Crater Lake National Park, OR

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Crater Lake National Park, July 2017

Oregon’s Crater Lake, America’s deepest lake, is also arguably its bluest. Fed entirely by rain water and snowmelt, this natural wonder and centerpiece of Crater Lake National Park was formed after the explosion of an ancient volcano—Mount Mazama—about 7,700 years ago. Volcanic features dot the landscape around the lake, including the Pinnacles, a set of now-cooled pumice spires that were once channels for underground steam and gas. The 33-mile Rim Drive encircles the lake, while a bevy of hiking trails offer access to various viewpoints, canyons, and waterfalls. Visit in summer or early fall, as snowpack leads to road closures during much of the rest of the year.

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Crater Lake from near the Rim Visitor Center

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Wizard Island, accessed by boat from Cleetwood Cove

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Crater Lake looking north

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Vidae Falls, just off the East Rim Drive

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View of Klamath Valley from East Rim Drive

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Phantom Ship

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View of Phantom Ship, Garfield Peak, and Crater Lake from an overlook on East Rim Drive

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Pinnacles

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Pinnacles Overlook

 

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Stout Grove Loop (Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, CA)

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Stout Grove Loop, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, July 2017

Once one of the area’s best kept secrets, Stout Grove in California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is now one of California’s most popular redwood groves. Even the crowds cannot ruin the beauty, however, of this cathedral-like forest, a dense cluster of towering sentinels that casts a dark shadow over a lush understory. In late afternoon, the sun’s rays peer through the trees at a beautiful angle, making this one of the most photogenic redwood stands in the world.

Stout Grove Loop Jedediah Smith hike information

The hike

Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, encompassed by Redwood National Park, is situated just northeast of Crescent City, California, not far from the California-Oregon border. The Stout Grove Trail, named for lumberman Frank D. Stout, begins at the end of a spur off the gravel Howland Hill Road, a 10-mile track running through the heart of the park. The unpaved drive once concealed Stout Grove from heavy crowds…no more, as the allure of one of the world’s best redwood groves now draws visitors from far and wide.

Park at the Stout Grove Trailhead—which is sure to fill up with cars in the summer—and proceed to the trail sign/map. (Note: Alternatively, campers at the Jedediah Smith Campground can cross a bridge over Smith River to reach the grove.) From the trailhead, the paved trail descends steeply into the grove before leveling off at a trail junction after 175 yards.

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Descent to Stout Grove

This is the start of the loop portion, and the end of the pavement. Heading right at the fork, hikers are immediately immersed in an awe-inspiring landscape. Vermilion-hued trunks, reaching for the sky, cluster together to form a dense canopy; the ground is laced with verdant ferns and abundant pine needles. Other, smaller trees are rare, allowing for unvarnished views of the redwood giants.

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Stout Grove Loop

The grove was made possible by its proximity to Smith River and Mill Creek; the low floodplain is rich in moisture, a boon to the redwoods’ deep and interconnected roots. Different looks bring different light, making each perspective unique. Pictures and words, however, cannot replicate the cool, damp environment or frequent mist that gives the woods an inimitable character.

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Looking up at the redwoods

Wide and flat, the trail bears northeast through the grove, bending and weaving amid the titans of the forest. Lightning and windstorms have felled a number of the trees, but their remains give life to mosses and fungi and shelter for iconic, yellow banana slugs, ubiquitous creatures along the California coast.

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Downed redwood along the Stout Grove Trail

At 3/10 mile, bear left at the trail junction; the River Trail bears right to the edge of the park. Some of thickest and most accessible trees lie just beyond, many cutting right into the trail itself. Pass a massive, fallen tree on the right just before the trail forks again at the ½-mile mark, where the Hiouchi Trail bears off to the right toward Smith River (and the bridge over to Jedediah Smith Campground). Continue left , heading south toward the beginning of the circuit.

