Descending the Labyrinth: Cataract Trail

Mt. Tamalpais State Park

Situated in one of the most beautiful places on earth — Mt. Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, California — the Cataract Trail drops from the ocean side of the West Peak down to Alpine Lake, some 1,300 feet below. Making the trek from top to bottom is like descending a wooded labyrinth of waterfalls, rocky facades, and winding staircases that will engage your senses and test your endurance.

The starting point of the trail is near the Rock Springs parking lot (see map below), a rather picturesque location with panoramic views of the brooding Pacific Ocean, from the Farralon Islands down to the misty shores of the San Mateo County coast. This perspective of the Pacific always give me the chills even though I’ve seen it dozens of times. The trail essentially points north as it hugs a cliff above and immediately east of Cataract Creek, but its true personality is all about dropping ever so swiftly into a heavily wooded canyon.

Modest Beginnings

DSC_0015After crossing through a modest grassy meadow surrounded by a plethora of pines, the trail begins to take form as it parallels the infantile beginnings of the creek, a rather skinny four to five feet across at this stage. Fragrances of dried brush and bay trees satisfy the nose while wildlife, wooden footbridges, and an under-story of ferns and other foliage provide eye candy. The elevation changes little as it meanders for about a mile and a half through rocky outcroppings and the occasional uprooted Douglas fir. The level of difficulty at this point is generally moderate, but all that is about to change with a dramatic drop in elevation.

Soon, the trail begins to point downward as it maintains its position on the edge of the canyon above the creek. With the drop in elevation comes some deviation in trail surface. Parts of the path are 100-foot patches of wavy granite while others are reddish clay or bona fide staircases chiseled into the mountain by rangers and volunteers of yesteryear. The stairs are composed of either rock or wooden railroad ties, with some originally cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the middle of the Great Depression. The creek is now starting to gain some “teeth” as the slope works in tandem with gravity to create rushing white water.


DSC_0044What follows is a series of cascading falls, long gradients of packed trail, and winding staircases that will “burn” your leg muscles. As expected, the waterfalls steal the show. If you are lucky enough to be here following spring rains, the creek is full and the falls are at their most profound.

There are railings along the trail and especially the staircases, but there are no rules preventing you from becoming more personally acquainted with the clear, cool water. I should caution you that engaging the creek at this stage is not for the feeble since there is a certain amount of danger in leaving the safe confines of the trail. Nevertheless, I encourage you to find one of the less challenging “side roads” down to the creek to capture its power.

Destination | Alpine Lake

1024px-Alpine_Lake_10160Finally, the falls give way to a gradual softening of slope as the elevation levels off near 650 feet above sea level. Cataract Creek is now about 100 feet across, and it soon merges into Alpine Lake, one of the many reservoirs in central Marin County that supply drinking water and additional breathtaking views. Here, the trail is west of the lake where there are picnic tables, shaded embankments, and exposed rock to rest upon while wetting a fishing line. You will also encounter hikers who parked along the lake and are working their way up the trail. After taking a break, you follow them for a reverse view of the mountain you just descended.

I count the stairs from time to time, but always come up with a different number — was it 450 or 472? … In any event, I encourage you to make your own count as you discover the treasures of the Cataract Trail.