Cataract Falls actually consists of about 9 separate cascade waterfalls along Cataract Creek, depending on how you count them. They are all in the neighborhood of 25 ft. to 70 ft., and are all quite different and quite impressive when Cataract Creek is flowing well. The best time to see these waterfalls is after a good rain. If it has not rained in a while, Cataract Creek will probably just be a little trickle, and it will not be worth your time to come here. This is common with many of the waterfalls in the California coastal area.
The hike is an absolutely gorgeous hike along the creek through a forest of Redwoods. You are never far away from the next waterfall as you climb up and past the rushing creek. It is non-stop excitement, but takes quite awhile to complete this hike because you are always stopping to look at the waterfalls and take pictures. The first four waterfalls really could be considered one single waterfall, as they are all in a row, with only a small break between them. I would really consider them to be one large 230 ft. high waterfall, which makes it the highest waterfall in the SF Bay area. For illustration purposes, however, I will separate the cascades out into four waterfalls, as you cannot see all four from a single location. Waterfalls five and six are separate falls, and are located just a little bit above #4. Numbers seven, eight, and nine are located a distance above #6, after hiking awhile along a flatter, tranquil section of the creek. All of the waterfalls except one (Fall #4) are located within easy view of the trail or just a short scramble down to the creekside. Fall #4 is difficult to scramble down to, and bypassed by most people, but is arguably the prettiest of all of them. Once you reach the end of the trail at the Laurel Dell picnic area, it is an easy hike back to the trailhead where you parked, and just as enjoyable to see the waterfalls on the way down.
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Upper Section of Fall #1 (72 ft.)
|Location: Fairfax, Mt. Tamalpais, Marin Municipal Water District, Marin County
Stream: Cataract Creek
Distance: 2.6 miles (RT)
Elevation: 650 ft. (+1050 ft.)
Directions:Take Hwy #101 to San Rafael, and take the Sir Francis Drake Blvd. exit. Drive 6 miles to Fairfax, and turn left on Pacheco Rd. (may be unsigned, there is a sign saying "Fairfax" at intersection). Take an immediate right on Broadway, then first left on Bolinas Rd. Drive 7.8 miles to Alpine Lake, and park at the hairpin turn just after crossing the dam. Parking is limited, find a parking spot somewhere off the narrow road. The trailhead is on the left at the hairpin turn.
Alternatively, you can park at the other end of the trail, on West Ridgecrest Blvd. at the Laurel Dell picnic area. From the Mill Valley / Stinson Beach / Hwy #1 exit on Hwy #101 north of San Francisco, drive 1 mile to Shoreline Hwy. Turn left and drive 2.5 miles to Panoramic Hwy. Turn right and drive 5.2 miles to Pantoll Rd. Turn right and drive 1.4 miles to Ridgecrest Rd. Turn left and drive 1.6 miles to a small parking area on right. The trail is marked "Laurel Dell".
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