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Cluster of redwoods on the Stout Grove Loop

Back at the loop’s start, bear right and climb the steep hillside back to the parking area. Allot at least a half-hour for this scenic hike; spending an hour or more allows for the full experience: strolling slowly through the grove, breathing in the fresh air, and admiring the wonder of these living fossils, monumental trees that have stood the test of time.

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Looking up at these wonders

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Yurok Loop Trail (Redwood National Park, CA)

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Yurok Loop Trail, Redwood National Park, July 2017

Although sans redwoods, the short Yurok Loop Trail in California’s Redwood National Park features terrific seaside vistas and an ecologically diverse environment along the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Named for the Native American tribe that once predominated in this area, this easy hike explores a dense coastal forest chock full of cypress trees, alders, and ferns, interspersed with occasional hemlocks. Out at sea, False Klamath Rock rises 209 feet from the choppy waters, though blanketing fog can often obscure it from view.

Yurok Loop Trail hike Redwood National Park information

The hike

Lagoon Creek, the trailhead for the hike, is a popular picnic area situated between the northern and southern stretches of the park, located just past the “Trees of Mystery” (popular tourist trap) heading north on Highway 101. From the parking area, look for the trail at the end of a cul-de-sac to the north.

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Coastal Trail near the start

From Lagoon Creek, the trail immediately enters a dense patch of willows, oaks, and alder trees. At around 125 yards, the path splits, with the Coastal Trail bearing off to the right. Follow the path to the left, crossing over a short wooden boardwalk. On the other side, the willows give way to coastal scrub, and the path traverses a dark tunnel through the brush. Off to the right, views of Wilson Beach and False Klamath Cove emerge, marked by a cold sandy spit strewn with logs.

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Wilson Beach and False Klamath Cove

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Looking back at the tree tunnel

Just beyond, the trail climbs to a second trail fork—this is the start of the Yurok Loop, a 0.8-mile circuit. Bear left first, leaving the finest views for last.

From the junction, the narrowing path climbs gradually as the ubiquitous ferns close in. Views of Lagoon Pond to the left are blocked by a dense canopy of coastal alder trees, Sitka spruce, and Douglas firs, key mainstays of Redwood National Park. The moss-covered trees give the forest an alluring and mysterious quality.

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Dense forest along the Yurok Loop Trail

At around 4/10 mile, the Yurok Loop Trail embarks on a sharp uphill, climbing 20-30 feet, followed by a second climb of another 10-20. After a brief dip, the ascent picks up again as the footpath begins to bear southwest. With Western hemlocks and Douglas firs off to the left, the trail mounts a bluff and reaches a junction with a partial view of the ocean.

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Partial view of the Pacific from the Yurok Loop Trail

Bear right at the fork (unless you are heading to Hidden Beach, down the Coastal Trail to the left). From here the trail climbs gradually as it hugs the top of the bluffs, weaving in and out of patches of firs, alders, and spruce. A clearing at 7/10 miles offers some limited views of the water. At another overlook 1/10 mile farther, False Klamath Rock—the largest outcrop in the area—comes into view.

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Yurok Loop Trail

The best vista arrives at 9/10 mile, just as the trail bends eastward. This grassy promontory looks out over False Klamath Cove, False Klamath Rock, and Wilson Rock, with the Footstep Rocks in the distance to the north. (Note: All this on a clear day, of course; otherwise your view is often limited to foggy beach.) A single bench offers a spot to sit and enjoy the view.

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At the vista on a foggy day

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Wilson Beach and False Klamath Cove

Beyond, the trail bears east and hugs the coastline before descending through a tunnel of trees, returning to the start of the loop section at around one mile. Bear left and retrace your steps through the original 0.15-mile stem, passing Wilson Beach and through the willow patch. Bear right at the final fork and return to the Lagoon Creek Picnic Area.

This mostly easy hike takes between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on one’s pace. Consider it an opportunity to stretch your legs as you transit between the stunning redwoods of the Prairie Creek area to the south and the enticing groves of Del Norte and Jedediah Smith Redwoods to the north.

