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The Falls of Whiskeytown
By Zach O’Brien and Ross Lawrence
Deciding where to hike in Northern California is anything but the "path" of least resistance. But for most people in the area, when you wake up in the morning and have the hankering for a hike, the Falls of Whiskeytown are surely near the top of your list.
Most of the trails are at least moderate in difficulty, and those leading up to the four major waterfalls in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area are both beautiful and remote. For those not familiar with the area, Whiskeytown Lake is located off Highway 299 west on the way to the small town of Weaverville. Its sapphire-blue water is a great place to cool off on a hot day.
The park consists of 39,000 acres and has nearly 70 miles of trails surrounding the lake laced with streams and crystal-clear springs tumbling off Shasta Bally. Despite its close proximity to Redding, it lies just enough off the beaten path to deter the crowds often choking nearby beaches. Indeed, Whiskeytown Park is a favorite of locals and its waterfalls provide some of the most striking scenery available in the area.
So lace up your hiking boots, grab some sunscreen and fill up your water jugs. We’re going on a hike!
Also known as Hidden Falls, this 220 foot-tall beauty, for years, remained an all but hidden treasure except for those fortunate enough to find its remote location. Before the establishment of the Whiskeytown National Recreation Center, there was no trail to this waterfall leaving loggers, miners and bushwhackers as the only beneficiaries of this stunning display of Mother Nature. Just recently, in 2004, a park biologist "discovered" the fall, and it quickly developed into one of the park's top tourist attractions.
A unique feature this waterfall offers is the stairway that runs up the left side of it, which gives visitors an up-close view of the rushing water as it cascades down the fall’s rocky face. The stairs can get wet and slippery, so use caution, and be sure to hold onto the handrail when ascending the fall. Also, considering the trail weaves through old logging roads, on the hike, you get an interesting historical perspective on the economic activities that played a role in shaping Shasta County. Another appealing feature of the hike, running water parallels the trail the entire way making the experience all the more palatable on a sweltering summer day.
The James K. Carr Trail, which takes you to the falls, is a 3.4 mile loop that also connects to the Mill Creek Trail. A moderate to difficult hike – with a pleasant flat section to begin with, the trail then leads downward until you reach the footbridge over Crystal Creek. At this point, the trail ascends upwards for a while until it levels out, and leads you to the main attraction, the falls.
To get to the falls coming from Redding, take Highway 299 past Whiskeytown Lake and turn left on Crystal Creek Road. Drive another 3.75 miles to the trailhead.
Crystal Creek Falls
Lower Crystal Creek Falls is the only "man-made" waterfall in the park though you might not suspect it.
When the Central Valley Project was designed in the 1920s, an important component of it was the diversion of a large portion of the Trinity River into Whiskeytown Lake, and from there, down into the Sacramento River. A 17-mile tunnel was created to transport the water underground from Trinity Dam to Carr Powerhouse, and the tailings were dumped in the area near Crystal Creek Falls.
When it is necessary to shut down Carr Powerhouse for maintenance or to clean the tunnel, a valve is turned and the excess water from the tunnel spills into Crystal Creek. When the overflow structure was built, the Bureau of Reclamation rerouted Crystal Creek about 50 feet to the left to make a shortcut over the cliff, creating a picturesque waterfall. This is one of the easier hikes in the park, as the trail is mostly flat and lasts for less than a mile. Also containing picnic tables and barbeque grills, the Crystal Creek Falls Trail could prove a relaxing way to start the spring season off right.
From Highway 299 west of the lake, follow Crystal Creek road for 2 miles until you see the rehabilitated quarry area on your left. Huge piles of rock were removed from the tunnel between Lewiston Dam and Carr Powerhouse and deposited here. Walk the dirt road behind the gate for about 1/3 mile until you reach a picnic and barbecue area. Crystal Creek Falls is immediately ahead of you. There is also a bonus waterfall reached on a steep and rocky unmaintained trail behind the cement building.
Brandy Creek Falls
Brandy Creek is noted for five large, cascading falls that sweep down across the polished granite rock in the upper box canyon. Water from the Upper Brandy Creek Falls plunges downward in a split formation through steep vertical walls creating an aesthetically satisfying image (you might want to bring your camera for this one). The trail to the falls was improved in 2005 with hand-hewn rock steps and a metal railing to help hikers safely reach the top of the waterfall.
There are two ways to get to this location, one from South Shore Drive and the other from Mill Creek Road. The moderate hike up Brandy Creek Falls trail, which leads you to the base of the falls is 3 miles roundtrip, and reaches a maximum altitude of 2,500 ft. Due to a narrowing of the trail closer to the falls, it is not recommended for bikers or horseback riders. This trail also follows old logging roads, and takes you on several plank bridges before it leads you straight to the awe-inspiring falls. Brandy Creek is also lined with Indian Rhubarb. This umbrella-leafed plant is one of the first to produce spring flowers displaying an array of brilliant pink blossoms. So, make sure you get out early this spring to catch the Indian Rhubarb blossoms in full force, and enjoy the hike!
Boulder Creek Falls
At over 138 feet high, Boulder Creek Falls was thought to be the tallest waterfall in the park until Whiskeytown Falls was re-discovered in fall of 2004.
The three tributaries of Boulder Creek Falls are tucked into a heavily wooded box canyon filled with lush moss and ferns. The surrounding forest was selectively logged in the 1950s, and as you hike to the falls you find yourself on the main hauling road that once carried old growth Douglas firs and ponderosa pines to the sawmill. After the park was established in 1965, limited-logging ventures continued into the early 70s. Once the logging ended, the forest began to recover.
A moderate to difficult 5.5 mile roundtrip hike on the Boulder Creek Falls Trail takes you to the falls. Make sure to watch out for poison oak along the way. Starting you off in brushland adjacent to Boulder Creek, the trail then leads you into a forest filled with Douglas firs, Ponderosa Pines, and Oak trees. After traversing two different creeks several times (Boulder Creek and a seasonal creek), the trail drops down a bit before guiding you to up a hill that provides a great vantage point for taking in the falls.
From the Visitor Center, continue west on Highway 299 for seven miles to the Carr Powerhouse turnoff on the left. Take Carr Powerhouse Road to Mill Creek Road, located on the right ½ mile from the highway. Mill Creek Road is a dirt road that is closed after the first winter storms and reopened in late spring. At the road crossing just past the big tank, stay to the right. You will follow Mill Creek Road steadily uphill for 1.3 miles until you reach the trailhead. At the end of the road, you will see a wide spot for parking and two paths.