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Two Quick-and-Easy Hikes to Gushing Waterfalls in Marin

Written by Maryann Jones ThompsonPublished Jan. 17, 2023 • 4:00pm
Cascade Falls is a seasonal waterfall just 20 minutes from San Francisco. | Maryann Jones Thompson /The Standard

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One upside to this month’s endless downpours is the seasonal waterfalls that have appeared around the SF Bay Area. It seems just about every hillside is glowing green and leaking rivulets of rainwater from the saturated hills.

No place is this truer than Marin. Its famed falls are exploding with water right now, meaning a break in the rain is a great time for a longer hike to Dawn Falls, Cataract Falls, Cascade Canyon or Alamere Falls.

Not a big hiker? Not a problem. Try one of these two super short, super gorgeous “hikes” within a half hour from the city that end at seasonal gushers—or do ’em both in one trip.

Hikers start up the trail to Cascade Falls in Marin County. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Cascade Falls, Mill Valley

The toughest part about this hike is ensuring that you are heading to the right Cascade Falls Trailhead in Mill Valley. (There are multiple “Cascade Falls” around the region, even in Marin County.)  Once you’ve got your navigation set correctly, head for Downtown Mill Valley and keep driving on Cascade Drive—past Old Mill Park and the Dipsea Trailhead to some parking turnouts near the marked trailhead.

A swollen Old Mill Creek runs along the trail to Cascade Falls in Mill Valley. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

The din of Old Mill Creek signals the start of a worthwhile walk. Follow the water for five minutes up a short trail through the redwoods, passing slopes covered in ferns until you see the gusher, pouring down from about 15 feet above your head. The whole excursion to the falls and back is only a half mile.

Winter rains cause Cascade Falls in Mill Valley to gush. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Tips: Go early to miss the crowds of bounding, wet purebreds and youngsters in Hunter rain boots. Make it a longer hike by heading up above the falls on the Myrtle Trail or by starting your walk near Old Mill Park, which avoids battling for a parking spot, as well.

After: Get desayuno at Bad Bunny’s favorite Bay Area Puerto Rican spot, Sol Food, grab lunch at Mamahuhu, Brandon Jew’s Chinese take-out outpost or trip through the shops in Mill Valley’s downtown or Lumberyard

Fairway Falls Trail, Novato

In northern Marin County, the trail to Fairway Falls—aka “Buck Gulch Falls”—leads hikers through a completely different type of wilderness in the Ignacio Valley Open Space. 

The walk begins near the Marin Country Club at the end of Fairway Drive on an unimpressive fire road. If the waterfall is running, you’ll almost immediately reach a rushing stream. The only way to ford it is by hopping across on exposed stones, walking a wide plank or getting everything up to your knees very, very wet.

The Fairway Falls trail heads through oak woodlands in northern Marin County. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

But sloshing farther along is worth it: In just 10 minutes, the path enters a bright green gulch, filled with mossy oaks, bays and madrones that crisscross the rushing stream. Scramble to the other side on another precarious pile of fallen branches and onto an easement to the H Ranch property.

The trail ends at the Buck Gulch Falls, dropping about 30 feet and forming a small pool below that is typically filled with splashing kids, undeterred by the chilly water. It’s worth a sit-down here to forest-bathe among the boulders before the return back.

Buck Gulch Falls in Novato | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Tips: The 1.3-mile out-and-back path is very easy and flat but crossing the stream might be a challenge for some hikers. Stay on the path to avoid the mix of bramble and poison oak on both sides. 

After: Drive over to trek Novato’s other seasonal waterfall on the aptly named Waterfall Trail, stop at Mamita’s for Oaxacan or continue north on 101 a few exits to get your retail errands done at Novato’s giant Vintage Oaks Shopping Center.

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Maryann Jones Thompson can be reached at [email protected]


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