Though not many people recognize it as such, the North State is California’s finest destinations for waterfalls, outside of the Sierra Nevada. Obviously that is a significant exception, but if one took Yosemite out of the equation, the North State may even exceed the Sierra Nevada in terms of waterfalls of exceptional beauty. That is, of course, a claim that is highly subjective and open to debate. What remains objective and beyond dispute is that there are indeed numerous majestic, spectacular, and powerful waterfalls in the region. The waterfalls are generally found in two areas. In the east there are numerous cataracts in the Cascade Range, primarily found in the mountains surrounding the Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, the range’s two great volcanos. In the west, the Klamath Mountains are home to dozens of great waterfalls. Particularly notable are the giants that populate the Trinity Alps. Though these areas are home to a high concentration of stupendous cataracts, there are many, many more scattered throughout the entire North State and they beckon to be discovered and explored.
The Mount Shasta area in particular has an abundance of great waterfalls. The massive mountain itself has some of the most stunning falls in California. Three in particular, Ash Creek, Mud Creek, and Whitney Falls are excellent. Each of the three has their virtues. Ash Creek Falls is the most beautiful. Mud Creek Falls, nearly as beautiful is the largest in terms of volume. Lastly, Whitney Falls, though neither as beautiful nor as large, is the easiest to get to. Each of these waterfalls is accessed by extremely scenic hikes that pass through strikingly different areas. The environments traveled by these routes range from barren volcanic basins above the treeline to deep, old growth forest to lower elevation chaparral. The one uniting feature that all of these trails share, aside from the fact that they all lead to great waterfalls, is that they are all graced with exceptional views of Mount Shasta. One other feature makes these waterfalls unique among the waterfalls in California. This is that, not only are the falls on Mount Shasta but the best vantages of the cataracts all include great views of the monumental mountain as well. Thus waterfalls that are already excellent are enhanced immeasurably because they are included in views that are elevated to staggering proportions.
The three aforementioned waterfalls are not the only cataracts on Mount Shasta nor are they the only ones in the wider Mount Shasta area. The rivers surrounding the mountain and the Trinity Divide to the west have their own wonderful waterfalls. These other falls on Mount Shasta, both named and unnamed, deserve a blog post of their own, as do the other waterfalls in the greater Mount Shasta region.
3. Whitney Falls
Although Whitney Falls is not the best waterfall on Mount Shasta, it is easily the falls that receives the most visitors. There are two reasons for this. First, it is heavily trumpeted in both hiking guides and waterfall guides. Second, of the three best waterfalls on the volcano, it is the most easily accessible. The road to the trailhead is relatively short and easy to follow and the route to the waterfall is reasonably short and not very strenuous. It is somewhat exasperating that the waterfall is heralded as much as it is because there are some major drawbacks to this waterfall. Among the problems is the trail to the vista’s increasingly poor condition. A large glacial outburst in 1997 wiped out much of the trail and the trailhead. The Forest Service has declined to repair the damage and so some parts of the trail has devolved to little more than a deer trail in some places. Second and more important, its flow is frustratingly unpredictable. It is not uncommon for hikers to make the journey to the vista only to find nothing flowing.
Despite these drawbacks, Whitney Falls is a very beautiful waterfall. Graceful and wispy, the falls shoot through a narrow trough and pour 200 feet into a craggy basin. Though the trough at the top of the falls is narrow, the water widens out into a perfectly linear plunge. It is unfortunate that the bottom of the waterfall is not visible from the vantage point but Whitney Creek can be observed emerging from around a bend a little further downstream. Despite being partially obscured, the area around the bottom of the falls is obviously lush, testimony to the power of water in this barren environment. Evidence of extensive lava flows is visible above the top of Whitney Falls and along large sections of the canyon downstream. Black, jagged lava makes a stunning contrast to the white water dancing over the ragged cliff. Above this all, the tips of Mount Shasta and Shastina just peek out from over a ridge above the falls, presiding majestically over the great mountain’s volcanic domain.
