Cataract Trail is a waterfall-lover’s treat. Multiple cascades shower down Cataract Creek as you climb Mount Tamalpais against the northward flow of the falls. Located on Mount Tamalpais‘s northwestern flank, the trail climbs steeply from Alpine Lake to the Laurel Dell Picnic Area, a glen with picnic tables beside Cataract Creek.
Start your hike at the signed trailhead beside Alpine Lake. The lake is a reservoir used for drinking water, hence the no swimming and no wading signs. No matter, this hike is pure waterfall and forest eye candy. If you have hiked Steep Ravine and Muir Woods on Mount Tam, you will recognize the familiar coast redwood forest here, with sword fern, bay laurel, coast redwoods, and tan oak. In fall, yellow maple leaves scatter like confetti on the green forest floor. On foggy days after a rainfall–an excellent time to visit–the colors seem to glow in the misty setting.
Descend a gentle 50 feet. The Cataract Trail hugs Alpine Lake on a rolling 0.3 mile, then begins its steady ascent. Starting from the southern tip of the lake, the cataracts are a fresh, musical accompaniment throughout the hike beside Cataract Creek.
Over half a dozen cataracts grace the next 0.5 miles and they are distinct. Some are no more than peaceful rapids flowing down stair-step creek beds. Others are tiered, horsetail-like cascades dropping into narrow pools before steeply cascading once again. Yet others are like fan waterfalls, spreading out along the rock face as they fall.
After climbing 400 feet to the 0.6 mile-mark, cross a wooden pedestrian bridge over Cataract Creek to its eastern side. Just past the bridge is a junction for the Helen Markt Trail, where you will stay right to climb wooden steps and continue on the Cataract Trail. The next 0.6 miles are quieter but steep, gaining 550 feet along more widely spaced cataracts and rapids than earlier in the hike.
A bench at the 1.2 mile-mark provides a helpful rest stop, and from here it’s just another 0.1 miles to Cataract Falls, the last cataract on the hike. It is not the most impressive cataract and it is partially hidden, but the forest surrounding it is something out of a fairy tale: Mossy green stones line the trail like a yellow brick road while tree branches arch delicately over the creek.
Past Cataract Falls, climb a set of stone steps, passing the junction with High Marsh Trail on your left. Continue right for another 0.2 miles to the Laurel Dell Picnic Area at the 1.5-mile mark, where there are several picnic tables and a restroom across Laurel Dell Fire Road. When ready, retrace your steps back to Alpine Lake.
The trail is a combination of dirt pathways, stone steps, and wooden steps. There are three wooden bridges, and also railings and wooden fencing to help protect hikers and restore hillsides from erosion. It is a steep hike along Cataract Creek on the slopes of Mount Tam.
No camping is permitted.
From San Francisco, drive north on Highway 101 over the Golden Gate Bridge. Take exit 450 B towards San Anselmo. Merge onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and drive 5.2 miles to Fairfax. Turn left at the brown Fairfax sign onto Pacheco Avenue, then make an immediate right onto Broadway. Drive 500 feet, then turn left onto Bolinas Road. Drive 7.8 miles to Alpine Dam as the road turns into Bolinas-Fairfax Road. At Alpine Dam, turn left and drive 0.2 miles. Park on the shoulder of a hairpin turn.