At A Glance
An easy trail following the beautiful McCloud River, passing three waterfalls and ending at a lush meadow.
Total Distance: 5.5 miles (further if desired)
Elevation Gain: 330 feet
Best Season: Spring, Summer, Fall
Roaring River And Wonderful Waterfalls
The McCloud River is one of Northern California’s most scenic and famous waterways. It begins its journey in the vast, wooded flat lands spreading out beneath the southern foot of Mount Shasta. Although the river’s headwaters are springs at the eastern end of the McCloud Flats, water flowing off of Mount Shasta in the form of Ash Creek and Mud Creek contribute significantly to the river’s volume. More importantly, the river is swollen by subterranean waters coming from the heart of the great volcano. The McCloud has been shaped by volcanism in more tangible ways besides its volume as well. The canyons carved by the river expose the fiery past the region has experienced. One stretch of the McCloud River in particular offers especially dramatic testimony Mount Shasta’s activity. A few miles above the Lake McCloud reservoir, the river passes through a deep canyon that contains cooled lava flows, columnar basalt and cliffs composed of tufa. Through all of this, the McCloud has carved an extremely scenic channel.
However, as interesting a sight as the evidence of the volcanic past is, its most obvious legacy is the river’s greatest glory. Three waterfalls have formed where the river has encountered tough, erosion-resistant bands of basalt. Each of these waterfalls has a distinctive personality, adding a great deal of character to an already attractive river. Though the McCloud River itself is beautiful, it is the trio of waterfalls that set the McCloud River Falls Trail apart from other trails in the Mount Shasta area. Other hikes in the region lead to waterfalls but while most provide scenic vistas of tumbling cataracts (certainly a worthy destination) no trail offers the volume of falling water, nor the up-close and intimate exposure to the waterfalls that is had by hiking the McCloud River Falls Trail.
The McCloud River Falls Trail is a bit unusual among trail in the Mount Shasta area because each of its significant points of interest is serviced by a paved road accessing an overlook above one of the three waterfalls. Picnic areas are also located near Upper and Lower Falls. There is also a campground midway between Lower and Middle Falls. This raises the possibility of breaking the hike up and only doing segments of the trail. Unless pressed for time, the whole trail is very scenic and worth doing. Most who do the hike begin at the Lower Falls picnic area. It should be pointed out that trail neither begins nor ends at the Lower Falls area though. From the view point, the trail continues south 0.5 miles further downstream from Lower Falls to a Forest Service river access site. The McCloud passes through a shallow gorge here and boasts some interesting occurrences of columnar basalt along the river’s channel. For those only picnicking at Lower Falls, this is a good option for exploring the river. Few hike this section of the trail. Most who do are fishermen. It is also possible to start the hike at the river access point. Doing so adds 1 mile round trip. This is a great option for those looking for a longer hike.
If beginning the McCloud River Falls Trail at the typical spot, park in the large parking area for the Lower Falls picnic area. Walk through the tables toward the overlook above Lower Falls. The Lower Falls of the McCloud River is a 15 foot cataract formed where the river pours over a large basalt block into a deep pool. Native Americans noted that this was the place where the fish stopped. It is easy to see why. Prior to the falls, fishing traveling upstream would have encountered a few rapids but had a fairly straightforward passage. It is unlikely that a fish could leap up the falls. The trail departs the overlook to the left and climbs down an attractively built stair case. There is also a ramp a little further away. The section of the trail between Lower Falls and Fowlers Camp is ADA compatible. Consequently it is paved and very level in addition to being accessed via a ramp. Above Lower Falls, the basalt continues along the banks of the river, creating a broad, sunny bench to relax on while the river roars by. After lingering a bit, the trail veers briefly away from the river, climbs some very slight switch banks and then nears the river again, now on the outskirts of the Fowlers Camp campground. As indicated by the climb on the switchbacks, the river is a bit of a deeper canyon here. Still paved, the trail follows a railing along the rim of the canyon. Fowlers Camp is on the left, just a short distance from the trail.
After skirting the campground, the trail finally becomes a dirt path. It still remains wide and is very level. The river remains about 20-50 feet on the right, but is now at the same level as the trail. This is because the river enters a deeper canyon once it passes the campground. However, rather than being on the canyon rim, the trail is now at its bottom. Paralleling the river, the path constantly encounters large boulders and rocky areas. Large, old-growth trees rise high overhead, creating a shady canopy. The river is almost always in view and can always be heard. Be sure to look for Pacific Yew trees, which thrive in wetter spots in the area. The tree is identified by its fir-like needles and red, peeling bark, similar to a madrone tree. This is the longest unbroken stretch of the McCloud River Falls Trail. It is about 0.7 miles from Fowlers Camp to Middle McCloud Falls.
Audible long before it is visible, the Middle Falls of the McCloud River is the unrivaled highlight of the McCloud River Falls Trail. Far more impressive than either of its siblings, Middle Falls is about 50 feet high and 80 feet across. The river reaches the precipice of the falls and pours over in a broad, rectangular sheet. About two thirds of the way across the waterfall there is a rocky protrusion. This partitions the falls; the further third being on the far side of the river. There is also a small rockfall beneath the rocky protrusion that has impounded the water from the further third of the falls, creating a small pool separated from the falls’ main pool. A small cataract flows between the upper and lower pools, recombining the river’s waters. This may sound like a fairly minor detail but it manages to give Middle Falls a sense of depth that would be lacking if it were a single unbroken sheet of water.