Mud Creek Falls is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in California. Fed by both glaciers and springs, it has the highest volume by far of any of the falls on Mount Shasta. Where Whitney Falls is full of grace, Mud Creek is full of fury. The high volume of water erupts over the edge of a band of hard, erosion resistant rock and thunders down into a narrow chasm. The bulk of the water flowing over the falls plunges downward in a classic, linear waterfall while a smaller, yet still significant, amount spreads out in a lacy series of cascades bouncing down the face of the rocky cliff. It is a tremendous sight and worthy of far more attention than the waterfall receives. Perhaps Mud Creek Falls languishes in relative obscurity because it is nearly overshadowed by the epic scope of its surroundings. Tucked into the bottom of 1,500 foot deep Mud Creek Canyon, the falls are dwarfed by the tremendous size of the canyon. Mud Creek Canyon itself appears diminutive when compared to the mighty cone of Mount Shasta, which rises overhead. Volcanic spire after spire march up Sargents Ridge, casting their shadows deep into the canyon. Near the summit, the Konwakiton Glacier clings to the mountain’s rocky slopes. Melt water from the glacier is the initial source of Mud Creek. The entire scene, taken as a whole, is mesmerizing and it is easy to see why such a magnificent waterfall as Mud Creek Falls is lost amidst the grandeur of the mountain.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to Mud Creek Falls is the difficult access necessary to reach it. Most who observe the waterfall do so from the Clear Creek Trail, which hugs the east rim of Mud Creek Canyon. The difficulty is that it is about 1 mile away from the falls. Even despite this distance, the falls are an impressive sight and are still audible from across the canyon. Though far away, this vantage is still a satisfying place from which to view Mud Creek Falls, given the much larger and truly awe-inspiring scene. For those intent on reaching the waterfall, there is a difficult cross-country route from the Clear Creek Springs at the end of the Clear Creek Trail. This route descends down the steep side of Mud Creek Canyon to the falls. Rappelling the band of cliffs alongside the falls is popular with the very, very few who make it that far.
By far the prettiest waterfall on Mount Shasta, Ash Creek Falls is one of the finest falls in California. Set in the deep cleft of Ash Creek Canyon, the waterfall make a tremendous scene as it pours over the cliff in a powerful freefall, then hits a hard rocky bulge and explodes into a profusion of silky showers. High above, Mount Shasta and the gargantuan Wintun Glacier hold sway on the horizon. This 330 foot high waterfall combines the power of Mud Creek Falls with the grace of Whitney Falls. It does not have the volume of the former, though it has does have a significant amount of water and far more than flows through latter. In short, it is the best combination of grace and power. These attributes, combined with the incredible arrangement of Ash Creek Canyon, the enormous glacier and the awesome bulk of Mount Shasta make the view of Ash Creek Falls one of the most magnificent sights on Mount Shasta or anywhere in California, for that matter. The overall setting of Mud Creek Falls may be a bit grander but where that view makes the falls seem smaller, the view of Ash Creek Falls seems constructed to maximize the waterfall’s beauty.
Amazingly, this waterfall has been left off the most popular guide for waterfalls in California. So much the better, for those who want to enjoy this incredible sight by themselves. Omission from a guidebook is not the only reason for Ash Creek Falls’ light visitation. It is also at the end of a cross-country route that begins at the terminus of the Brewer Creek Trail, the most isolated and lightly used trail on Mount Shasta. From the end of the trail (a worthy and spectacular hike in its own right), the route leads across the open, barren volcanic slopes of the mountain, across a deep, dry gully and down a very steep slope to a vista point that is only 0.25 miles from the falls. For those who want a close look, there is a route that leads down to the top of the waterfall and beyond, to the far side of the canyon, though the views are not as good from that side. This area can also be reached from the Cold Springs area. However one gets to Ash Creek Falls, it is an image that is impossible to forget.