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Clearer view of False Klamath Cove from later in the day

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Prairie Creek Trail – Foothill Trail Loop (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)

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Prairie Creek Trail, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, July 2017

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.

                          – John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Lofty, ethereal, and dramatic, the coastal redwoods of northern California—the world’s tallest trees—offer a distinctive beauty that is impossible to encapsulate in words or photographs. Often shrouded by mist and lined with lush ferns, these giants of the forest keep watch over a damp and mysterious landscape. What’s left of these rare trees—less than 4 percent of the original virgin redwood groves remain—occupy a thin strip between the ocean and the Coast Range. They are close enough to the Pacific to enjoy very wet winters, but far enough away to enjoy shelter from the brutal wind and waves.

Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park—located inside broader Redwood National Park—boasts arguably the most scenic redwood groves in the world. They are also easy to reach: starting and ending at the Prairie Creek Visitor Center, a combination of the Prairie Creek and Foothill Trails clocks in at just 2.6 miles. Save for the occasional sound of a passing car, the redwood groves along Prairie Creek offer an incredible serenity, a mystical experience enhanced by early morning fog or evening streaks of sun. The Foothill Trail passes fewer groves but features the much-vaunted “Big Tree,” one of the park’s largest redwoods. Better yet, these two hikes are passable by wheelchair, offering a stunning redwood experience for everyone.

Prairie Creek Trail Foothill Trail Loop hike Redwood information

Prairie Creek Trail Foothill Trail Loop hike Redwood map

Map of Prairie Creek Trail – Foothill Trail Loop, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The Prairie Creek Visitor Center is situated just off scenic Newton B Drury Parkway, a 10-mile drive through the heart of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. After acquiring a map at the Visitor Center, head to the start of the Prairie Creek Trail, well-marked and easily-found just outside the center.

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Prairie Creek Trail

The first 300 yards of the Prairie Creek Trail cover, to paraphrase a park volunteer we met at the trailhead, arguably the finest stretch of redwood forest in the park. Immediately the titans of the forest are visible on the right, rising high above an understory strewn with verdant ferns. A wooden bridge over Prairie Creek, followed by a short boardwalk section, leads to an intimate grove of imposing redwoods, a sight so wonderful that no photo will do it justice. At 1/10 mile, bear right at the first of several trail junctions.

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Redwood grove along Prairie Creek Trail

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First trail junction along Prairie Creek Trail

It is not until ¼ mile that Prairie Creek appears again, this time shrouded in brush but flanked by redwoods on both sides. Redwoods in this section come in spurts, with dense groves interrupted by stretches of smaller—and younger—trees: Sitka spruces, maples, firs, and hemlocks. A small bench offers a place to sit at 4/10 mile, although the lure of the redwoods will probably compel you to push on.

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Prairie Creek Trail

A slight uphill at around the ½ mile mark gives way to flat terrain again as the trail follows the creek on the right. The path crosses a tricky spot at 6/10 mile where part of the trail has eroded away, creating an obstacle that, while easily bypassed by most, is potentially impassable for wheelchairs (those with assistance could probably make it). Beyond, however, the route returns to wide and smooth tread, passing through a pair of tunnels carved through giant fallen logs.

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Bridge over Prairie Creek

The ancient cloud sweepers continue to dot the landscape as the Prairie Creek Trail crosses another bridge at 0.85 miles. With the creek now on the left, a brushy clearing at around the one-mile mark offers a brief respite from the dark and mysterious canopy. Here the path crosses a minor stream blanketed with ferns.

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Continuing on the Prairie Creek Trail

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Clearing along Prairie Creek Trail

Back in the woods, the trail splits at 1.25 miles. Bear right, leaving the Prairie Creek Trail and approaching Newton B Drury Parkway. The footpath crosses the road at 1.35 miles and becomes the Foothill Trail, the eastern cousin to the Prairie Creek Trail. This trail is also wide and wheelchair-accessible, though arguably a notch less spectacular than Prairie Creek.

