Picture Lake/Alamy

California’s Epic Waterfalls

California’s Epic Waterfalls
Record precipitation means water is flowing better than ever—go see these waterfalls while they’re still at their peak

Winter 2017’s epic rain and snow may be old news, but its stormy consequences keep unfolding in wet-and-wild ways across California. This year’s precipitation season ranked as the second all-time wettest in 122 years of recordkeeping, producing an abundance of riches for waterfall lovers. Hundreds of cataracts—from streamlined plunges to boisterous cascades—are flowing right now, but the wow factor won’t last forever. Check out the best waterfalls in California, below, listed north to south, which will peak from May through July. For more waterfall info, check out the site World of Waterfalls or pick up the guidebook California Waterfalls. 

Northern California

In May, California’s foothill waterfalls are peaking, and the biggest headliner is Feather Falls near Lake Oroville (about 80 miles north of Sacramento), the sixth highest free-falling waterfall in the continental United States and the fourth highest in California. Getting to Feather Falls requires a 9-mile round-trip hike, but the payoff is huge. An elaborate series of catwalks culminates on top of a granite outcrop jutting out over the Fall River canyon, where you get a jaw-dropping view of the horsetail-shaped cataract plunging 640 feet to the river below. 

Right now is also the time to see the Redding and Shasta Cascade region’s misty marvels. Stop at Dunsmuir for a waterfall warm-up—a 10-minute tromp to watch Hedge Creek Falls tumble off a rocky cliff. See it from an inside-out perspective by clambering into a carved-out hollow behind the falls’ curtain.

More whitewater drama is found nearby at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, where the 220-foot Whiskeytown Falls crowns a waterfall triumvirate that includes Crystal Creek, Boulder Creek, and Brandy Creek Falls. A 3.4-mile round-trip hike leads to the lower cascades of Whiskeytown’s prodigious drop; stone stair-steps ascend to overlooks where you can glimpse the falls’ upper reaches. Separate trails travel to triple-tiered Boulder Creek Falls, dropping 138 feet into a mossy box canyon, and the multiple cascades of Brandy Creek Falls, slip-sliding across polished granite.

Northeast from Redding, three waterfalls drop on the McCloud River. Middle McCloud Falls is the showstopper with its commanding 50-foot wall of plunge power, but you can see all three falls in a 3.6-mile ramble. To cherish the beauty a while longer, set up your tent at adjacent Fowlers Campground. As the season wears on, the river’s springtime waterfalls become summertime swimming holes.

An hour’s drive away at McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park, stroll to the base of shimmering Burney Falls, its showery veil dropping 129 feet over a volcanic cliff. One glance at this watery spectacle and it’s easy to see why President Theodore Roosevelt called it the eighth wonder of the world. Burney is fed by underground springs that produce a steady gush of 100 million gallons of water per day year-round, so the waterfall never disappoints, even in drought years. Rainbows constantly dance in the mist rising from its turquoise pool. 

Midsummer is the perfect time to head to Lassen Volcanic National Park and stretch your legs with a 1.4-mile hike to boisterous, fern-fringed Kings Creek Falls, a 50-foot tumble of whitewater framed by weather-sculpted red firs. On the park’s southern edge, meander from Southwest Campground through a spectacular field of school-bus-yellow mule-ears to Mill Creek Falls, where two streams join together to leap 75 feet over a sandstone cliff. 

High Sierra Region

Yosemite Valley’s waterfalls typically peak in mid-May, but this year the show will continue well into July. Walk the stroller-friendly paths to Bridalveil Fall and Lower Yosemite Fall, or pay homage to the mighty Merced River on the 6.5-mile loop to Vernal and Nevada Falls. In the park’s southern reaches, take a 10-minute walk to the churning lower cascades of Chilnualna Falls, or hoof it 8 miles round-trip to the creek’s stair-stepped upper fall.

By July 1, all roads in the Sierra Nevada should be plowed and open, making it prime time at Devils Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes. Hike one mile from Reds Meadow or 2.5 miles from the monument ranger station to 101-foot Rainbow Falls, where the San Joaquin River vaults off a cliff as rainbows dance in its mist. Then continue downstream to Lower Falls, a shorter and stouter version of its big sister upstream, its deep pool filled with wily trout. 

The trails in Yosemite’s high country off Tioga Pass Road should dry out by mid-July, and the waterfalls along the Tuolumne River will be strutting their stuff. From the Glen Aulin Trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows, trek 4.4 miles to Tuolumne Falls, the first of four major river cataracts. With an overnight permit and backpacking gear, wander farther downstream to see California Falls, LeConte Falls, and finally Waterwheel Falls (17 miles roundtrip), where churning river water slips into deep granite pockets, then shoots out with so much velocity that it circles back on itself like a waterwheel.

Southern California

Southern California’s waterfalls are also putting on a show right now, including Orange County’s Holy Jim Falls in Trabuco Canyon, a petite-but-picturesque cataract named after an irascible 1890s beekeeper. The 2.5-mile round-trip path to the falls leads through a shady canyon of oaks and sycamores. Nearby Los Angeles offers a waterfall bounty: Near Pasadena, stroll up to Monrovia Falls in Monrovia Canyon Park or spend a few hours at Sturtevant Falls, set in the sylvan setting of Big Santa Anita Canyon. On the Malibu coast, trek past the mansions of Hollywood moguls into the Santa Monica Mountains, where multi-tiered Escondido Falls drops 150 feet over moss-covered sandstone.

