We are so blessed to live in such a beautiful and diverse area. A day-trip starting in Redding can take you to numerous lakes, rivers, mountains, volcanoes, deserts, and even lush rain forest-like waterfalls. With so many opportunities, it is difficult to know what to explore first. One of the places we had never visited was McCloud Falls. With unseasonably warm winter weather and a three-day weekend, we thought we would go check it out. This time of year the campground area is closed and the road to the falls picnic area is not plowed. Even with the warm weather, we still expected to encounter snow.
We live near Shingletown but decided to drive down to Redding and hop on to Interstate 5 for the drive to McCloud, knowing that we would make the loop on highway 89 back to highway 44 and Shingletown. Driving North on Interstate 5 from Redding offers great views of Shasta Lake, Castle Crags, and Mount Shasta. With all of the rain and snow this year, we were anxious to get a look at all three. Leaving McCloud and heading generally south back to Shingletown would allow us to get a look at Lake Britton and to follow Hat Creek. We wanted to incorporate as much sight-seeing as possible.
The morning of February 8, 2016 we got a leisurely start to the day and left home around 9:00 am. Once on Interstate 5 in Redding, it is only 42 miles North to Castella and Castle Crags, the granite spires created by past glaciation. Just another 12 miles North you encounter the exit for McCloud, and about 20 more miles will have you arriving in the town of McCloud. If you are needing any services, this would be the place to get them. Continue on East Highway 89 through McCloud. About 5 miles outside of McCloud, on your right, you will see a Forest Service sign for Fowler’s Camp. Turn right and continue for just over 1/2 mile. Here the road forks. Turning to your left will take you to the overlooks for the middle and upper falls. Stay to the right to go to the lower falls, picnic area, and trailhead. It is about 0.7 mile to the picnic area where the road dead ends. At the first fork in the road we needed to use 4WD. The snow was about 18 inches deep and icy after several warm days melting the snow and cold nights freezing it again.
Highway 89 is located just above this map and the solid black line originating near the upper left corner is the road to Fowler’s Camp. The highlighted areas shows where road forks: left to the middle and upper falls overlooks and right to the lower falls and picnic area. The picnic area is circled in blue. The trail is shown in red following the McCloud River
The picnic area has bathrooms and picnic tables. The bathroom was closed and the tables covered with snow. The trail was also difficult to find as it was covered with snow. The trail heads both up and downstream. Both directions offer beautiful views of the McCloud River. We were there to check out the falls so we headed upstream. The stairs leading down to the Lower Falls were covered with snow and ice. After debating whether or not to use them as an ice slide, we took a detour around the stairs and connected with the paved trail just below the stairs. At the lower falls we encountered two unsuccessful fishermen who were, nonetheless, enjoying the beautiful 58 degree day, blue sky, and idyllic surroundings. It was difficult to get close to the edge to look down at the falls due to the amount of snow obscuring the location of the edge. Many people swim in the pool below the lower falls in the summer….
From the lower falls, a paved trail leads upstream, along the edge of the campground, and up to Middle McCloud Falls. Most of the trail was covered with snow and it was not easy to discern where to go. There were several signs pointing back to the lower falls but only one indicating the trail to the middle falls. We just continued following what looked like a trail worn in the snow, knowing that we needed to go upstream. In hindsight, we should have attached spikes to our hiking boots because it was a slippery walk on the frozen snow.
We arrived at the middle falls after a short, easy, level, one-mile hike. We could hear the falls long before we saw them thanks to the el nino rainfall we’ve had this year. The falls really are beautiful and much larger than I expected. We chose not to proceed up the steep switchbacks leading to the middle falls overlook and on to the upper falls due to the ice. After admiring the falls and taking a few photos, we started our leisurely walk back to the lower falls.
I was set for a longer hike and was disappointed that we were unable to continue to the upper falls. However, this was more of a scouting trip and a chance to get outside on a beautiful winter day. This spring we will return for the full hike.
We packed some odds and ends for lunch because we didn’t know how much we were going to be hiking. Because the hike was so short, we decided to go out to lunch and make the most of the day. Unless you head back to McCloud, the next place to stop headed east is Burney – but it is a bit out of the way. Continuing along highway 89 back toward Old Station the Rancheria RV park, near Hat Creek, offers a small restaurant with surprisingly good food. We have eaten there many times but found it closed on this day. In winter they are open on Wednesday – Sunday. We were exploring on Monday. The next option is J.J’s Cafe in Old Station. J.J’s offers standard cafe type food with the benefit of homemade bread and daily soup specials. In the summer and fall they are open daily catering to fishermen, campers, and PCT hikers. In winter they are only open on Saturday and Sunday. I’m glad we packed a lunch.
If you need gas along highway 89/44 you will need to fill up in McCloud, Burney (a short distance off highway 89 along route 299), hope the small gas station in Old Station is open, or wait until you get to Shingletown or Redding.
As I mentioned, this was a scouting trip. After looking at my “Best Photo Times” app, I knew that I would need to be to the falls relatively early to have the proper lighting for good photos. Because I didn’t know the exact layout of the area and because my family didn’t want to get moving that early, I treated this as an opportunity to get out and enjoy beautiful scenery and take notes for future photo trips. The photos are just snapshots because there is really nothing that can be done when the lighting is wrong. To capture the waterfalls properly, the lighting would need to be even. You can see that the lighting is uneven, with the sun causing some parts to be overly bright while other portions of the photos are deep in shadow.
Standing near the river, looking at the Middle Falls, you are looking roughly North East. By the time we arrived around 11:15 am, the sun was already above the tree-line in the east casting too much light on the top of the waterfall. We should have arrived closer to 10:00 am for even lighting. Because of the orientation of the middle falls, the only time the whole area would be in total sunlight is mid-day in the summer. Mid-day is usually the worst lighting for any landscape photo. The additional advantage to having the entire scene in shadow is that the slower shutter speeds needed to blur the water are easy to achieve without a neutral density filter. Because of the orientation of the middle falls, the only time the whole area would be in total sunlight is mid-day in the summer. Mid-day is usually the worst lighting for any landscape photo.