Hundreds of waterfalls—from streamlined plunges to boisterous cascades—dot the California landscape, from the Shasta Cascade to San Diego County. Check out the best ones in the state, below, listed north to south, most of which will peak between May and July. For more waterfall info, take a look at the site World of Waterfalls or pick up the guidebook California Waterfalls.
In May, California’s foothill waterfalls are peaking, and the biggest headliner is Feather Falls near Lake Oroville (about 130 kilometres 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 15-kilometre round-trip hike, but it's worth it. An elaborate series of narrow paths 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 195 metres to the river below.
Also well worth a visit are the Redding and Shasta Cascade region’s misty marvels. Stop at Dunsmuir for a waterfall warm-up—a 10-minute tramp 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 white-water drama is found nearby at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, where the 67-metre Whiskeytown Falls crowns a waterfall triumvirate that includes Crystal Creek, Boulder Creek and Brandy Creek Falls. A 5.5-kilometre round-trip walk leads to the lower cascades of Whiskeytown’s prodigious drop; stone steps ascend to viewpoints where you can glimpse the falls’ upper reaches. Separate paths travel to the triple-tiered Boulder Creek Falls, dropping 42 metres into a mossy box canyon, and the multiple cascades of Brandy Creek Falls, which slip-slide across polished granite.
North-east of Redding, there are three waterfalls on the McCloud River. Middle McCloud Falls is the showstopper with its commanding 15-metre 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 the adjacent Fowlers Campground. As the season wears on, the river’s springtime waterfalls become summertime swimming spots.
An hour’s drive away at McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park, take a stroll to the base of the shimmering Burney Falls, its showery veil dropping 39 metres 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 380 million litres of water per day year-round, so this 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 2.25-kilometre walk to boisterous, fern-fringed Kings Creek Falls, a 150-metre tumble of white water framed by weather-sculpted red firs. On the park’s southern edge, meander from Southwest Campground through a spectacular field of bright yellow mule-ears to Mill Creek Falls, where two streams join together to leap 23 metres 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 pushchair-friendly paths to Bridalveil Fall and Lower Yosemite Fall, or pay homage to the mighty Merced River on the 10-kilometre circular walk 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 strike out for the 12-kilometre round-trip to the creek’s stepped upper fall.
By 1 July, all roads in the Sierra Nevada should have been ploughed and be open, making it prime time at Devils Postpile National Monument in Mammoth Lakes. Walk one-and-a-half kilometres from Reds Meadow or four-and-a-half from the monument ranger station to 31-metre 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 upstream big sister, its deep pool filled with wily trout.
The trails in Yosemite’s high country off Tioga Pass Road should have dried out by mid-July, and the waterfalls along the Tuolumne River will be strutting their stuff. From the Glen Aulin Trailhead at Tuolumne Meadows, hike 7 kilometres to Tuolumne Falls, the first of four major river cataracts. With an overnight permit and backpacking gear, you can wander further downstream to see California Falls, LeConte Falls and finally Waterwheel Falls (a 27-kilometre round-trip), 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’s waterfalls also know how to put on a show, including Orange County’s Holy Jim Falls in Trabuco Canyon, a petite-but-picturesque cataract named after an irascible 1890s' beekeeper. The 4 kilometres 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 the multi-tiered Escondido Falls drops 46 metres over moss-covered sandstone.
Further south, San Diego County boasts of several smaller (but no less alluring) seasonal sites for waterfall lovers to seek out. Because of their semi-arid location, these rely on recent rainfall, so December and January are the best times to visit. Visit Los Penasquitos Falls, the seasonal falls in Oak Canyon, located within Mission Trails Regional Park, and the falls in the colourfully named Horsethief Canyon. Cataract hunters looking for a more challenging hike to falling waters can make the 10-kilometres trek to Cedar Creek Falls, which plummets 24 metres into a pool known as the 'Devil’s Punchbowl'.
—Ann Marie Brown
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