Ann Marie Brown

Rachid Dahnoun

California: Outdoor

ALL DREAMS WELCOME

What's Hot Now
California’s Best Coastal Campgrounds
California: Outdoor

Is there anything more serene than falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves under a canopy of stars? Whether you “rough it” in a tent or post up in a fully equipped...

California: Outdoor

Think of a river, and chances are you’ve got your own daydream. Maybe you want to float on inner tubes, or maybe your style is to careen through raucous rapids in an eight...

John Dickey/TandemStock.com

THE CALIFORNIA QUESTIONNAIRE: Alex Honnold

The El Capitan free-solo rock climber explains his love for Yosemite and more California favorites

On June 3, 2017, Honnold became the first person to ever ascend El Capitan, the 3,000-foot granite wall in...

Pascal Shirley

11 Great Dog Beaches

Whether your pup wants to ride the waves or lounge in the sand, there’s a Golden State beach calling

Few places in the U.S. are as dog-friendly as California. With its comfortable climate, open spaces, and welcoming cities, the Golden...

Ojai Valley Inn & Spa
Courtesy of Ojai Valley Inn & Spa

Top California Yoga Retreats

These unbelievable resorts offer the perfect serene getaway for yoga, meditation, and relaxation

If your desire is to improve your yoga practice and recharge in a beautiful place, California offers some world-class options any time of year....

Kyle Sparks/Getty Images

Learn From California’s Top Athletes and Pros

Learn how to surf, race cars, golf, and more, with lessons from some of the world’s best athletes and pros

There’s good reason why California is home to a plethora of world-class athletes—it’s the ultimate outdoor playground, year-round. But...

Picture Lake/Alamy

California’s Epic Waterfalls

Record precipitation means water is flowing better than ever—go see these waterfalls while they’re still at their peak

Winter 2017’s epic rain and snow may be old news, but its stormy consequences keep unfolding in wet-and-wild ways across...

Cody Duncan/Getty Images

How to Explore the Channel Islands

Spend a day—or a week—in this idyllic national park off the Central Coast

This chain of five islands—Santa Cruz, Anacapa, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Miguel—is rich with untouched natural beauty and a California...

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Pro Picks: California's Best Bike Routes

Add these rides—suggested by professional cyclists—to your Golden State cycling bucket list

California has a few distinct advantages when it comes to cycling: year-round mild temperatures, varied terrain, natural beauty, and the honor of...

SPECIAL FEATURE
8 spots where you can camp out close to the Pacific Ocean

Is there anything more serene than falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves under a canopy of stars? Whether you “rough it” in a tent or post up in a fully equipped RV, you can have the...

California’s Best Coastal Campgrounds
Stephen Simpson/Getty Images
California’s Best-Kept Secrets

Discover 8 of California’s Best-Kept Secrets

These remote and surprising spots fly under the radar for even the most well-versed California travelers

Think you’ve seen all of California? Think again. We traveled to eight different remote locations to showcase some of California’s lesser-...

It [Pinnacles] represents what nature often does, all the great conflicts and tensions are there, of volcanic activity and fault lines, and the sort of geology of it is just spectacular to see on display.
Ken Burns
10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips
Jeffrey Murray/Getty Images

10 Super-Scenic California Road Trips

Follow these classic routes for magical scenery and worthy stops

The Highway 1 road trip that passes through Big Sur on California’s Central Coast is perhaps the most famous scenic drive in the...

CLIF Bar/Mason Mashon

The California Questionnaire: Greg Long

Although he’s traveled the globe in search of big waves, this professional surfer will always call California home

California native Greg Long has carved out a name in the world of competitive big wave surfing by conquering the most challenging waves on the...

The mountains are calling and I must go.
John Muir
SPECIAL FEATURE
Find whitewater rafting fun for all—from newbies to nerves-of-steel experts

Think of a river, and chances are you’ve got your own daydream. Maybe you want to float on inner tubes, or maybe your style is to careen through raucous rapids in an eight-person inflatable raft....

Groveb/Getty Images
Spotlight: Mammoth Lakes
Rebecca Garrett

Spotlight: Mammoth Lakes

Snowy winters, wildflower summers

Surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the west, folks in this laid-back mountain town know they’ve got a good thing going. It’s a land of...

Kodiak Greenwood

Spotlight: Big Sur

Art and nature merge on this rugged coast, one of California’s most spectacular settings

Welcome to one of the world’s most unforgettable stretches of coastline. This roughly 90-mile-long stretch of redwood- and fog-trimmed waterfront...

CLIF Bar/Mason Mashon

The California Questionnaire: Jeremy Jones

The professional snowboarder’s biggest conundrum is deciding which Sierra Nevada adventure to tackle next

As a pioneer of big mountain snowboarding, professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones has climbed treacherous backcountry peaks all over the world just...

California is blessed to have the most designated National Parks in the United States.
Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the continental U.S., at 3.3 million acres.
There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California.
Edward Abbey