Hiking near the waterfalls of Marin County’s Cataract Trail

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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.

But what a gorgeous hike as Cataract Creek cuts deep into the stone canyon, cascading over boulders and around gnarled tree roots on its long descent. It’s roaring and frothy white at times; rippling and churning at others as it courses around rocks, downed trees and other detritus from seasons past. Then it pools and flows gently into the next cascade.

“This is spectacular,” a hiker observed recently while ascending the first section of trail along the lower waterfall.

The beauty of the lower falls means that those short on time or stamina can see the best part and turn back early. Or, walk 1.4 miles from the lower trailhead to the Laurel Dell Picnic Area, a flat, open area with five tables surrounded by woods near a stretch of meandering stream. The elevation gain is roughly 1,000 feet. Several other trails intersect here, or you can continue upward along the Cataract Trail for another 1.3 miles to the Rock Spring trailhead for a 2.7-mile trip. Hike back to Alpine Lake, and it’s 5.4 miles round-trip.

The Cataract Trailhead is about a 90-minute drive from Santa Rosa. Take Sir Francis Drake Boulevard into the Marin County town of Fairfax and connect up via Broadway Boulevard with Bolinas Road, which later becomes Fairfax-Bolinas Road. Follow Fairfax-Bolinas as it winds up into the Mount Tamalpais Watershed.

At a hairpin turn more than 8 miles out of Fairfax, you’ll find the Cataract Canyon trailhead. Limited parking is available off the road.

Additional access points include the Rock Spring parking area and trailhead on West Ridgecrest Boulevard at Pantoll Road, near Mountain Theater at the edge of Mount Tamalpais State Park.

Hikers also can reach Laurel Dell and the Cataract Trail from West Ridgecrest Boulevard at the Willow Camp Fire Road, about 1 1/3 miles past Rock Spring.

Trails in the Marin Municipal Water District are free to the public. Dogs are permitted on leash.

View a trail map at marinwater.org/DocumentCenter/View/160.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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