Burney Falls doesn’t cascade—it explodes. Each day, 100 million gallons of spring water burst from a 129-foot basalt cliff face and spill into a cerulean pool flanked by ponderosa pines. “If you’re there after a storm, you can’t even get close to [the falls],” says Zach O’Brien, founder of the outdoor travel news website Active NorCal. “The spray leaves you soaking wet, even on a sunny day.”
Tucked away from the crowds in northern California’s McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, the rip-roaring waterfall is fed by a surface-level creek and reservoirs of water—by-products of the Shasta Cascade region’s seismic history. The waterfall so impressed Teddy Roosevelt that he dubbed it “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” paving the way for it to receive National Natural Landmark status in 1954.
In Shasta, the majesty of Burney Falls is merely a drop in the bucket. Dozens of waterfalls—42 that are accessible to the public—rush through the aptly named Cascades, the same mountain range that extends north through Oregon and Washington, into British Columbia. Many of the falls are within an hour’s drive of Redding, California, a reliable home base for exploring waterfalls.
How Shasta Cascade became the Golden State’s waterfall mecca is a story written in the clouds and carved through the mountainous landscape. It’s a tale filled with rapids—and looming challenges. Along with waterfall chasers, the region attracts less-welcome admirers: water bottling corporations looking to own the springs that feed the falls. Such exploitation, along with worsening climate change, imbues destinations like Shasta Cascade with a sense of creeping impermanence.
Still, the area beckons visitors who find quietude amidst these thundering wonders. Shasta Cascade constitutes roughly one quarter of California’s total geologic landmass, but only 3 percent of the state’s population lives in the area.
Why so many waterfalls?
Even in California, with its history of wildfires, the Shasta Cascade region has a scorched legacy. The Cascade mountains sit along a subduction zone, where the Juan De Fuca tectonic plate scrapes beneath the western edge of the North American plate. The descending land mass causes temperatures and pressures deep in the Earth to rise, ultimately leading to the creation of magma that pushes its way to the surface.
The area’s volcanoes, including Lassen, belong to the Ring of Fire that encircles the Pacific. For over 2.6 million years, the Cascades have weathered enough eruptions to pave the land in lava, creating not only expansive flows and towering cliffs, but also long subterranean tunnels.
Each year, rainwater and snowmelt from the mountains travel downhill through these “lava tubes,” forming underground reservoirs. The water bubbles back to the surface to yield springs and streams that feed many of Shasta Cascade’s waterfalls. In a normal spring, when the snow is melting and precipitation rates are still high, and trending toward rain, these waterfalls are at their most thunderous.
(Waterfalls can form in a surprising new way.)
Visitors can see the fiery action for themselves at nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park, particularly in late spring and early summer. Reached by scenic roads that run up and down the slopes of the plug (or lava) dome volcano, the park encompasses 106,000 acres and offers visitors the chance to stare into an active volcano.
From the boiling geothermal springs and hissing steam vents at Bumpass Hell to the crater of Lassen Peak itself—accessible via a punishingly steep 2.5-mile trail—Lassen has a long history of humbling hikers.
Just below the California-Oregon border, Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park promises fairy-tale rainforest paths through towering redwood groves and secret rope swings over trickling creeks. Hunt for banana slugs, pitch a tent (dogs are allowed at campsites), and snorkel in the Smith River, the longest free-flowing river in California.
But park ranger and interpretive director Kevin Sweeney says you don’t have to leave the park road to experience one of the Lassen’s most eye-popping sights—Sulphur Works, a series of “mud pots” that boil and bubble away beside the road, releasing sulfuric gas.
“All of your senses are bombarded,” Sweeney says. “The neat thing about Sulphur Works is that you’re actually standing right in the center of an old volcano [Mount Tehama] that used to exist alongside Lassen Peak.” The caldera of that volcano is now gone, but the core still produces enough heat to boil that mud.
