Cataract Falls Trail Review - Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County

Cataract Falls Trail Review - Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County

Cataract Falls trail - Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County

Gorgeous. Varied. The sound of falling water and golden grasses blowing in the wind, and views of the ocean crashing on the beach 1,200 feet below you. The dog friendly Cataract Falls hiking trail offers a lot -- a steady uphill climb alongside a waterfall with pools along the way for your dog to cool off, giving way to a grassy ridgeline on the Pacific side of Mt. Tam. There's great photo opportunities along much of the trail, along with scenic, quiet places to stop for a snack and even a picnic area at the top. While moderately trafficked, the views and variety of terrain make the long drive to the out-of-the-way trailhead worth every switchback.

Trail Basics

  • Moderate difficulty; just under 2 miles from the trailhead to the Laurel Dell picnic area covering a steady uphill climb of over 1,000 feet, then a 0.8-mile loop out along the Bare Knoll before making the descent along the same 2-mile trail you'd walked up.
  • Cataract Falls is an on-leash trail. While your dog will enjoy swimming off-leash in the wading pools midway up the trail, don't be surprised to hear something about it from fellow hikers as those double as popular pit stops.
  • There's no potable water sources along the trail, so come prepared as it's almost literally all uphill for the first half of the hike (and don't forget a bowl for your pup!).
  • There is a port-a-potty at the trailhead, but no poop bags, bathrooms or trash cans beyond that so plan accordingly.
  • The hike is mostly shaded, and the Bare Knoll can oftentimes be foggy (especially in the Summer) so this can be a better hike for more temperature-sensitive dogs. Do factor in the uphill climb though -- it's no joke.

How to Get There

It's a winding, narrow road taking you past Muir Woods -- the drive may not be suitable for those (people and dogs) prone to motion sickness.

Cell phone service is intermittent as well, so it's best to read ahead for your turns ahead of time, which is doubly important as Google Maps will likely change the route multiple times on you (just pick one route and stick with it). If you're coming from San Francisco, I'd recommend taking Highway 1 near Marin City to Panoramic Highway, to Pan Toll Road, to W Ridgecrest Blvd until you finally get to Fairfax-Bolinas Road where you'll find the Cataract Falls trailhead.


Trail Notes

  • From the trailhead, follow the posted signs to stay on the Cataract trail which traces along Cataract Creek -- until you get to the Laurel Dell picnic area, you'll only be making right turns at trail junctions. Once you get to the picnic area, there is a short break in the forest for Laurel Dell Road. Take a left onto Laurel Dell Road, and then your first left (not well marked) onto the Bare Knoll trail. Another left onto the High Marsh trail will eventually drop you off back on the Cataract trail, just below the picnic area. A right turn here will return you to the trailhead.
    • The Bare Knoll loop is well worth doing -- even on foggy days you can see the ocean breaking on the beach, 1,200 feet below.
  • Footing can be dicey at times, especially wet rocks and logs; if your dog is a puller like Grammar, you may find yourself slipping on the loose stones coming downhill of the Bare Knoll. Wear shoes with good tread, take it slow, and don't let your dog pull you off balance!
  • Many dogs take a dip in the wading pools along the trail, and (no surprise) many use the bathroom in them -- the creek flows into the Mt. Tam watershed, but avoid letting your dog drink out of it. 
  • As with most hiking in Northern California, be aware of ticks (especially in the grassy areas!), and poison oak. Best to cover up those legs if you'll be going out on the Bare Knoll -- the seed-carrying tips of the grass will scratch your legs.
  • We've seen garter snakes out on the Bare Knoll, and salamanders near the creek.
 The grassy Bare Knoll, just beyond the Laurel Dell picnic area, with views all the way down to the ocean 1,200 feet below. © 2015 Copyright All rights reserved -

The grassy Bare Knoll, just beyond the Laurel Dell picnic area, with views all the way down to the ocean 1,200 feet below. © 2015 Copyright All rights reserved -

Area Resources and Recommended Equipment

  • As mentioned above, long pants and shoes with good tread are strongly recommended on the Cataract Falls (it's not quite a boot-only hike though). It's a steady uphill climb for nearly two miles, so bring plenty of water, a snack, and a water bowl for your dog -- all these (along with the must-have poop bags and a first aid kit) means you'll want a solid day-pack.
  • The trail is plenty shady and, being on Mt. Tam, stays fairly cool -- even the open Bare Knoll can get windy so you may want to bring a long-sleeve layer if you tend to get cold while hiking (though the uphill climb will keep you plenty warm on the way up -- layer accordingly!).
  • The trail includes sections of stairs, many of which can be pretty tall -- if you have bad joints you'll want a walking stick (or two).
  • Good Earth Natural Foods in Mill Valley is on the way, just after getting off US-101 on Highway 1. They carry pre-made sandwiches (and sandwiches made to order), snacks and bottled water, and also have clean bathrooms so this can be a good pre-trail or post-trail pit stop. They have a dog friendly patio if you want to sit and enjoy a meal from the cafe after your hike.
  • For a post-hike meal, Cafe del Sol (Yelp) in Mill Valley is a healthy mediterranean-style restaurant offering vegan and vegetarian items (you can add chicken if you like) with a dog friendly patio. Dipsea Cafe (Yelp) is another dog friendly restaurant option offering breakfast/ brunch fare along with some really good looking Greek options if you want something a little different. Dipsea might also be the best bet for an area dog friendly bar since they do offer a great beer and wine selection, though be aware that they close at 3pm everyday.
  • Pet Emergency & Speciality Center of Marin (map) is the nearest 24/7 animal hospital, 12 minutes (7 miles) from the US-101/ Highway 1 interchange. The closer vet clinics all have limited weekend hours (generally 8:00am to 3:00pm on Saturdays, closed Sundays).

For more photos or additional info on the Cataract Falls trail, check out All Trails or Yelp.

Similar trails: McCloud Falls (Mt. Shasta), Limekiln trail (Los Gatos)

Other trails in this area: Marin Headlands (Marin County)

The Essentials -- How to have a good hike with your dog

The Essentials -- How to have a good hike with your dog