Cataract Falls

Hike Report

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I last hiked Cataract Falls a few years ago as part of a loop with Micky O’Brien and Simmons trails (and I couldn’t resist a detour from a hike on High Marsh Trail to see part of it again). A decent amount of rainfall made it ripe for a re-hike, and I wanted to practice wide-angle long exposures.

Mt. Tam is more popular than ever these days, so I got up around 6am and got out from under the blanket of fog in SF. It seemed conditions were right for a dense marine layer. As I drove up Panoramic Highway, I could see the fog stretching from the ocean into the valley. I stopped near Mountain Home Inn to take it in and enjoy the quiet.

fog in a valley with a tree in foreground
marine layer blanketing bay area

Shortly thereafter I was at Rock Springs. I decided to go a short way along the trail that leads to Bolinas Ridge – an area I’d grown familiar with from taking photos at night during the Mt. Tam Astronomy Programs – to get some shots of the marine layer with the buildings of SF in the distance. The morning light gave the fog a golden look and I felt much higher up than I really was. I relished the feeling of capturing this view that only a few other people on the mountain were seeing. The early wake-up time was already paying off!

Once I was satisfied, I headed back down to Rock Springs and got on Cataract Falls Trail. I walked along the creek at an easy pace then decided to detour up Laurel Dell Fire Road to see how Bare Knoll was looking. With the sun at my back and now higher in the sky, the landscape was a little plain, but I took the opportunity to sit on a rock and eat breakfast.

With that out of the way, I was excited to head down into the ravine and see some waterfall action. I wasn’t disappointed – there were many opportunities to step a little ways off the trail and enjoy little grottos, pools and cascades as the water tumbled downhill. I took my time and experimented with taking wide angle shots meant to be stacked vertically.

hiking break at bare knoll

Breakfast break at Bare Knoll

I was struck by how much like a rainforest the ravine felt. Most of the cascades were surrounded by bright green ferns. I loved checking out the big, angular rocks, many of which had surfaces covered in moss.

At the falls which I think of as the Cataract Falls – where the water sort of spreads out over a large, steep rockface – I couldn’t have timed my arrival better. The sun was in just the right position where it was shining through the leaves and filtering down in a really lovely way. And with the sun partially obscured like that, I was able to capture a nice-looking sunburst. I was very happy with the result.

I made it as far as the junction at Helen Markt Trail, all the while thinking how hard the hike back uphill was going to be. I rested for a while before tackling the return climb. At this point – around 10am – many more people were on the trail, presumably from the trailhead at Alpine Lake. Back at Rock Springs, the parking lot was packed and I counted a group of 50 hikers just starting out on Simmons Trail. I felt validated for starting my day so early.

Cataract Falls is without a doubt a very popular hike, and for good reason. The trail is well-maintained and it feels like you’re far away from civilization. I’m sure the ravine offers a nice, cool, sheltered hike in warmer weather as well. I’d like to try it from the north trailhead some day. At least then it’d be all downhill for the second half of the hike!