Water world

Hike to thundering cascades in the shadow of Mt. Shasta
Lora J. Finnegan

Long before you reach McArthur-Burney Falls, it reaches out to you, sending a cool mist up the canyon to coat your face. Descend the steep trail through giant Douglas fir trees and stand before the deluge, and you'll find yourself staring into a broad-shouldered, powerful wall of water.

McArthur-Burney Falls is the jewel of Northern California's McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, and it's easy to visit on a drive northeast of Redding. But it isn't the only waterfall in the Mt. Shasta region. Take a few detours on backroads off State 89 and State 299, and you'll easily find a half-dozen cataracts, including some local secrets. Flowing over mossy ledges or cascading into deep pools, these falls are well worth a weekend visit.

Mt. Shasta's winter snowpack is a key source for these falls, and last winter's snows were abundant. The cascades ― at their thundering best in May and June ― will keep flowing well into summer (some are year-round) because the landscape is porous lava. As the snow melts, water slowly percolates through the ground, steadily feeding the springs that replenish these gushers.

The watery plumes featured here are all reachable by easy hikes. Pack a picnic lunch and a fishing rod; toss in a bathing suit, and you can dip a toe in the frigid waters of Lower McCloud, which warms up to swimmable by midsummer.

McArthur-Burney Falls

There's something magical about McArthur-Burney Falls. Even when the creek feeding the cascade dries up ― as can happen by summer's end ― the water keeps flowing. Underground springs keep it going year-round: more than 100 million icy gallons every day.

As you stand in the vaporous basin, scan the brooding, 129-foot-tall basalt formation, and you'll see a main gusher that splits at the top, breaks into dozens of frothy rivulets, then pounds down into a shimmering emerald pool. But look closely, and you'll notice that water also flows straight out of the cliff, through holes that pock the volcanic rock face.

From the Falls Overlook, hike the Headwaters Trail upstream, then cross the Pacific Crest Trail footbridge and loop around for a look down at the falls; it's a moderate 3.5-mile hike each way. The pool registers a seriously chilly 38°-42°, so swimming is out. But you can drop a line for three kinds of trout (mostly rainbow, but also brook and brown; check park regulations).

INFO: Camping is available in 128 sites ($20 per night; 800/444-7275). McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park is 11 miles northeast of Burney on State 89 ($6 day-use fee; www.parks.ca.gov or 530/335-2777).

Hedge Creek Falls

A ribbonlike tumble over a fern-crowded cliff, Hedge Creek pours into the rushing Sacramento River nearby. From a manicured picnic area, you hike down a trail that's steep, skinny, and edged with poison oak, but the route is mercifully short ― about 0.25 mile.

At the bottom, boulder-hop over the creek to hike behind and underneath Hedge Creek Falls. Then stand inside a dark cave and look out through a bright curtain of water ― it's like a scene from a vintage adventure movie. Go early in the morning, and you might spot a small grayish bird called a water ouzel feeding along the creek bottom.

INFO: Hedge Creek Falls Park (Dunsmuir Ave. at Mott Rd., Dunsmuir; www.shastacascade.org or 800/474-2782)

McCloud River Falls

In years past, the three sister falls along the McCloud River were off-limits, reachable only by anglers and skinny-dippers who dared to sneak across private timberlands. Today getting to the water ― now on public land with parking and tidy campgrounds ― isn't as romantic, but it's easier.

Start at Lower Falls, where the McCloud River bounds over a wide rock ledge and drops about 12 feet into a circular, turquoise pool; picnic tables ring an overlook. Anglers have scuffed makeshift trails that snake downstream from here along the riverbank, and with good reason: Fishing can be world-class. "The McCloud River trout are famous for their fight and tenacity," notes aptly named local fishing guide Jack Trout.

You can drive from Lower Falls to two more cascades on 6 1/2-mile McCloud River Loop Road, but you'll get better views if you hike. It's a 1.5-mile one-way trek from Lower to Middle and Upper Falls. Along the easy, level trail, look for flowering dogwood or the bright reddish orange blooms of columbine, a mountain wildflower that likes to keep its feet wet. The trail soon brings you to 50-foot-tall Middle Falls, an awesome force that charges out of its rocky gate like Seabiscuit at the Santa Anita Handicap.

From Middle Falls, switchback up a hill and along the clifftop another 0.5 mile to Upper Falls, a cataract that sounds like a distant hailstorm.

INFO: On State 89, go 5 miles east of the town of McCloud; exit at Fowlers Campground and follow signs (McCloud Ranger Station, www.fs.fed.us/r5/shastatrinity/contact or 530/964-2184).