round-trip hike combines prairie-like wilderness with a 100-foot tall seasonal waterfall. Murietta Falls is heavily dependent on rainfall and goes completely dry by late spring, so you want to wait until storm systems move through the Bay Area in late winter to early spring for this one. The gulch the waterfall flows into has plentiful rocks for sitting and enjoying the falls while you eat your sandwich.
10. Alamere Falls, Point Reyes National Seashore
Alamere Falls is that rare coastal waterfall, along with McWay Falls, that flows directly into the ocean. But unlike McWay Falls, you can hike right up to 40-foot tall Alamere Falls and feel the water flow on your fingertips. Combine that with a 13.8-mile round-trip hike through Douglas fir forest, wildflowers, freshwater lakes, a campground, and a beach in Point Reyes National Seashore and you have a heck of a day hike just 35 miles northwest of San Francisco. While it is arguably a year-round waterfall, Alamere Falls can slow to a trickle in summer. It is best in winter and spring.