Cataract Trail starts out scenic enough, tracking the shore of the Alpine Lake Reservoir, then starts stair-stepping alongside the Cataract Creek. I was the first hiker on the trail Wednesday morning so I felt no qualms about shouting “man, what a view” at first sight of the first big waterfall. Mind you the major flow season is over, but there’s still quite a bit a water in the bigger creeks of the Mount Tam Watershed tumbling down into Alpine Lake.

If all you’re into is waterfalls, you can do the three-mile out-and-back from the Cataract Trail to Laurel Dell. Take your camera, take your time and be ready for a climb: 1,000 feet in 1.5 miles one way, and all that knee gouging descent on the way back. If you’ve got time to make a real hike of it, though, think about the 7.5-mile loop I took Wednesday. It’s a real beauty-and-the-beast hike: nary a flat stretch of trail the whole way, around 2200 feet of climb, with 600 in the last few miles just to remind you your boots were made for walking.

Here’s a map of my travels:

Cataract Trail Loop

I did the whole route to Laurel Dell, then turned back for a short stretch and took a right on the High Marsh Trail, an excellent path in its own right — lots of vistas, lots of trees, still lots of wildflowers, a couple pretty creeks to cross and a placid pond high on a hillside. The downleg on the Kent Trail gets steep in places, but it also tracks through a healthy stand of young redwoods. The final leg on the Helen Markt Trail can be a bit of a bear because it climbs a couple gullies to get back to Cataract Creek, but once you make it back there, it’s all downhill to the trailhead.

This hike is well worth taking a mental health day from the job or setting aside a vacation day (or celebrating the lush freedom of unemployment; I hear there’s a bit of that about these days). I walked six miles before seeing another hiker — try that on a Saturday or Sunday. Once you’ve had these trails to yourself you won’t want to share. And besides, there’s always a parking space near the trailhead on weekdays.

Let’s check out the pictures:

Where we're going

A sign lets you know you’re heading the right way.

Stairs head up the canyon

Alpine Lake is right next to the trail here. The steps are a regular feature all the way up to Laurel Dell.

Alpine Lake

The lake is pretty when the light’s right.

Waterfall along Cataract Creek

One of the first waterfalls of Cataract Creek.

Chinese Houses

One big swath of Chinese houses was growing next to the trail.

Time exposure on Cataract Creek

Practicing my blur technique. This is a one-second time exposure using my handy Gorillapod.

Purple iris

This is a fantastic year for irises, especially along Cataract Creek. Most were white but a few purple ones bloomed.

HIghest waterfall

Last waterfall, not far from Laurel Dell. It’s perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, but very difficult to photograph.

Nice vista

High Marsh Trail is mostly shaded but it has a few excellent vistas.

Tiny white flowers

This picture is about 10 times the size of these little flowers I saw growing in the forest along the High Marsh Trail.

Swede George Creek

High Marsh Trail crosses a couple forks of the Swede George Creek. This shot is a 3.2-second time exposure.

High Marsh

And, of course, the required High Marsh.

Helen Markt Trail

Here’s a shot from the Helen Markt Trail. Nice path, but the up-and-downs get old after awhile.

I feel sorta lame for not waxing more eloquent about this hike, but words are unequal to the walk. Main thing that springs to mind is how things are different in Marin because so many folks up there take conservation so seriously. A hike like this makes you want to hug a tree-hugger.

Links for this hike:

Here’s a Google map to get you to the trailhead.

View Cataract Creek trailhead in a larger map