7 Best Waterfall Hikes Near San Francisco

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Waterfall Hikes! Who doesn’t love a waterfall?

We love that they are so close to the city! And you can combine several hikes – some are quite short – for a more strenuous day.

You can wait for rain, or go today!


Obviously, the more it rains, the more water you’ll see in waterfalls. Even if they’re running a little low, they’re all in beautiful areas and are well worth the trip.

Alamere Falls

  • Hiking time: 2 hours each way
  • Total distance: 8.2 miles
  • Trail difficulty: moderate
  • No dogs, no bikes

Alamere Falls is the rock star of Bay Area waterfalls. Not only is it one of the most dramatic locations, falling right onto the beach, but it’s also one of the most reliably high-flowing falls around. The hike to Alamere Falls is the longest on the list, but it keeps a fairly even elevation most of the way. The first mile snakes along a 300-foot cliff overlooking the water, and the rest goes between forest and exposed chaparral.

To get down to the beach, you’ll have to scramble 60 feet down a gravelly cliff. It’s nothing crazy, but you will definitely have to use your hands. Climbing back up can be tricky. If you’re not feeling particularly agile, you can take an alternate route north to Wildcat Campground and then walk back down to the falls along the sand. It should be passable at most tides. The alternate route will add about 2.7 miles each way.

Cascade Falls

  • Hiking time: 20 minutes each way
  • Total distance: 1.5 miles
  • Trail difficulty: easy
  • Dogs OK, bikes OK on fire roads only

This is a quick hike to a great waterfall that you could do on a whim if you happen to be in the area.  The main trail crosses San Anselmo Creek multiple times, but it’s mostly dry except after seasonal rains. In case of high water, there’s an alternate trail that follows along the north side of the creek with one bridge crossing just before the falls.

The trail officially ends at the falls, but if the water is low enough, you can rock-hop upstream and find some nice secluded spots.

Cataract Falls

  • Hiking time: 1.5 hours each way
  • Total distance: 2.8 miles
  • Trail difficulty: moderate
  • Dogs OK on leash, no bikes

You’ll pass multiple falls along Cataract Creek on the way to Laurel Dell, a picnic area just past Cataract Falls. It’s a steep hike, but each ascent is worthwhile when you see the next waterfall along the way.

Almost the entire trail is covered by trees, and every surface that’s not being walked on is blanketed in moss. It’s the kind of scene where you’d expect to find fairies and gnomes. The creek fills in pools at the bottom of each waterfall that look inviting after a long hike, but swimming here is totally off-limits.

Dawn Falls

  • Hiking time: 30 minutes each way
  • Total distance: 2.2 miles
  • Trail difficulty: easy
  • Dogs OK on leash, no bikes

As of the first few weeks of 2015, Dawn Falls was essentially dry. There are a few reasons I still included it in this list, though. First, when it does rain again Dawn Falls will be one of the best on the list. The trail leads right up to the precipice of the falls, overlooking a 30-foot drop to the streambed below.

The second reason is that there is a lower waterfall that you’ll pass on the way to Dawn Falls that, while not quite as high, is definitely worth checking out. The last reason is that the whole Baltimore Canyon is absolutely gorgeous. No matter how much water is in the creek, I couldn’t imagine anyone walking away disappointed.

Elliot Creek Falls

  • Hiking time: 20 minutes each way
  • Total distance: 1.9 miles
  • Trail difficulty: easy
  • Dogs and bikes: No dogs at Waddell Beach or Año Nuevo, too sandy for bikes


Elliot Creek flows out onto the beach just south of Año Nuevo State Park.  This waterfall has a hidden talent of unearthing fossils.  You can find chunks of smoothed rock filled with shells scattered around the beach at low tide.

Mount Diablo Falls

  • Hiking time: 3.5 hours total
  • Total distance: 6.3 miles
  • Trail difficulty: strenuous
  • No dogs, bikes OK on fire roads only

This isn’t the longest trail of the bunch, but with a 1,154-foot elevation difference  it’s definitely the most physically demanding. These falls are more dependent on rain than some of the others on this list. Even in times of drought, though, it’s still worth the hike.

Peters Creek Falls

  • Hiking time: 20 minutes each way
  • Total distance: 1.8 miles
  • Trail difficulty: easy
  • No dogs, No bikes

Even at low flow, the rocky spillway of Peters Creek is nothing short of amazing. You won’t find it on any maps, and the offshoot from the main trail is unmarked. There are multiple small waterfalls cutting grooves in the sandstone boulders at the end of the creek. The trail winds around the edge of the falls until it fades into a leafy slope.

This is easily the kind of place where you could spend a day and not see another person. The signs at the main trailhead warn of mountain lions in the area, and the leftovers from a dinner of free-range venison back up the hype.

Thanks to Sierra Hartman for this post. Read more, see additional pics and get directions at:
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