Mount Tam’s Cataract Falls is the bobsled course of waterfalls: over a mile of twisting, turning, tumbling water—gushing, rushing, and making a splash! The real joy is hiking right beside Cataract Creek as it’s chugging on all cylinders, where the exclamations are 20- and 30-foot falls. The approach to Cataract Falls is different this year because of on-and-off road closures in Fairfax.
The best way to get there is by starting from the top of the falls and hiking to the bottom, then returning the way you came. Starting from West Ridgecrest Road, hike down to the Laurel Dell picnic area, an oasis in its own right, shrouded in redwoods and green ferns. Here you’ll pick up Cataract Trail, much of it a series of wooden and rock steps.
The sound of water is a constant companion even if you don’t yet see the falls—the first of which is reached within a quarter mile. Keep going down, stopping to observe the deep grottoes created by the multi-flowing tiers. A wooden bridge crossing over Cataract makes a good turnaround point; in the distance you can spy Alpine Lake, its bright blue hue tempting you to carry onward for a longer out-and-back hike.
BONUS SUNSET: Time your waterfall hike to finish just before sunset and cross the road from the parking area, where you walk for a few minutes out to hilltops and outcroppings with sweeping views of the headlands, Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Point Reyes, and all the way out to the Farallon Islands.
To get there, drive on Panoramic Hwy. toward Pantoll Campground in Mount Tamalpais State Park. Turn right onto Pantoll Rd. toward Rock Springs just before Pantoll Campground. At Rock Springs drive 1.4 miles on West Ridgecrest Blvd. and park at a pullout on the right. Here’s a map (you’ll see a sign for Marin Municipal Water District). Walk down the fire road; at the bottom turn right on Ray Murphy Trail, cross the bridge, and turn left on Cataract Trail. Follow this 1.5 miles down. Return the way you came. Because this hike is in Marin Municipal Water District land, it’s dog-friendly!