A steep, slippery mile through the deep woods north of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County tracks some of the best waterfall hiking on the West Coast (as long as the water’s running). I spent far more time driving than hiking on this outing, but it was a worthy trade-off.

Cataract Creek wouldn’t be much of a waterway anywhere else, but here, it takes a steep dive down a narrow ravine, creating at least nine distinct waterfalls, according to this site. All told, it’s a three-mile round trip, one of the most impressive short hikes I’ve done in these parts.

It’s a wicked drive from the South Bay: through Oakland, over the Richmond Bridge, along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard for a few miles till you hit the town of Fairfax, where you turn off for eight miles of zigzagging along Bolinas Road to a trail head with room for about a half-dozen cars. Play hooky and go on a weekday.

I was on the outskirts of Oakland when I realized I’d forgotten my camera. Not such a terrible fate, truth be told, because you need at least one time up and down the trail with no distractions to get a feel for just how much flowing water there is — and how many photo opportunities there are. In the film era, you’d burn three rolls by the second waterfall. Even with digital you’ll want to pace yourself, or you’ll have 500 pictures to sort through when you get home.

The trail starts out along Alpine Lake — a pleasant enough setting in its own right, but it starts climbing steeply after a quarter mile or so. By the end of the first mile you’ve climbed gazillion steps and seen enough waterfalls to to last a season, but if you go another half-mile there are even more. Stick it out and hike up to the Laurel Dell picnic area, where there are tables and a couple pit toilets (stinky but welcome after walking next to running water all that time).

Other trails nearby offer an opportunity for a seven- to eight-mile loop (described here on Kevin Gong’s page) … it’s worth doing on a second or third visit. An out-and-back is best the first time, because there are even more spectacular views you missed on the way up.

Don’t be too surprised if it’s the most time-consuming three-miler you’ve ever done. It took me two hours, and that was without taking any pictures.

If you haven’t been, put this one on your must-do list.

Map to the parking area near the trail head:

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