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Morning at Cataract Falls

I first hiked Cataract Falls a few years ago as part of a loop with Micky O’Brien and Simmons trails. Although it’s one of the star hikes on Mt. Tamalpais, it was new to me, and I was impressed by it despite the ongoing drought at that time. Recently, a decent amount of rainfall made me think it would be a great time to revisit.

I got up around 6am and drove in fog for quite some time. As I wound up Panoramic Highway, I saw the fog stretching into the valley all the way from the ocean. I stopped near Mountain Home Inn to take in the view and enjoy the quiet.

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

Shortly after, I parked at Rock Springs, and decided to preface my hike with a short detour to the nearby ridge. I hoped for panoramic views of the marine layer over the landscape and wasn’t disappointed. The cloud bank was awash in the morning light and gave me the impression that I was much higher up than I really was.

hiking break at bare knoll
Breakfast break at Bare Knoll

I headed back down and set out 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 was struck by how much like a rainforest the atmosphere felt, with the rushing water and tons of greenery filtering out the morning sun. Big, angular rocks, moved to their locations long ago by powerful natural forces, sat covered in moss.

There were many opportunities to step a little ways off the trail and enjoy little pools and cascades as the water tumbled downhill. I took my time experimenting with a wide-angle lens – with that field of view, balancing foreground objects with the surrounding context can be harder than it looks!

At the falls which I think of as the Cataract Falls – where the water sort of spreads out over a large, steep rock face – I couldn’t have arrived at a better time. 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.

cataract falls cascades
cataract falls
helen markt falls

I made it as far as the junction at Helen Markt Trail, all the while mildly dreading the hike back uphill. I rested for a while before tackling the return climb. At this point many more people had joined the trail. By the time I reached my car, the parking lot was packed and I counted a group of 50 hikers just setting 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. The ravine offers a sheltered hike in the warm months and beautiful waterfalls in the wet months. Next time, I’ll start at the northern trailhead – at least then the back half of the hike would be downhill.