Sweeney says that Sulphur Works is the rough origin point of Mill Creek, which feeds the 75-foot-tall Mill Creek Falls, the biggest in Lassen. To get here, visitors tread a picturesque 3.2-mile roundtrip trail from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. “You walk through these fields of arrowleaf and mule’s ears, which are incredibly big, bright yellow flowers,” says Sweeney. “If you come in late spring to see the waterfalls at their most spectacular, that often coincides with the first bloom.”
A precious resource
Although the Shasta Cascade region’s waterfalls have splashed down through millennia, their future looks more precarious. Frequent droughts have not only fed the flames of 2018’s Carr Fire, they’ve cut into the region’s snowpack, thinning the reservoirs that rely on the spring snowmelt.
“California’s whole water infrastructure is built around the idea of having this natural reservoir of snowpack,” says Geeta Persad, assistant professor of Climate Science at the University of Texas Austin and a former California climate scientist, whose work in the state has focused on water use in the face of a new climate reality. “Since 1915, the western U.S. snowpack has declined by more than 20 percent. Climate models project that, in the next 50 years, California could be left with just a third of its current snowpack.”
In addition to climate change, the area is vulnerable to industrial encroachment. For more than a decade, the residents of McCloud, whose water sources belong to the McCloud River watershed, have been fending off corporations seeking to bottle the local water.
(Here’s how California’s water supply relies on snowpacks.)
In 2009, the town dissuaded Swiss corporation Nestlé from pursuing a contract giving it ownership of the watershed for 100 years. But subsequent advances from Crystal Geyser and startups, such as McCloud Artesian Spring Water, signal that the water war is heating up.
It’s not just the residents of McCloud who treasure the local waters. Every visitor who undertakes the pilgrimage to Shasta Cascade’s mythic waterfalls is engaging in a tradition that can feel as ancient as the lava tubes that burrow through the landscape.
To gaze at the waterfalls flowing here is to watch a centuries-old story unfolding despite the challenges.
Chasing Shasta’s waterfalls
So what’s the best way to see these natural wonders? The ultimate waterfall-misted loop bypasses 13 falls within driving distance from Redding and can be done over two or three days. But five of the most awe-inspiring cascades can easily be reached in one day.
This 177-mile journey begins with Hedge Creek Falls, located an hour’s drive north from Redding. Hedge Creek’s thin plume spills 35 feet from a towering basalt cliff, which shelters the falls’ most captivating feature: a shallow cave, accessible via the 0.4-mile trail from the road.
The trail crawls along the base of the precipice into the cave, allowing visitors to stand behind the waterfall. “There’s actually a legend that Black Bart, who was the famed stagecoach robber of California during the 1800s, used to rob coaches and [then] spend the night in the cave under Hedge Creek Falls with all his loot,” O’Brien says.
Gazing out at the forest through the veil of water, visitors experience a sense of intimacy with nature—a communion with the cascade.
Just under half an hour east of Hedge Creek, the McCloud Falls trio amps up the aquatic beauty. Spilling through the McCloud River Canyon, three waterfalls of varied size and power connect to a gentle three-mile (roundtrip) path that ambles through redwoods and Douglas firs. Lower McCloud Falls—the most popular of the three—is also the most modest at 15 feet tall, with a deep pool open to swimmers.
Things get wilder as the trail climbs through the woods to Middle McCloud Falls. At nearly 50 feet high and 80 feet wide, this rippling curtain of water seems to drown out everything else within earshot. From here, the trail makes a brief, steep ascent, climbing out of the canyon’s depths to Upper McCloud Falls, which tumbles 25 feet into another tantalizingly blue pool.
The journey crescendos, after a drive through corridors of pine, at nearby Burney Falls. An overlook is steps from the parking lot, but a short, steep switchback trail down to the base of the waterfall provides a closer look.
Better yet, follow the trail away from the cascade’s pool, along Burney Creek, for 0.3 miles across a wooden footbridge. From here, the trail doubles back and climbs above the falls to another bridge, offering a serene view of the creek that feeds Burney Falls.
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Miles Howard covers outdoor and urban recreation for National Geographic, The Boston Globe, VICE, NBC News, and Southwest: The Magazine. He is the author of Moon New England Hiking. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption incorrectly stated that a log cabin in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park was built in 1984. It was built in 1935.