The McCloud River is one of the premier attractions in the Mount Shasta area. The river is famous with anglers, waterfall aficionados and those who generally love beautiful mountain rivers. The vast preponderance of users justifiably head to the three falls on the river. The trail to the three cataracts is easy, gorgeous and has major payoff for little effort expended. What most hikers do not realize is that the McCloud River Trail is much longer than the section by the waterfalls. It begins many miles upstream, deep in the forests of the McCloud Flats. The trailhead is located at the Algoma Campground, which is only 2.5 miles west of the small outpost of Bartle. From Algoma, the trail runs parallel to the river for 15 miles, passing through shallow canyons, meadows, old growth forests and along basalt gorges, deep swimming holes and beautiful waterfalls.
Since it is unlikely that hikers will tackle the whole trail all at once, the trail description has been broken up into digestible chunks that make up good day hikes. However, it is useful to pull all the parts together and try to provide an overview of the entire trail. Here are some basic statistics:
Length: 15.5 miles (one way)
Elevation gain: minimal
Season: all year (access roads to Algoma and the falls area are not plowed and may be covered in snow at times during winter but other sections of the trail are easily reached directly off of Highway 89.
Like the descriptions of the trail segments, this overview will begin at the Algoma trailhead and recount the entire journey to the end of the Pine Tree Hollow Loop.
This is one of the prettiest sections of the McCloud River Trail. Beginning at the bridge over the river that lies adjacent to the Algoma Campground, the trail quickly enters a shallow canyon and follows the river as it races through a swift moving section. This part of the trail feels far removed from civilization because it is the furthest section from McCloud but also because the canyon shields it from outside intrusion. The canyon eventually comes to an end and the river flows through a broad flood zone that is choked with brush. The water is not visible from some sections of the path but the sound of rapids is still visible. The river and the trail rejoin just before arriving at the Skunk Hollow Campground. This primitive area has campsites right next to the McCloud River. The hike continues a short distance past Skunk Hollow before arriving at the Nitwit Campground, another primitive campsite. This is a good place to turn around and return to Algoma.
This is one of the least interesting sections of the McCloud River Trail, but this does not mean that it lacks beauty. The culprit for the trail’s lack of interesting features is a large flood area. The path is routed well away from the river to avoid flood damage. Consequently, there is extended passage through forest that is typical of the McCloud Flats. While this is beautiful in its own way, hikers are understandably eager to return to the river. Despite this, there are still some noteworthy features along this part of the hike. After departing from Nitwit Camp, there is a wonderful and remote swimming hole. This is one of the best swimming spots along the entire River Trail. The highlight, however, is the trail’s end at the Cattle Camp Swimming Hole. Here there the water rushes through a small basalt gorge, flanked by short cliffs. The swimming hole itself is a large, deep pool, emerald pool.
The section of the McCloud River Trail that connects the Cattle Camp Swimming Hole with the Camp 4 Group Camp is one of the trail’s least used segments. What it lacks in use it makes up for in beauty. Beginning at the scenic swimming hole, the path weaves through another shallow canyon for several miles, following the contours of the river as it races over numerous small rapids. The canyon is narrow enough for fallen trees to span the river comfortably, providing opportunities to walk out over the water. This section ends at the Camp 4 Group Camp, a seldom used campground with tall trees set amidst a small grassy meadow. The sunshine at the meadow is a pleasant change after hiking along the river in dense forest.
The hike from Camp 4 to Upper Falls is one of the most diverse portions of the McCloud River Trail. The path initially follows the river as it winds through the forest. It soon veers away from the water as the McCloud enters another broad flood zone. When the trail and river meet again, the path crosses over a dirt road. Following the road to the left for a few yards leads to the Bigelow Bridge, a gated road bridge over the river. Below the bridge is a large, lovely swimming hole flanked by beaches. It is a great spot to enjoy a dip in the river. Once across the road, the trail resumes and follows the McCloud a little further before arriving at a large bayou-like area where the river flows through many channels that cut through large clumps of brush and trees. The bayou area is formed by the Lakin Dam. This was originally built to impound the river for diversion to the sawmill in McCloud. The water is no longer diverted but the dam remains. The water cascades over it in a small waterfall. Beyond the dam the McCloud becomes swifter and volcanic geography becomes more pronounced in the form of basalt outcroppings and lava flows. This section of the trail ends at the Upper Falls, the uppermost of the McCloud’s famous trio of cataracts.
The hike connecting the three waterfalls on the McCloud River is one of the most popular hikes in the Mount Shasta area. Hikers typically start at the Lower Falls and turn around after enjoying the Upper Falls. The hike can easily be done in reverse order if so desired. It begins with a bang as the river shoots through a deep, rocky sluice before hurtling through a notch in a large basalt cliff, plunging down into a deep pool. Past Upper Falls, the path skirts the edge of a deep canyon, arriving at awesome Middle Falls in short order. The most impressive of the three waterfalls, the cataract is wide and tall. After descending a set of wooden stairs and some switchbacks, the River Trail finally returns to the river. The route continues downstream through the canyon. Large boulders litter the path and occasional collapsed areas mark the cliffs on the opposite side of the river. The trail passes the Fowlers Campground just before arriving at the Lower Falls, which has a large picnic area. It is a spectacular section of trail.
Overlooked by most hikers who begin hiking at Lower Falls, the one mile long Pine Tree Hollow Loop is the most scenic stretch of the entire McCloud River Trail, aside from the superlative section along the falls. The loop initially follows the rim of the canyon above the river. Small sections of columnar basalt can be seen in the canyon walls. The trail eventually descends down into Pine Tree Hollow, a large flat area hemmed in by cliffs on three sides and the McCloud River on the fourth. The trail then bends back upstream and runs parallel to the rushing water. Large boulders dot the river’s path, which makes the water’s journey quite raucous. A short series of switchbacks lead the trail back up to the canyon rim, where it is just a short walk back to the Lower Falls. If beginning the hike along the waterfalls at Upper Falls, this loop makes a great addition to the trip or it can be enjoyed on its own.