At A Glance
A trail that follows the McCloud River through a wild and remote canyon.
Total Length: 5.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 100 feet
Season: Spring, Summer, Fall
The River Remote
The McCloud River Preserve Trail offers a rare opportunity to enjoy the lower McCloud River. Between the Lake McCloud Dam and the stilled waters of Shasta Lake, the McCloud River flows wild and free through deep canyons cloaked in primeval forest. Most of this stretch of the river is owned by private fishing clubs that were established at the very beginning of the 20th century. Above its high watermark the river is inaccessible. However, there are two sections of the lower McCloud (below the Lake McCloud Dam) that are accessible to the public. One of these is paralleled by the Pacific Crest Trail, though the trail stays well above the river for the most part. The other section of the river that has public access is a little further downstream, where the river flows through the Nature Conservancy’s McCloud River Preserve. The land for the preserve was donated to the Nature Conservancy by one of the fishing clubs in 1973. The preserve was opened to the public in 1976 and permits a limited number of fishermen each day but an unlimited number of hikers are allowed to enjoy the river. Due to the length of the drive to the preserve, it is not heavily used and hikers who make the trek will likely enjoy the river all to themselves, perhaps bumping into an occasional fisherman.
So what does the trail offer? It provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the river as it crashes through rapids. The steep sided, wooded canyon feels as far away from the civilized world as, well, as it is. And that is the catch. You really have to want to hike the McCloud River Preserve Trail because just getting to the trailhead is a much more demanding endeavor than any section of the trail. It is nearly 20 miles from Highway 89 in McCloud to the trailhead, the last 4.5 miles of which are over an easily passable but somewhat rough and bumpy road. It is a similar distance from McCloud to the spectacular Brewer’s Creek and Clear Creek Trails on Mount Shasta. Consequently, if you are willing to drive that distance, you really have to want to hike the McCloud River Preserve Trail. As if to further discourage hikers, the trail has an abundant supply of poison oak. Now, having raised the discouraging attributes of the trail, it is important to acknowledge the fact that the McCloud River is a strikingly beautiful river running through a deep, isolated river canyon. The bottom line is that those qualities are worth the effort, for those so motivated by them.
Getting to the trailhead for the McCloud River Preserve Trail is the hardest part of the trip. The road leading to the trailhead is by no means the roughest road that leads to an established hiking trail in the Mount Shasta area but it is certainly not a high-speed dirt road. It is windy and rough in places. Perhaps the worst part is that there is not much of a parking area at the trailhead. The road simply comes to an abrupt end where a footbridge crosses a small creek. The road is, at best, slightly wider than usual here, with space for maybe three cars. This poses some difficulty for larger vehicles to turn around. About 150 yards back up the road there are a few shallow pullouts. Larger vehicles are advised to park there.
Setting out at the aforementioned bridge, the trail crosses a small seasonal creek. It immediately plunges into thick foliage that surrounds the trail. As it does so, the trail makes a short drop down to river level. The McCloud races by only feet from the trail. The path is narrow and flanked by rocky outcroppings on one side and the river on the other. There is only a narrow bench along which the trail passes. The poison oak becomes a threat as soon as the trail reaches the river. Be careful to watch out for it. Soon the bench along which the trail is strung disappears and is replaced by sharp rocky outcroppings that are only slightly above the river level. Though the trail fades out, the route across the rocks is obvious. This is one of the most interesting parts of the trip. It ends all too soon and the trail resumes, continuing along the river.
A little further, the river makes a sharp bend to the west, producing a flat in the river’s elbow. Here there is the unusual sight of a house, a barn and various outbuildings. This is the residence of the Nature Conservancy’s caretaker. There are a few displays explaining the geology of the river, the fish that populate it and some Native American history. Be sure to sign in to the guest register. If fishing, grab one of the provided tags. This is also the last place where there is any type of restroom. A sign indicates the spur leading to a public outhouse. It also appears that the caretakers appreciate it if hikers are willing to haul a piece of firewood or two back to their residence. Once having left the caretakers area, the trail begins in earnest. As before, it parallels the trail, at times dropping very close down by the river. A short distance from the house, there is a fairly rugged spot in the path where it runs into a large boulder. Though there is no constructed trail, the route, which drops down to the left of the boulder, is obvious.
From this point on, the trail continues to follow the various curves and contours of the river. At times there are well-established side trails that lead down to the river. Some of these even continue for a fair distance alongside the river, but below the main trail. The McCloud River has few quite spots as it races through the canyon. Those that is does have are short and are quickly overtaken by more rapids. As a result, the sound of the roaring water is ever-present. As the trail progresses, about 1 mile from the caretaker’s house, there is the only climb on the entire route. The trail emerges from the tree cover and climbs about 100 feet above the river in order to bypass rocks along the river. Be especially careful of the poison oak along this section of the path. This stretch of the McCloud has some of the most interesting rapids in the entire preserve. Unfortunately the trail maintains a fair distance away from the water along here. Though it is not marked, this section of the trail departs Nature Conservancy land and enters the national forest, in which it will remain to its end.
Once the trail drops back down to the river’s level, it begins to curve around the “Big Bend of the McCloud”, a pronounced, horseshoe shaped bend that arches around a rib in the east side of the canyon wall. This results in a sudden turn to the north followed by an equally sudden turn to the south before the McCloud resumes its southwesterly course. Though there are some rapids here, the river does not go over any as large or as interesting as when the trail rose above the river’s level. At the apex of the horseshoe, the trail crosses Bald Mountain Creek. Once across, the path begins the southward course along the Big Bend. About 0.8 miles beyond the creek crossing the trail finally peters out. Though it is unmarked, the trail ends at the boundary between the national forest and more Nature Conservancy land. From here, retrace your steps back to the trailhead and make the long drive back to McCloud.
From the main intersection in McCloud, drive south for 9.2 miles until reaching Lake McCloud. Stay to the right on the main road and continue for 2.2 miles around the reservoir. Take a signed, dirt road to the right and proceed 4.6 miles to the trailhead. This road is long and bumpy. It climbs up and over a ridge and then makes a long drop down to the McCloud River. The route is signed in a few places, directing one to Ah-Di-Nah Campground. Be sure to follow those directions. The main road is obvious throughout and never in doubt. Once past Ah-Di-Nah the road continues along the river and then makes a short climb over the roughest section of road of the entire drive. Shortly after the climb one arrives at the trailhead.