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5 Spectacular Waterfall Hikes

Those winter doldrums can be a real doosey on your little ones. Battle the urge to hunker down and instead bundle those kiddos up and head out to witness one of the breathtaking waterfall hikes the Bay Area has to offer. Sing-along songs, imaginative games (and a secret stash of chocolate chips) keep them moving along. In the end, you get some exercise, the kids burn off some energy and everyone’s invigorated by one of nature’s finest spectacles. Good times.

1. Cascade Falls, Mill Valley
This extremely short and easy jaunt through peaceful Redwoods and along Cascade Creek makes for a good hiking primer for toddlers and a relaxing stroll for everyone else. Amble along the wide trail, cross the wooden bridge and then marvel accordingly. The falls are a splendid sight year-round and particularly impressive in the winter and early spring.

Type and Total Distance: Two-tenths of a mile there-and-back.

Good for: Everyone

Getting there: From downtown Mill Valley, take Throckmorton Avenue to Cascade Drive. Turn left on Cascade Drive, then follow it to the right for about a mile, just past where it intersects with Throckmorton again. Park in the dirt lot on the right marked with the sign “Cascade Falls.”

Good to know:  To extend the adventure, head across the street from the parking area to a trail marked by the “Mill Valley Steps, Lanes and Paths” placard. Walk about a hundred yards to Three Wells, a series of cascade falls and idyllic pools. This trail is a little trickier and thus only recommended for nimble-footed preschoolers or older.

Old Mill Park and the Mill Valley Library are both about a mile away and have public restrooms and water fountains.

2. Cataract Falls, Mt. Tamalpais State Park
These are set of several cascade waterfalls that roar through a lush wooded canyon on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais. The falls range in size from about 30-70 feet and are positively overwhelming after good winter deluge. Head down the Laurel Dell Fire Road, then continue to the left on Cascade Trail to the falls. A couple downhill sections of the trail on the way in become manageable climbs on the way back.

Type and Total Distance:  2 miles there-and-back.

Good for: Babies/toddlers in backpacks or carriers, active preschoolers and older.

Getting There: From 101, take the Stinson Beach/Highway 1 exit and head west. Turn left on Shoreline Highway, then right on Panoramic Highway. After about five miles, make a slight right onto Pantoll Road and head to Ridgecrest Road. Turn left on Ridgecrest Road. After 1.6 miles, park in the dirt lot on the right. The sign at the trailhead says “Laurel Dell.”

Good to know: Restrooms and drinking water are available at the Pantoll Ranger Station, at the intersection of Pantoll Road and Panoramic Highway.

3. Uvas Canyon County Park, Morgan Hill
Tucked into the folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains’ eastern slope is this hidden oasis of several spring-fed waterfalls. The Waterfall Loop is the ideal way to take in this riparian habitat and many of the park’s picturesque, perennial falls. The trail, while short, can be steep and rocky at times.

Type and Total Distance: One mile loop.

Good for: Babies/toddlers in backpacks or carriers, active preschoolers and older.

Getting There: From 101, exit on Bailey Avenue and head west. Follow Bailey to the left to McKean Road. Turn right on McKean and continue as it turns into Uvas Road. Turn right on Croy Road and take it up into the canyon to the park.

Good to know: Pamphlets available at the trailhead contain a self-guided tour of the park’s flora, corresponding with numbered posts along the trail.

4. Dawn Falls, Larkspur
This is a gorgeous hike through mossy Baltimore Canyon to a waterfall that plunges twenty feet into Larkspur Creek. These falls really only get humming after heavy rainfall and are more of a trickle other times. The trail is well-traveled and mostly flat, with one reasonable ascent to the top of the falls.

Type and Total Distance: 2.2 miles there-and-back

Good for: Babies/toddlers in backpacks or carriers, active preschoolers and older.

Getting there: From 101, exit on Tamalpais Drive and head west to Corte Madera Avenue. Turn right and head half a mile to Madrone Avenue. Turn left on Madrone, pass Dolliver Park, and continue a mile until it dead-ends. Park in one of the designated parking spots on the left.

Good to know: About a mile into the hike, just before the ascent to the falls, you will encounter a huge boulder in the middle of the trail. Take the trail to the left that gradually switchbacks up the hill instead of the steep, poorly maintained quasi-trail straight ahead. Restrooms and a water fountain are at Dolliver Park, a mile from the trailhead on Madrone.

5. Morse’s Gulch Falls, Stinson Beach
This romp along an overgrown and unmaintained “trail” is only for the adventurous and hardy. Several fallen trees require several detours off-trail and finding the trail again requires some vision and effort. The mostly flat “trail” crosses the creek a couple times and then ascends to the top of the fifty-foot falls along a thin path along the side of the canyon slope. It is not for the faint of heart.

That said, with sufficient care and precaution, approaching these falls amid this undeveloped, raw wilderness affords a rewarding sense of discovery and accomplishment.

Type and Total Distance: One mile there-and-back.

Good for: Active, sure-footed and adventurous preschoolers or older and at least two similarly intrepid adults for each young child to hold hands and aid in creek crossings.

Getting there: Take Highway 1 toward Stinson Beach. At the southern edge of the town of Stinson Beach, Highway 1 will meet Panoramic Highway. Drive 2.6 miles north of this junction to a small, unmarked dirt lot on the right side of Highway 1. It is right past mile marker 14.86. Look for a blue “Call Box” sign near the road and a “No Camping or Overnight Parking” sign obscured by the trees.

Good to know: Wear high socks and long pants to guard against the poison oak and nettles you will encounter off-trail.

Know any other waterfall hikes that should be on our list? Where have you gone hiking to show your kids a waterfall?

– Neil Chhabra

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