Cataract Falls is a mile-long series of small cascades that tumble through a steep redwood-lined gully on the watershed of Mount Tamalpais. The loop on the Cataract Trail is about 7 miles from the falls to the falls. This is the kind of trail that is perfect for a rainy day when you come out itching.
Cataract Trail allows you to take many turnoffs, making this a great starting point for a loop. But better carry a map: it may be confusing for the trail network here.
If you have time for a shorter hike, take the three-mile round trip back and forth to the picnic area of Laurel Dells. But if you can spare more than a few hours, a longer 7.5-mile loop features a variety of ecosystems and habitats. The High Marsh trail turnoff just below the picnic site provides a wide view of the tumbling valley of Cataract Creek, the many ridges of the coastal ranges that make up Mount Tamalpais, and a small glimpse of Alpine Lake.
Manzanita groves bear fire scars on the higher chaparral hills and into the woods, and lichen grows abundantly on their darkened branches. When the shortcut from the Laurel Dells picnic site picks up, the trail crosses madrone and oak woodland, with little elevation change.
Several creeks will be crossed, and the Swede George has particular beauty and exceptional riparian habitat, with small pools hosting towering western sword ferns. Keep your eyes on banana slugs! Redwoods and Douglas-firs are standing high along the creeks, and you will soon meet the Kern Trail and go down to a redwood grove.
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