Once away from the road, the eastbound path bends south and weaves through dense thicket, though old-growth redwoods are relatively sparse. The redwoods return around the Big Tree Wayside, marked by—you guessed it—a remarkably large redwood on the right. The crowds at Big Tree—fenced off and fronted by a wooden platform—detract from its beauty; far more exquisite redwoods await ahead.

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Big Tree

From the tree, stay straight on the Foothill Trail, passing a parking area on your right. Leaving the cars and crowds behind, the trail passes through a dense forest with a relative dearth of redwoods. At one point, the path passes under a stunning constellation of moss-laden bay trees, an otherworldly sight.

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Bay trees along the Foothill Trail

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Complex web of branches

At around 1.9 miles, the old-growth redwoods return in earnest, with a beautiful grove just off to the left. Mixed in are several redwood look-alikes: Douglas firs and western hemlocks, many of which grow out of the roots of the redwoods themselves.

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Redwoods along the Foothill Trail

Cross a service road at 2.05 miles, then enter the Rotary Memorial Grove, a tranquil garden of titanic trees, complete with several benches for rest and relaxation. Just after passing under fallen tree, the Rotary Memorial Grove plaque is found on the left, with soaring redwoods as its backdrop.

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Rotary Memorial Grove

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Towering redwoods along the Foothill Trail

The trail reaches its crescendo when it passes a particularly mammoth trunk on the left at 2.35 miles. Beyond, the open fields of Elk Prairie come into view, and the trail forks; bear left and cross a bridge over Boyes Creek. Less than a minute later, follow the path as it bears under the Newton B. Drury Parkway. From the other side, follow the wide, gravel path as it approaches the Visitor Center parking lot. By 2.6 miles, you have completed the loop, back at the trail’s start.

Allot at least 1.5-2 hours for this magical hike, a terrific introduction to the coast redwoods of the Prairie Creek area.

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Fern Canyon (Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, CA)

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Fern Canyon, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, July 2017

Fern Canyon—a short but exquisite passage between fern-strewn walls—is an otherworldly hike in California’s Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, a subset of Redwood National Park. Enveloped by overwhelming greenery, it’s no wonder that this jungle-like canyon was a shooting location in Jurassic Park: The Lost World. Pack your sandals or water shoes, as the hike follows the wandering stream of Home Creek; for those content to stay dry, wooden planks offer passage over the deepest sections.

Fern Canyon Redwood National Park hike information

The hike

The Fern Canyon hike is situated at the end of Davison Road, a lengthy, unpaved drive through redwood groves and dense thicket. (Note: The road leaves California Route 101 at the Elk Meadows Day Use Area, situated just outside Redwood National Park near Orick, CA.) Check the road conditions ahead of time: there are two river fords along the way that are usually passable for all cars but potentially hazardous after heavy rains. Parking at the trailhead is only a stone’s throw from the ocean, where a sandy beach offers a fine place to watch the sunset. (Note: There is a day-use entrance fee to enter Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.)

The hike begins on the Coastal Trail, a 70-mile path that extends from Crescent Beach up north to Skunk Cabbage Creek to the south. Here you will cover only a flat and easy walk that skirts a grassy field on the left for 2/10 mile. Take a right at the first significant stream crossing—this is Home Creek, the winding waterway that carved Fern Canyon.

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Mouth of Fern Canyon

Immediately the path crosses two wooden bridges and enters the mouth of the cool, moist canyon. Tall trees along the left bank lean in unison over the creek at a 60-75 degree angle. Beyond, hikers enter a mythical world where the imagination wanders—fern-coated walls 30 feet high, gradually closing in as the gently-flowing creek brushes up against the sides. Fern Canyon boasts eight different kinds of its namesake plant—including five-fingered, sword, and lady fern varieties.

