The Cataract Trails

On Marin County's Mount Tamalpais
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If you just want an easy walk in the woods, maybe with a little picnicking or a nature lesson along the way, here's a trail loop that's just right. Lots of people come to Mount Tam to see the majestic coastal redwoods or take in the sweeping views from the peaks, but there's plenty to be said for a simple hike in a mixed hardwood forest, with the opportunity to get a little exercise, find some solitude, and listen only to the birds and the sound of your own breathing.

All the cars parked at Rock Springs parking area on the weekends might make you worry that this trail loop will be packed with people, but I've often seen only one or two others on it. It seems that many people come to Rock Springs, but they head out on other trails to visit the scenic lookout at O'Rourke's Bench or Mountain Theater. On one weekend hike, the only folks I saw on the trail were a group of senior hikers, many who looked to be in their 70s or 80s, who were speeding up Benstein like they were on their way to a fire, arguing all the way about what species of oriole they had just seen. They passed me near Potrero Meadow and I never caught up with them.

It's a good idea to have a map when you come here. Although the trail is well-signed, you have to make quite a few turns to complete the loop. Start by walking straight from the parking area, heading out on Cataract until it splits-Cataract to your left and Benstein to your right. Take Benstein north, heading immediately into the forest, where you'll probably be greeted by the sound of woodpeckers, or at least some holey evidence of them.

Trail markers lead you toward Potrero Meadows, and you climb all the way until you come to a joining of Benstein Trail with the Rock Springs/Lagunitas fire road, which you follow to your left for only a few dozen yards before Benstein veers off again to the left, back on single-track.

Prepare for a sudden change as you come out of the hardwoods and on to the rocky back side of this ridge, where you enter a sharply contrasting world composed of manzanita, chemise, puny Sargent cypress trees, and rocks and gravel made of serpentine. Spend some time looking around this area, as it's a classic example of what grows in a serpentine world—plants that need little in the way of nutrients and are often dwarfed in size. The 15-foot-tall Sargent cypress trees grow only in serpentine soil—they just plain like it. Serpentine, which is California's state rock, is formed by water mixing with peridotite. It's a pretty grayish-green where it appears on Mount Tamalpais, although in other places it can be almost all gray.

Descending from this gravelly, exposed ridge, follow Benstein for another quarter-mile until you come out on the Laurel Dell fire road, which leads to Barth's Retreat and eventually Laurel Dell. (A picnic area is in the meadow across the road if anyone in your group is getting hungry or restless.) Turn left on the fire road and hike for about an eighth of a mile, where you get a short but spectacular view of Bon Tempe Lake and the Marin Watershed valley to the north.

After your short stint on the fire road, turn left on another fire road at the trail sign for Barth's Retreat, an old camp that was built by the poet, musician, and hiker in the 1920s. Turn right and cross a bridge where there is a spigot for water (not suitable for drinking without treating it), pass by yet another picnic area, and continue straight. You are now on the Mickey O'Brien Trail heading west along Barth's Creek, through a thick forest of oaks, bays, and Douglas firs. This is one of the best sections of the loop, especially when the stream is running in spring, as Mickey O'Brien leads you gently downhill toward Laurel Dell. It's very protected and quiet in this part of the forest, and plenty of birds and animals take advantage of Barth's Creek.

Before you reach Laurel Dell, Mickey O'Brien comes to an end at an intersection with Cataract Trail, which is your ticket back to Rock Springs. Turn left onto Cataract and it's just over a mile back to the parking area. If you want to make a sidetrip to picnic at Laurel Dell, head to your right for less than a quarter of a mile, have your lunch in the picnic area, then follow Cataract home.

Make it Easier

At Barth's Retreat, you can head back to the parking area on Simmons Trail and cut one mile off your trip.

Trip Notes

There is no fee. For more information and a $2 map, contact Marin Municipal Water District at 220 Nellen, Corte Madera, CA 94925; (415) 924-4600. Or phone Sky Oaks Ranger Station at (415) 459-5267. Since this trip borders Mount Tamalpais State Park, rangers there can also help you. Contact Mount Tamalpais State Park, 801 Panoramic Highway, Mill Valley, CA 94941; (415) 388-2070.


From San Francisco, take US 101 North over the Golden Gate Bridge to the Mill Valley/Stinson Beach/Highway 1 exit. Continue straight for about one mile until you reach a stoplight at Shoreline Highway. Turn left and drive uphill on Shoreline Highway for 2.5 miles, then turn right on Panoramic Highway. Drive for nine-tenths of a mile until you reach an intersection called "Four Corners" where you can go left, straight, or right. Take the middle road (straight), continuing on Panoramic Highway for 4.3 more miles to the Pantoll parking lot. Turn right on Pantoll Road and drive 1.4 miles to its intersection with Ridgecrest Boulevard, where there is a large parking area called Rock Springs. Park here and take the trail from the parking lot that is marked "Cataract Trail."

© Article copyright Foghorn Press. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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