California's Waterfalls

McCloud Falls

The McCloud River has three falls within two river miles of each other, each with its own distinct personality. Lower Falls is a busy family swimming hole, complete with a metal ladder to assist jumpers and divers as they exit the chilly water. Middle Falls is one of the most spectacular river falls in Northern California — wide, powerful, and commanding — and lures photographers and the hardiest of swimmers. Upper Falls is exotic-looking, a narrow funnel of water that drops into a circular turquoise pool, but it's difficult to view.One hiking trail links the three McCloud Falls, so you can visit them all in about an hour. Start hiking at Lower Falls, located just below Fowlers Camp. Lower Falls is the smallest of the McCloud Falls, a 12-foot plunge into a giant pool. In the spring, it's a popular put-in spot for kayakers heading down the McCloud River. In summer, it's crowded with people who want to jump in and cool off. Usually there's someone trying to catch a fish or two amid all the chaos.

Lower Falls

Check out the action at Lower Falls, then walk the half mile paved trail along the river that leads through Fowlers Camp. On the east side of the camp, near the rest rooms, you'll find the start of the trail to Middle Falls, signed only with a wildlife-viewing marker. Take the flat, Douglas fir-lined route along the McCloud River, and in 20 minutes you'll find yourself face-to-face with Middle McCloud Falls. Tall, wide, and regal-looking, Middle McCloud Falls drops 50 feet over a cliff and then forms a deep pool at its base before continuing downstream.

Bold teenagers sometimes jump off the basalt cliffs on the left side of the fall, diving into the chilly waters. Plenty of boulders downstream make good perches for watching the scene. Elephant ears grow in and around the falls, and water ouzels somehow manage to build their homes behind the fall's tremendous flow of water.

Middle and Upper Falls

As is common with river waterfalls, Middle McCloud is at least twice as wide as it is tall, adding breadth to its grandeur. The resulting flow is lavish, especially in springtime. It's as if the fall is constantly making a statement, something like, "There may be other falls on this river, but I am the king."

Pay homage and then get ready for a little climb to Upper Falls, the first elevation change on this trail. A series of long switchbacks take you gently up the grade to the top of Middle Falls, where there is a classic photo opportunity, a view of the fall's brink and the creek above it. The trail then flattens out and heads upriver to Upper McCloud Falls, clinging to the edge of the canyon wall. Great views of the coursing stream below hold your attention.

Keep your eyes peeled for the first sight of Upper Falls. This waterfall is more secretive than the two downriver; rarely do you get a look at its entire length. At a few scattered points along the trail, you can see five tiers of Upper Falls, but only in fleeting glimpses. When you reach an exposed outcrop of basalt boulders across from the fall, you can see only the two lowest tiers, where they plunge into a rocky bowl. They're gorgeous, with circular pools colored a remarkable shade of aquamarine. Although the trail continues around to the top of the fall, the best place for viewing is here, on the rock outcrop.

You'd think three waterfalls would be about all the excitement you could take on one trail, but a further surprise awaits you onyour return trip: an extraordinary view of Mount Shasta, which washiding behind your back on the way in. It appears to be so close, you could reach out and touch it.

Trip notes: There is no fee to enter the park. For a map of the forest, contact the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, McCloud Ranger District.

Directions: From Redding, drive 65 miles north on Interstate 5. Take the Highway 89/McCloud/Reno exit and drive east on Highway 89. Pass the town of McCloud in nine miles, then continue 4.5 miles further east to a small Forest Service sign for "River Access." Turn right and follow the signs to the McCloud River Picnic Area and Lower McCloud Falls. (Bear right at the road forks, driving past Fowlers Camp.) Park in the day-use parking area.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 9 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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