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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

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