Northern California’s Castle Crags State Park hugs the eastern slopes of a cluster of dramatic granite formations that is reminiscent of Yosemite National Park. While the actual crags lie outside the park boundary, several trails run close to their base, including the family-friendly Root Creek Trail. Wheelchair-accessible for the first mile, this path offers an easy walk through the woods, ending at a billowing stream. Ambitious hikers can continue beyond, following a well-worn social trail to a spectacular view of a seasonal waterfall. (Note: While Root Creek carries water year-round, the falls are likely to disappear in the hot and dry summer.)
The Root Creek Trail begins from a pull-off near the end of Vista Point Road in Castle Crags; look for a large trail sign on the left. (Note: The Root Creek Trailhead doubles as the trailhead for the strenuous Crags/Castle Dome Trail and provides local access to the Pacific Crest Trail.) There are two parking spots at the trailhead, but they are reserved for visitors with ADA placards; all others will have to park 75 yards up the road at the Vista Point parking area.
Root Creek Trail (1.1 mile)
The Root Creek Trail follows a smooth and wide grade as it leaves the trailhead, hugging a north-facing slope that drops down to the right. The first mile of the hike is relatively mundane, as it follows Kettlebelly Ridge through a thick conifer forest. At 3/10 mile, stay right on the main path as the Crags Trail climbs the embankment on the left. Just beyond, a clear cut offers a brief bit of sunshine as the trail passes under power lines. The Root Creek Trail merges with the mighty Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) at 4/10 mile, only to split with the PCT again at the ½-mile mark.
Now bearing north, the Root Creek Trail crosses a boardwalk over a muddy ravine at 6/10 mile, then traverses a couple of smaller gullies. At one mile, the ADA accessible trail officially ends—though the grade is not significantly more difficult beyond. (Note: The entire 1.1 miles to the trail’s end should be suitable to wheelchairs, with assistance.) By now you have left Castle Crags State Park and entered Castle Crags Wilderness, managed by Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
The final 250 yards of the official trail descend gradually to the banks of Root Creek, a babbling brook lush with verdant undergrowth. A little of flat rocks offers a place to sit and enjoy a snack, or lunch, in this peaceful place.
Extension to Root Creek Falls (1/2 mile)
While the wide and easy trail ends at Root Creek, a rugged social trail continues beyond, following the creek’s left bank. This route is much fainter and steeper, requiring close attention and careful footing to negotiate. (Note: A variety of paths split off near the beginning, but they quickly come back together.) The footpath crosses two minor ravines while keeping west of Root Creek. While a thicket of trees obscures visibility, one gets the sense that the canyon walls are gradually closing in.
At last, after almost ½ mile, a sudden break in the vegetation reveals a sun-soaked view of a granite amphitheater; in spring, the wall boasts a multi-tiered cascade: Root Creek Falls. (Note: Alas, when we visited in late July, it was bone dry. See here for a photo of what it looks like at full strength.)
Above Root Creek Falls towers Castle Dome (4,996’), an imposing feature that would not be out of place among the granite jumbles of Yosemite. It is theoretically possible to keep climbing, beyond this point, to the top of the falls and base of Granite Dome. However, it appears hairy with considerable exposure. (Note: The nearby Crags Trail provides a safer route to Castle Dome.)
From the view of the falls, return the way you came, reconnecting with the terminus of the Root Creek Trail after around ½ mile. Retrace your steps down the wheelchair-accessible path to the parking area. Allot around one hour of hiking for just the Root Creek Trail; double the time with the trip to Root Creek Falls.
Take the easy, 1/4-mile walk to Vista Point, where fantastic views of Castle Crags, the Gray Rocks, and Mount Shasta await. This path is also wheelchair-accessible.