Within the rolling ridges of Mount Tamalpais, Cataract Creek cascades over rock and fallen logs for the better part of a half-mile, creating waterfalls big and small as it descends into Alpine Lake. This spectacle, commonly called Cataract Falls, draws many people to the Cataract Trail, just off Fairfax-Bolinas Road.
This popular section of the trail climbs from Alpine Lake at the trailhead into a mossy forest of redwoods, Douglas-firs, madrones, and oaks. A few dead trunks still stand tall in the farthest reaches of the reservoir. Inside the riparian corridor, ferns dot the hillsides, and western trilliums hide among them. On the higher reaches of the Cataract Falls, a few tall pink foxgloves find root on the hillside, as well as many other wildflowers such as seep monkeyflower and canyon delphinium. Laurel Dell picnic area 1.5 miles up Cataract trail provides a shaded resting spot near a tributary to the creek before the falls begin.
You can take many turnoffs from Cataract Trail, making this a great starting point for a loop. But better carry a map: the trail network here can be confusing.
If a shorter hike is all you have time for, take the three-mile round trip to Laurel Dells picnic area and back. But if you can spare more than a few hours, a longer 7.5-mile loop features a variety of ecosystems and habitats. (This 7.5 mile-loop can be shortened by following the Laurel Dell fire road north, away from Cataract Creek, where you can choose among two short paths to get to High Marsh trail.)
The High Marsh trail turnoff just below the picnic site gives a wide view of the valley Cataract Creek tumbles down, to the many ridges of the coast ranges that make up Mount Tamalpais, and a small glimpse of Alpine Lake.
On the higher chaparral hills and into the woodlands, manzanita groves bear fire scars and lichen grows abundantly on their darkened branches. The trail traverses through madrone and oak woodland, with little elevation change, when the shortcut from the Laurel Dells picnic site picks up.
You’ll cross several creeks, and the Swede George holds particular beauty and exceptional riparian habitat, with small pools hosting towering western sword ferns. Keep an eye out for banana slugs! Redwoods and Douglas-firs stand tall along the creeks, and soon you’ll meet the Kern Trail and descend into a redwood grove. The Swede George to Willow Meadow trails can also cut some time out of the loop, and are more off the beaten path.
A small, marshy clearing named Hidden Lake is just off this juncture, and offers excellent bird watching. Some exceptionally ancient redwoods remain along the Kent trail bearing fire scars, some trunks carved into hollows by fire. Notice circles of redwoods signifying the base of a much larger mother tree now gone.
Near the shore of Alpine Lake, Kent trail meets with Helen Markt trail to lead back to Cataract Trail. If you plan your trip to reach the lake in the evening, the sun setting behind the far ridge of the lake casts an ethereal glow on the evergreens on opposing slopes, and in summer you’ll have just enough time to arrive back at the Cataract trailhead before darkness overtakes the forest. This last stretch meanders along the dammed lake for a bit then heads higher into the hills, through redwood groves and across several streams. When you reach the trail junction, follow the sign pointed towards the dam to follow the Cataract trail back to Fairfax-Bolinas Road.