The Sacramento River, California’s longest and largest waterway, begins in the Trinity Divide just west of Mount Shasta. With the exception of the impoundment at Lake Siskiyou, it is a wild, surging river that races over numerous rapids and through deep canyons and narrow gorges. However, unlike its nearby tributary the McCloud River, the Sacramento does not go over any major waterfalls. Where the McCloud has its trio fantastic cataracts, the Sacramento only has a seemingly endless succession of rapids. Yet, what the river itself lacks in plunges, it makes up for in waterfalls pouring into the river and on tributaries just above the Sacramento. These falls lack the volume of those on the McCloud because it is not the river itself going over the precipice. Though they lack thundering power, the waterfalls along the Sacramento River make up for in unusual geology, unique settings and outright grace and beauty. None of the waterfalls along the Sacramento require difficult hikes, though they are all reached via unconnected trails. Nonetheless, they are fairly close together and for those in search of falling water, the Sacramento’s waterfalls make for an excellent afternoon.
The undisputed monarch of the waterfalls along the Sacramento, Mossbrae Falls is actually a series of springs that burst from the cliffs above the river and then rain down in a glorious cacophony into the water as it flow swiftly by. Though the spring complex is large and small flows can be spotted on the approach to the falls, Mossbrae Falls is composed of two primary clusters of spring-fed waterfalls. These are arranged around an elbow in the river, which gives the falls a sense of depth and complexity that are absent in many other waterfalls. The presence of the river beneath the falls enhances the scene and makes for one of the prettiest sights in the Mount Shasta area. Since the source of Mossbrae Falls are numerous springs, the falls do not flag later in the season like many other waterfalls do. Consequently they are great year-round. The best time to enjoy the falls is in the fall, when the foliage has changed color, making the canyon around the waterfall a glorious explosion of golds and oranges contrasted against the green of the Sacramento River Canyon.
If there is a drawback to Mossbrae Falls, it is access. To reach the falls it is necessary to hike along the railroad tracks that are tucked onto a narrow bench against cliffs above the Sacramento River. Though this was common practice for decades and the falls were a popular destination, this is no longer the case. The Union Pacific blocked off access to the parking area a few years ago, making it difficult to find parking near the tracks. To make the journey now, one must find creative ways to park or be prepared to hike a much longer distance from parking places in Dunsmuir. There has been talk about building a bridge across the Sacramento River and linking to the trail that leads to Hedge Creek Falls. For a time there was a fair amount of momentum for this solution but it seems to have flagged recently. If this vision did come to fruition, the trail would make for an incredibly scenic hike.
Hedge Creek Falls
Located right off of I-5, Hedge Creek Falls is the most easily accessed waterfall in the Mount Shasta area. A slender and graceful waterfall, its best flow is in the spring and early spring, though it usually flows year-round. A classic plunge waterfall, Hedge Creek Falls is about 30 feet high and shoots through a narrow, rocky gorge just before pouring over the edge. The most interesting feature about Hedge Creek Falls is the columnar basalt cliff Hedge Creek goes over. The basalt columns resemble those famously found at Devil’s Postpile in the Sierra Nevada, near Yosemite. Rock climbers have developed routes along the cracks in the basalt. The cliff’s real distinctive is the hollow at its bottom. The basalt columns stop about 10 feet short of the ground, leaving something of a cave at the bottom. The Hedge Creek Falls Trail passes through the cave, allowing hikers to view the falls from behind. Though this is the highlight of the trip down the falls, the trail continues a little further to a great vista of Mount Shasta and the Sacramento River. Along the way, the trail passes a few smaller cataracts along Hedge Creek.
This small waterfall is easily accessed in the small community of Sweetbriar, which straddles the Sacramento River just south of Castella. The fall’s watershed is small, originating on Girard Ridge and only flowing a short distance. Nonetheless, it maintains a decent flow much of the year. The creek flows under a road and then plunges over a short cliff before dropping down a series of cascades into the Sacramento River. The cliff, which vaguely resembles a columnar basalt formation, has blocky outcroppings that cause the creek to dance and deviate as it drops. At about 20 feet high, it is not a spectacular waterfall but it is a pleasant and refreshing sight nonetheless. Be sure to park in the wide parking area on the west side of the railroad tracks to avoid trespassing on private property. From there, walk east, cross over the Sacramento River and then turn right onto a very short trail that leads to the falls. A wooden bridge crosses the creek just below the falls and leads to a nice vantage point of both falls and river.
Other Waterfalls Along The Sacramento River
There are a few other waterfalls along the Sacramento River. One area that is almost completely overlooked are the waterfalls that pour down the side of the Box Canyon of the Sacramento River. There are two notable waterfalls in the Box Canyon. However, their location along the cliffs of the gorge makes them much more compelling waterfalls. The larger of the two falls is best seen near the beginning of the Box Canyon Trail, along the large rock covered embankment. The other waterfall is best seen by climbing the via ferrata route down into the canyon and heading to the east along the narrow strip of land next to the river. There the falls tumble down the rock wall into the water of the Sacramento River. The falls, though attractive, are part of an overall setting including the river and the sheer, narrow cliffs that is quite impressive.