Hiking near the waterfalls of Marin County’s Cataract Trail
CATARACT CANYON – The sound of rushing water floods your ears even before Cataract Creek is fully in view, descending the northern flank of Mount Tamalpais amid a riot of boulders, lush moss, graceful ferns and arching trees.
Prepare to be amazed by this magical place, where each step along the trail reveals some new variation on the blend of rocks and water responsible for a mile-and-a-half-long series of cascades known collectively as Cataract Falls.
Like coastal creeks around the North Coast that have been replenished by regular rainfall this winter, the popular Marin County falls have been at peak performance in recent weeks, drawing crowds to a remote canyon in the Mount Tamalpais Watershed for the kind of dramatic spectacle only Mother Nature does this well.
“Just the beauty — the rocks, the water, the moss, the blue sky. The combination is spectacular,” San Francisco resident Velma Parness, 76, said during a recent trip up the creek with her hiking group.
Waterfall trails beckon throughout the North Coast, offering effusive rewards to those willing to put their legs and feet to work.
Though singular in their overall configurations, they share an aura of thrill and discovery — fertile incubators rich with life, evident in fern-covered slopes and deep green mosses that spread unchecked up the sides of trees, along downed logs and across rocky jumbles. Most are part of larger trail systems, permitting custom combinations that can make for a few hours of walking or a day-long hike.
A hike up Cataract Trail, beautiful at any time of year, is a little like a trip to some primeval, otherwordly place. This Jurassic Park mere miles from Highway 101 feels fecund and full of potential for surprises.
Part of the Mount Tamalpais Watershed, the area is overseen by the Marin Municipal Water District and open to the public without charge, although land managers hope the public will exercise the restraint necessary to protect the ecosystem and the water supply it provides. Swimming or otherwise entering the water is prohibited, and hikers must stay on the trails to avoid trampling plants and wildlife. Two pit toilets are available only at the junction of several trails near the Laurel Dell Picnic Ground, so plan accordingly. Parking space is limited, as well.
A recent crush of visitors has threatened to overwhelm the region on weekends, with so many cars that some were parked illegally in the roadway, leaving too little space for emergency vehicles to pass, watershed manager Michael Swezy said.
Swezy recommended those interested in exploring the region consider going out on weekdays.
Cataract Falls is accessible from several different starting points, though many people choose to start at the bottom, near Alpine Lake and Fairfax-Bolinas Road.
The beginning of the trail skirts the edge of Alpine Lake for a little more than a quarter-mile, with low branches of trees along the shoreline reflecting off the water of the lake’s East Fork as it narrows toward the outlet of Cataract Creek and the upward climb begins.
The most visually striking part of the waterfall is the first half-mile, when the canyon rises precipitously upward. This is also the most challenging part of the ascent, requiring hikers to scale steep stairs of slippery wood and high rocks, which are helpful — or not, depending upon the length of one’s gait. A giant would do well. Many people use trekking poles to help.