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Fern Canyon

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Canyon where a scene in Jurassic Park: The Lost World was filmed

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Midway up Fern Canyon

Being an active flash flood zone, there are a number of minor obstacles in the canyon. Use careful footing as you climb over boulders and fallen logs. At one point on the hike, the shady canyon narrows to 30 feet, producing a sense of intimacy amid the vivid green landscape.

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Fern canyon landscape

As of July 2017, roughly ¼ mile down the canyon, a large tree jam offers a fun challenge for kids and adults alike: duck under the fallen tree branches? Or climb up and over the daunting tree trunk?

Beyond the tree jam, there a couple additional logs that must be surmounted, then the canyon widens and the ferns gradually dissipate. A narrow dirt path weaves through an island of low shrubs, then spits back out into the creek. Look off to the left for a shady exit route; this is a spur to the James Irvine Trail, which offers an alternative route back to the Coastal Trail and parking area. It is often closed, however—which of course allows you another run at Fern Canyon, retracing your steps through the majestic channel.

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Dripping waterfalls in Fern Canyon

Allow at least 45 minutes to an hour for this 1-mile, out-and-back hike. You won’t want to rush it.

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Exiting Fern Canyon

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Falls Loop Trail (McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, CA)

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Burney Falls, Falls Loop Trail, McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, July 2017

Plunging 129 feet over a moss-laden cliff, Burney Falls is arguably California’s most impressive waterfall north of Yosemite—so beautiful and picturesque that President Teddy Roosevelt reportedly dubbed it the “eighth wonder of the world.” The falls are now the centerpiece of 910-acre McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park—11 miles north of Burney, California—and can be accessed by way of the 1-mile Falls Loop Trail. Following switchbacks down to the falls’ base, the trail climbs a canyon wall, past the top of the falls, to a footbridge over Burney Creek and loops back to the Visitor Center.

Falls Loop Trail Burney Falls hike information

The hike

Burney Falls first reveals itself at the Falls Overlook, just across the street from the McArthur Burney Falls Visitor Center. Interpretive signs explain the volcanic origins of the park and the formation of Burney Falls. From here, the falling waters are likely to lure you in, compelling you down the incline toward the plunge pool…

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Burney Falls from the Falls Overlook

The descent to Burney Falls is steep, losing around 150 feet in elevation in less than 300 yards. After dropping down a pair of switchbacks, the path comes within reach of the falls’ shrouding mist; photographers line the path, seeking to capture the thunderous falls in a picture that will, undoubtedly, not do this place justice.

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Burney Falls

More than 250 feet wide, Burney Falls carries a considerable volume of around 100 million of gallons per day. Two primary chutes carry the bulk of the water, but what makes Burney Falls unique are the hundreds of smaller, silky threads that seep out of whitewater springs in the mossy wall. While Burney Falls is neither the tallest nor the largest waterfall in the state, it makes a claim for California’s most visually scintillating.

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Seeping springs at Burney Falls

Most visitors will turn around after enjoying the falls and head back up the switchbacks to the Visitor Center. But eager visitors can go farther, bearing right at the falls and continuing downstream along the banks of Burney Creek. A pair of rock slides on the right serves as a reminder of the area’s volcanic legacy. Amid the shade of oaks, Douglas firs, and riparian bushes, bear left at the trail fork at 4/10 mile, crossing Rainbow Bridge to the east side of Burney Creek.

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Basalt boulders along the Falls Loop Trail

Bear left again and prepare to climb, as the trail begins a sharp ascent up the east flank of Burney Canyon. Round a switchback at around 6/10 mile with obscured views of Burney Falls from about halfway up. The steep incline gives way to rocky stairs and a junction with a spur that leads to the Pacific Crest Trail, which briefly passes through the park.