When the McCloud River Falls Trail reaches Middle Falls the roar from the falling water drowns out all other noise. The trail comes within 30 feet of the edge of the falls’ pool. The water surging over the precipice is an awesome view from here. The trail, however, switches back and begins to climb out of the river’s canyon. The grade is moderate while the trail climbs for a little less than 0.1 miles before switching back again. Two more switchbacks finally lead to a well-built wooden staircase that climbs the last 30 feet out of the canyon. The staircase is necessary because the rim of the canyon is capped with a layer of hard volcanic rock unsuitable for trail construction. The climb out of the canyon is the only uphill section on the entire trail. From the top of the stairs the trail continues along the canyon rim to a great vista above the falls. There is an extensive railing along this section of trail. Before continuing, it is worth stopping at another vista 30 yards or so away from the trail. Here, there is another chance to look down on the falls from slightly higher up, as well as a paved trail leading to the vista parking lot where there are some bathrooms.
From the Middle Falls overlooks, the trail continues upstream, following the rim of the canyon. The railing from overlook continues along this section because the trail is slung precariously above the river. In the distance to the west the high peaks of the Castle Crags Wilderness, specifically Gray Rock Dome and Harry Watkins line the horizon. Mount Shasta is visible but partially obscured by trees. A short distance from the end of the railing, the trail drops a little below the rim of the canyon, though it remains high above the river. The hard basalt cap bypassed by the stairs now forms a wall on the left side of the trail. Eventually the basalt fades away and the trail as Upper McCloud Falls appears in the distance through the trees.
The arrival at Upper Falls is marked by the commencement of a new railing. Right at the beginning of the railing there is a distinct, well established but unofficial use trail descending down to the river. Climbing down this trail provides the best view of the falls. Though not as spectacular as Middle Falls, Upper Falls is still an impressive waterfall. At about 25 feet, it is nearly double the height of Lower Falls. Rather than plunging over a precipice, at Upper Falls, the McCloud River has gouged a large trough through a 50 foot high basalt wall. Consequently, the falls look as though they are falling out of a breach in the wall. The high cliff with water pouring out of it is an impressive sight. Returning to the main trail, follow the railing on a paved ADA trail to an overlook directly above the falls. While this view is OK, the river immediately above the falls is much more interesting. The increasingly deeper basalt trough the rivers crashes through extends about 150 feet behind the falls. The river pours over smaller cataracts within the trough and passes smooth, bathtub sized pools excavated out of the hard rock. It is an interesting site and gives the Upper Falls a very distinct personality.
Beyond the Upper Falls overlook, the trail parallels the river through a picnic area. Most people end the hike here and turn around to head back to the trailhead at Lower Falls. While the spectacle of the three McCloud waterfalls is now left behind, for those who want to hike longer and enjoy the river more, the trail continues. Persevering is strongly recommended. Beyond the picnic area, the trail stays close to the river, now much more placid, as it winds through rocky outcroppings and dense forest. At times the trail is constructed out of piles of rugged lava rock. Since this section of trail does not see many hikers, mountain bikers have adopted it as their own. While they too are somewhat infrequent, use be aware of the possibility they may be around while hiking. There are a few more decaying picnic trails scattered randomly along the trail, but most are falling apart. Keen observers will also notice a few concrete pylons, remnants of a small aqueduct that once carried water from the river to the town of McCloud.
Eventually, the sound of falling water can be heard again. Instead of a waterfall, the sound is made by the McCloud River surging over the top of the Lakin Dam, an old concrete dam built to provide water for the lumber mill that once operated in McCloud. The dam was built in 1925 and named after an executive of the lumber company who perished while fighting a fire on the outskirts of the town. Be sure to notice the small, circular outlet at the bottom of the dam. This was once connected to pipes and was the diversion discharge for the dam. The concrete pylons seen earlier carried the water from this point. Interpretive signs tell the history of the dam. Above the dam, the character of the McCloud River changes dramatically. It is much deeper and slower as it meanders lazily through the grassy vale.
A short distance upstream from the dam, there is another picnic area. Built to draw people to see Lakin Dam, it is seldom used. This is a shame because the area is very different from the areas around the three waterfalls. Rather than extensive volcanic features and a roaring river, the area beyond the Lakin Dam is very pastoral. The river is lackadaisical as flows quietly through large Bigelow Meadow. The trail continues past the picnic area and follows the river along the perimeter of the meadow. From this point on the trail receives even less use. The bulk of the meadow is inaccessible from the trail. Furthermore, the portion of the meadow in close proximity to the trail is often choked with brush. It is possible to follow the trail for another 0.9 miles to where it intersects a dirt road as it crosses a bridge over the river. If one is deadest on getting to some nicer meadows, cross the bridge and follow the road for 0.5 miles. At that point depart the road and bushwhack to the west. Eventually this route will lead to some extensive grassy areas. This may seem a bit too far for most and the Lakin Dam area makes a good point to turn around and head back to the Lower Falls trailhead.
From the main intersection in the town of McCloud, drive east on Highway 89 for 5.5 miles. Turn right on the signed road for the McCloud River Loop. Continue for 0.7 miles. Stay right at the first intersection (turning left leads to Middle and Upper Falls). Pass the Fowlers Camp campground and turn left into the signed parking lot for the Lower Falls picnic area.