Cataract Falls Loop

Hike Report

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Mt. Tamalpais was long overdue for a visit, given that I’ve driven past it hundreds of times. Consulting Bay Area Hiker clued me in to the existence of Cataract Falls. I supplemented that information with a map of the area. I was looking for a route that would accommodate my preference for loops over out-and-backs. Some combination of Cataract, Mickey O’Brien and Simmons trails seemed to fit the bill.

We met our friend and his dog at the Rock Springs parking area (after a nice, winding drive). I climbed a nearby hill to see what I could see – and wow! 2000 feet above sea level, downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and even Sutro Tower were visible, with a low haze swathed about the hills. The trail itself was easy going through the woods. A short distance brought us near our first glimpse of running water, which felt novel given the five-year drought.

The Cataract Trail brought us through the forest and across Laurel Dell Fire Road. I had hoped to see more wildflowers, but it was a little early in the year for that. Soon we were descending into something of a narrow, rocky canyon. Helen Markt Falls spilled into a small, restful pool where we hung out for a while. Sunlight filtered through the trees, striking one side of the alcove while leaving the other side in shadow; the scene felt somehow otherworldly but also restorative.

marin headlands from mt. tam
small waterfall and rocky pool

After descending about 400 feet – the water tumbling down the entire way – we located Cataract Falls. Lush greenery made me feel like I was in a jungle. The falls washed over a broad, sloped rock face, spreading out and becoming gauzy. We sat for a while taking it in. The stream goes on to feed into Alpine Lake, but we went back the way we came.

From the Mickey O’Brien junction we started our clockwise uphill journey around the loop. Barth’s Retreat provided a respite from from the steady incline. We meandered out to Laurel Dell and caught a nice view of the hills to the north bathed in soft sunlight and cloud shadows. The last leg on Simmons took us through high, rocky outcrops before returning us to the parking area.

waterfall flowing over rock face
forest and hills

I know there are a few other great hiking options (including wider loops in this area on High Marsh or Helen Markt trails). It’d be great to come back and plan a longer day on Mt. Tam.

cataract falls elevation map