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Burney Falls from the Falls Loop Trail

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Switchbacks on the Falls Loop Trail

From here, the terrain levels out, and the path approaches Burney Creek again, this time upstream from the falls. At ¾ mile, bear left and cross Fisherman’s Bridge, a wide wooden traverse set above minor rapids. Once across, bear slightly right as the trail switchbacks up the hill. Atop the embankment is a small parking area; the Falls Loop Trail continues left, weaving through a sliver of forest between the creek and a park road. Finally, at around 1 mile, the Visitor Center comes into view on the right and the circuit ends back at the Falls Overlook.

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Crossing Burney Creek on Fisherman’s Bridge

The Burney Falls Loop Trail is worth at least an hour’s effort—to leave ample time for admiring and photographing one of California’s finest waterfalls.

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McCloud Falls, CA

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Middle McCloud Falls, Mount Shasta area, July 2017

The alluring McCloud Falls is a must-see destination along northern California’s Route 89, also known as the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. Situated 20 miles east of the town of Mount Shasta, McCloud Falls includes three tumbles along the McCloud River, each separated by a short hike or drive. Lower Falls, a short walk from a popular picnic area and campground, is the shortest of the three but drops into a well-known swimming hole. Middle Falls, the tallest at 50 feet high, is accessed from a short but steep and winding path from the parking area. Upper Falls plunges into a beautiful turquoise pool that is difficult to access but nonetheless a beautiful sight. All three are connected by the 2-mile McCloud River Falls Trail, while short, paved paths provide access to key viewing points.

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Lower McCloud Falls

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Middle McCloud Falls

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Upper McCloud Falls

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Rumbling cascades above Upper Falls

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Hedge Creek Falls Trail (Mount Shasta area, CA)

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Hedge Creek Falls Trail, Mount Shasta area, July 2017

Hedge Creek Falls is a popular destination in northern California’s Trinity Range, situated just off Interstate 5 between Redding and Mount Shasta. A short, well-worn trail in Dunsmuir, California offers access to this 35-foot waterfall, one of many in the region but definitely one of the most easily accessible. Beyond the falls, the trail continues down Hedge Creek to its confluence with the Sacramento River, where an overlook provides views upriver toward snowy Mount Shasta.

Hedge Creek Falls Trail hike information

Hedge Creek Falls Trail map

Map of Hedge Creek Falls Trail, Mount Shasta area; created using National Geographic Maps/AllTrails, alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The short hike to the falls begins just off Interstate 5 at Exit 732. From the exit, bear north to Dunsmuir Avenue and take a right; the parking area will be on the right. Across the street, look for the sign for “Hedge Creek Falls”—creatively carved as a locomotive—marking the start of the trail.

Just beyond the trail’s start is a small, grassy picnic area—complete with a gazebo and water fountain—that is perched on the edge of a woody canyon. The Hedge Creek Falls Trail bears off to the right, dropping behind a large hemlock tree. The descent is quick and sharp as the path bears east.

Within minutes, the sounds of rushing water can heard, and one can sneak a peek at the waterfall at the end of a first switchback. The trail briefly doubles back to the west, then rounds a second bend and continues on its eastward course. After just 250 yards of hiking, the path approaches Hedge Creek Falls.

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Hedge Creek Falls

The waterfall is a single chute that drops 35 feet into a cavernous pool. The trail leads right up to the falls and circles it from behind, offering a cool place to take in the beautiful sight. The cliff from which the falls drops is composed of columnar basalt, a legacy of the area’s volcanic past.

While Hedge Creek Falls is the main attraction, the trail is only halfway done. After wrapping around the falls, the footpath hugs Hedge Creek as it bears downstream over a series of minor cascades. Culminating at 3/10 mile, the path ends abruptly at a viewing platform overlooking the confluence of Hedge Creek and the Sacramento River. On clear days, Mount Shasta (14,180’) looms in the distance, though it is obscured by trees, while an active railroad lines the opposite bank. (Note: To get an untarnished vista of Mount Shasta, climb the rocky jumble to the right of the observation deck. The extra height gets you above the trees and offers a clear view of the snowy behemoth.)

