Now is the best time to hike Mount Tamalpais Cataract Falls

The burning in my legs is real.

Not really. I still feel it typing this. My calves and quads specifically, but I think you’re getting an unflattering picture. The Cataract Falls Trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park is a must for waterfall lovers (and who isn’t) and now is the time to be there.

As Bill Hader’s Stefon would say, “This place has it all.”

Marin County’s hippest club has gushing waterfalls, green moss, and plenty of steep stairs. I once did this trail with my wife a few years ago during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. To say the trip was muddy, slippery and crowded would be an understatement.

Even with the extraordinary rains that just fell over California, this most recent trip was only somewhat muddy, and the fact that I visited on a weekday morning helped competing hikers. A weekend visit will absolutely be more crowded, so plan accordingly.

This level of water has not been seen in the watershed since February 2019. “The early January storms certainly made the Mount Tam watershed a hot topic (in the media),” said district’s Adriane Mertens. Municipal Waters of Marin at SFGATE. “The falls are quite active, the streams are replenished, and all of our reservoirs are currently full and flowing.”

Getting there can be a bit tricky. Bolinas-Fairfax Road, one of the main thoroughfares leading to the popular north end of the trailhead, remains closed for assessment following the latest round of heavy rain. Google Maps took me on Hwy 1 to Pantoll Campground, then on Pantoll Road to Rock Spring. If you’re looking for a slightly longer hike, just park at Pantoll Campground, cross the scenic road, and take the Old Mine Trail to Rock Spring.

It is also dog friendly, provided your furry friends are on a leash.

If you choose to start at Rock Spring like I did, it’s a 5.6 mile round trip hike along open grasslands and a lazy Cataract stream at the start then turns downhill with almost 2 miles beautiful pumping waterfalls before the spin at Alpine Lake.

“You’re standing on the spine of the Mount Tam watershed,” explained a Marin Municipal Water District sign at the top of the trail. Rain that falls in Rock Spring either goes into the Pacific Ocean or into drinking water reservoirs and ultimately into Tomales Bay, he added.

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” said an exhausted hiker as I passed the Laurel Dell Picnic Area, located just before the drop into the canyon. She was part of a larger group I encountered while hiking down the Cataract Falls trail. Next time I saw them, the group of 10 were still resting at the top of the steep trail nearly 90 minutes later. If you’re looking for a reasonable place to have lunch alone or with a group, this is a good stopping point before or after the bodily part of the trail. As I continued, an ominous sign greeted me: “Beware of hikers. Steep terrain ahead. Slippery when wet. Stay on designated trail.” He went on to describe the trail ahead as “very rough and demanding.”

They are not joking. Don’t do this hike if you’re not ready to work on it.

Stairs – and some very difficult ones at that – dot the trail. As this is an out and back, you will do each stairway twice. Be prepared to sweat. I certainly did, even on the way down. Bring water. Take lots of breaks. Quite honestly, it’s easy to do once you’re in the canyon and have one waterfall after another, each more impressive than the next.

The trail takes hikers through “the spine of the Mount Tam watershed”.

Eric Brooks

The tricky part of dressing for this hike is the weather, which is usually cooler on a mountain like this. I also started around 10am and can’t say enough about how important layering up is for the trek. My fleece lasted about an hour as did my quarter zip. You won’t necessarily need long pants, since your legs do most of the work.

Asked about the physical endurance required to complete this hike, Mertens said, “Cataract Falls is a hike that is best done by people who are in good shape and able to handle endurance and uneven trails.” My body accepts.

There were also several downed trees throughout the hike and even a few large branches blocking the trail itself, so be prepared to duck and rush to continue your journey.

A sign for the Cataract Trail on Mount Tam.

A sign for the Cataract Trail on Mount Tam.

Eric Brooks

It’s no surprise that the waterfalls are gushing the way they were on this hike, given the recent weather. The falls are still moving with rhythm during this time of year so the rains provided an added bonus. Another element that hikers will appreciate during the winter months is the excess foliage throughout the route. Moss, ferns and lots of hillside greenery brighten the hike. My trip was no exception to this rule. Woodpeckers, deer, and even bobcats have been spotted feeding and hunting in this area, although I only saw woodpeckers in the first wooded part of the trail.

An unexpected highlight of this hike was the relative calm that awaited me at Alpine Lake (compared to the noisy waterfalls in the canyon). It was peaceful, serene and relaxing. One of Marin Water’s seven reservoirs and one of five on Mount Tam alone, Alpine Lake provides most of central and southern Marin’s supply.

I enjoyed the momentary zen, then turned around for the punishing climb.

If you’re up for a tough hike with a nice reward, this one’s for you.

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