Bay Area Hikes: GO NOW! Hiking Cataract Falls Near San Francisco During "Runoff" Season Transports You To New Zealand

Cataract Falls, Mout Tamalpais State Park, California

Who wants a little taste of lush New Zealand in San Francisco - me! 

Hike: Cataract Trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park, near San Francisco, California
Length: @ 5.6 miles round trip
Location: Mount Tamalpais State Park, 11.5 miles from Highway 101, just over the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County
Difficulty: elevation change of @ 1,400 feet - switchbacks up & down
Exposure: mostly shady
Dogs: Welcome on leash
When to go: NOW. During late winter when the water is running off Mt Tam.

Map of Cataract Falls hike
I grab my pooch, pack up the car for a trip to Stinson Beach - cooler, backpack, everything - and drive into the Marin Headlands for a day in the waves and sand.

As I crest the hill, I note the massive fog layer sitting down below on the ocean, so I quickly amend my adventure and take a sharp Right - screech! - at Pan Toll and instead head up higher into the mountains. Yup, always be prepared for a shift in adventure due to weather conditions.

Trail Start at Rock Creek
Twisting and turning up through the lush, green, wildflower covered southern hills of the Headlands, I arrive at my new destination: Rock Creek trailhead - the start of the late-winter Bay Area hike: Cataract Falls.

The trail begins with a gentle downhill, following Cataract Creek and a speckle of curious wildflowers 1.4 miles to a group picnic area called Laurel Dell. This is when the fun begins. 
Pink Calypso Orchids

From here on, it's step after step of downhill glory as the falls cascade through Mother Nature carved rock formations. To create a sensory experience for every part of your body: the whirr of the water as it flows through the canyon, the mist in the air filling our lungs, the feast for our eyes of the lush almost prehistoric vegetation. It's transportive, hiking friends.

Alpine Lake
2.8 miles down, I bump into the milky looking Alpine Lake - with it's giant redwoods stranded like islands by the high water. Almost spooky.

Then it's a turn around, and what was a lighthearted bounce down the 1,400 feet, now becomes the stair-master climb back up. A little less sensory high, a lot more heart-beat high. Rewarding, in a different way.
Dogs welcome at Cataract Falls

For you dog lovers, Aspen, my little rescue puggle, was also rewarded by the 7,000 friends she got to sniff on the way up and down. This is a popular dog trail for the Bay Area set.

Pack a picnic. Water. Your camera. This mostly shady hike will transport you to the Lord of the Rings green of the South Island of New Zealand. Minus the plane ticket. 

Be. Breathe. Do it! -OM

For more interesting info:
Mt Tam State Park Map & Brochure
Bay Area Hiker
More Hikes: Rock Springs Trail with Views of San Francisco Bay
More Hikes: Johnstone Trail in Tomales Bay State Park, near Point Reyes 
Hiking with Kids


  1. 2016 post El Nino storm. Now is an excellent time to go.

    1. Thanks for the great reminder, Ellen! I was up in the mountains for this last storm -- no doubt Cataract Falls is going crazy right now down here! -Annie @OutdoorsyMama

  2. What's the shorter way to that fall in the last picture