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Sacramento River from the observation deck

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Mount Shasta

The observation deck marks the end of the trail; retrace your steps for 3/10 mile to return to the parking area, climbing roughly 150 feet in elevation. Allot at least 20-30 minutes for the round-trip.

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Vista Point Trail (Castle Crags State Park, CA)

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Vista Point, Castle Crags State Park, July 2017

Situated just off Interstate 5 in northern California, Castle Crags State Park covers a scenic pocket of the Trinity Divide—a small but alluring mountain range that separates the Sacramento River and Trinity River watersheds. The star feature is a large outcrop of granite formations, technically situated outside the park, but visible from many of the park’s 12 hiking trails. The most easily accessible viewpoint is Vista Point, situated at the end of a short, wheelchair-accessible trail. The overlook offers views of three distinct landmarks: the pasty Castle Crags, the distant Gray Rocks, and the snowy behemoth of Mount Shasta.

Vista Point Trail Castle Crags hike information

The hike

The Vista Point parking area is located at the end of the Vista Point Road, deep in the heart of Castle Crags State Park. (Note: The road passes the trailhead for the Root Creek Trail on the left.) From the parking lot, follow the wide and well-marked path as it bears southeast at a slight uphill. Down to the left, the steep slopes of Kettlebelly Ridge are covered with thick conifers—pines, firs, and hemlocks. At around 70 yards, the woods briefly give way to sun as the path passes under power lines.

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Trail up to Vista Point

About 300 yards from the start, the trail curls to the right and approaches a trail junction; bear right at the fork. (Note: Here an extension of the Vista Point Trail continues left, away from the overlook.) Having rounded a corner and gained a few dozen feet in elevation, the trail doubles back to the northwest, making the final push to the overlook.

At ¼ mile, the trail ends at splendid Vista Point. Straight ahead is Castle Crags (7,200’), the centerpiece of the park bearing its name. (Note: Though, ironically, they are situated just outside the park.) These granite formations owe their existence to subterranean lava flows that cooled roughly 170 million years ago; with time, the softer layers around the granite eroded, leaving this spectacular protrusion of chalky spires and domes.

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Castle Crags from Vista Point

To the left of Castle Crags are the Gray Rocks (7,286’); considerably more distant, these older, metamorphic formations are nonetheless visible on clear days to the west. The roughly 400 million year old rocks form some of the highest reaches of the Trinity Divide.

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Gray Rocks from Vista Point

Finally, arguably as alluring as the Crags themselves, the window to the north offers a framed view of Mount Shasta (14,180’), the fifth-highest peak in California and second-highest volcano in the contiguous U.S. (Note: It lasted exploded in 1786.) Capped with snow much of the year, Mount Shasta is highly photogenic, the undisputed master of the mountains in this area.

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Mount Shasta from Vista Point

Benches and picnic tables at the vista offer a place to sit down and admire the views, while interpretive signs offer a brief explanation of the geology of the area. Once you have had your fill, return the way you came; allot around 20-30 minutes for the out-and-back.

Extra credit

Stretch your legs on the longer Root Creek Trail, situated just 75 yards down the Vista Point Road. This easy walk ends at a babbling stream, with a more strenuous path continuing beyond to majestic Root Creek Falls.

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Root Creek Trail & Root Creek Falls (Castle Crags State Park, CA)

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Root Creek Falls (dry in summer), Castle Crags Wilderness, Shasta-Trinity National Forest, July 2017

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.)

Root Creek Trail Root Creek Falls Castle Crags hike information

The hike

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.

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Root Creek Trail in Castle Crags State Park

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.

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Root Creek Trail

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.

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Silky cascade on Root Creek

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.)

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Root Creek Falls (err…where it should be), with Castle Dome behind it

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.

Extra credit

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.

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