In 1995, the recording group TLC released their massive hit Waterfalls, in which the chorus reads “don’t go chasing waterfalls, please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.” This song has become a staple of defiance for outdoor adventurers…
Sorry TLC, we like chasing waterfalls.
In Northern California, we are rich with beautiful waterfalls from Yosemite all the way to the Oregon border. Hundreds of waterfalls call NorCal their home and we’ve been on a quest to find the best waterfalls the North State has to offer. Needless to say, the variety of waterfalls in our area is stunning.
Here is our definitive list of the 20 absolute best waterfalls that Northern California has to offer:
20. Alamere Falls
Alamere Falls is a beautiful waterfall deep within the Phillip Burton Wilderness. It is also a rare “tidefall”, a waterfall that flows directly into the ocean. The falls are a dramatic sight as water cascades over a ~30 foot tall cliff onto the south end of Wildcat Beach. While no easy trek—a 13-mile minimum round-trip hike is required—this spectacular spot is a popular—and a sometimes overcrowded —visitor draw.
To visit Alamere Falls safely, Point Reyes National Seashore recommends hiking to Wildcat Campground and, from there, walking a mile south on Wildcat Beach during a low tide. At higher tides, Wildcat Beach may be completely inundated, particularly in the winter and spring.
Lower Crystal Creek Falls is the only “man-made” waterfall in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area 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.
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. There is also a bonus waterfall reached on a steep and rocky unmaintained trail behind the cement building.
18. Pit River Falls
Located upstream from Lake Britton on the Pit River in a deep canyon sits on of NorCal’s most underrated waterfalls. Pit River Falls is a large, river wide volcanic ledge that cascades 30-feet to the riverbed below. The reason this waterfall does not find more acclaim in our region is simple: it’s really hard to get to.
Traversing down the canyon is nearly impossible, so most people get to the falls by raft or kayak. This has become a haven for kayakers around NorCal, with multiple channels to launch down the waterfall.
17. Bassi Fall
Bassi Falls is a 4-mile round trip hike near Pollock Pines, CA off of Highway 50. This is an easy, short hike to an incredible waterfall. When you reach the base of Bassi Falls, you will be treated to an awesome view of the entire 120 ft. cascade. There is also a steep climb to the top of the falls, to (carefully) witness Bassi Creek hurtling over the edge.
Afternoon is a preferable time to photograph here, since the light will be hitting the falls, and if you’re lucky, you’ll witness rainbows as well. Later in the summer, there is really not much to see, as Bassi Creek becomes a mere fragment of its former self.
16. Root Creek Falls
Root Creek Falls is a large, multi-tiered waterfall in the Castle Crags State Park just below Castle Dome. Though the hike to Castle Dome is usually considered the best the park has to offer, the hike to Root Creek and Root Creek Falls are not far behind. Hikers can take different routes to get to Root Creek. Deciding which one to take boils down to how much time you have, if you are willing to pay a $10 entrance fee and if you want to check out Root Creek Falls.
here is a small collection of trails that leads towards the vista point for Root Creek Falls, and ultimately they all lead to the creek or the vista point. From the vista you can look up and see the steep falls with the backdrop of the wild and stark crags, with white clouds looming even farther behind. It’s a beautiful and perfectly vertical line of sight up the canyon and the falls.
King’s Creek Falls is popular with hikers and photographers alike, these roaring falls are some of Lassen Park’s most dramatic falls clocking in at around a 40 foot height.
The waterfall is an amazing act of transformation – the lazy, meandering, small stream that we drove by and hiked by has metamorphosed into a crashing and cascading waterfall. It is a grand view, and to stand by it’s base is to stand at the very point of transformation. We were not the only one with this idea, as photographers and videographers came to this point, exactly at sunset (another transition) the same as us.
14. Phantom Falls
A flowing phantom haunts Table Mountain near Oroville. It disappears during the summer, and remains well hidden in remote Coal Canyon the rest of the year. The lucky few that stumble upon it boast of its sinister beauty. A narrow cascade reaching 134 feet to the bottom of Coal Canyon, Phantom Falls seems most drawn to the wet, gloomy months of winter (only fitting right?). When dark clouds clear for a few days and wildflower displays are at their height February-April, Phantom Falls is one of the best spectacles in the North State.
Unfortunately, getting to Phantom Falls is about as hard as finding an actual phantom. No established trail leads to the landmark, which sometimes necessitates the use of a GPS or compass to find it (Lat/Long: 39.61041, -121.56063). Hikers also need to proceed with caution through the area to avoid trespassing or trampling over wildflowers.
13. Hedge Creek Falls
Similar to hideout entrances seen in Batman movies and the Legend of Zorro, Hedge Creek Falls cascades in front of the passage to a 12-foot-high cave. The narrow waterfall hardly obscures the not-so-secret cave meaning that you won’t stumble upon any masked heroes on your trip to the feature. Still, the trip the Hedge Creek Falls is well worth the drive the Dunsmuir, CA. Along with the waterfall, visitors can take in incredible views of the Sacramento River and Mt. Shasta from the Hedge Creek Falls Trail.
As you begin, the path starts to descend moderately, and you pass a tiny creek. As the grade of the canyon gets steeper, you begin to go down via a number of switchbacks until you’ll start to hear flowing and falling water. Before you know it, you’re at Hedge Creek Falls. At this point, the trail continues behind the waterfall providing an intimate feel for hikers. Somedays, you can spot rock climbers attempting to ascend the igneous rock wall that reaches 30-35 feet to the source of the cascade.
12. Potem Falls
Located near Montgomery Creek, CA off of Hwy 299, Potem Falls is a 70 foot waterfall on the Pit River arm of Shasta Lake. For good reasons, it has become a popular weekend swim spot in recent years. The easy quarter-mile hike to the Potem Falls watering hole makes it an attractive option for families. If you desire some peace and quiet, take a mid-week trip to the falls when it’s often deserted. Potem Falls also makes for a romantic date spot.
Approaching the narrow, but scenic Potem waterfall, you’ll encounter a large pool perfect for swimming and lounging around. In Latin, “potem” means “to drink”, and after seeing the translucent water of Potem Creek, you might be compelled to do so. However, we don’t recommend it.
11. Feather Falls
Before being accurately measured, Oroville’s Feather Falls was considered the sixth tallest waterfall in the United States. Though widely reported, the height of the falls is not 640-feet, but instead 410-feet (pretty impressive either way). Hikers can see the cascade in its full glory year-round via Feather Falls Trail. Many who complete the trek rank Feather Falls among the most beautiful sights in Northern California.
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.
9. Rainbow Falls
Two miles downstream from Devils Postpile, the San Joaquin River tumbles over an abrupt 101-foot drop, sending rainbows of color into the mist. After the easy 1.5-mile walk to Rainbow Falls from the Reds Meadow area, the roar of the falls and the refreshing mists invite you to stay and enjoy a picnic lunch. Be sure to bring your camera—midday, when the sun is highest, is the best time capture the rainbows for which the falls are named.
The Devils Postpile and Rainbow Falls / Reds Meadow area is located 10 miles past Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s Main Lodge on State Highway 203. A mandatory shuttle bus is required during the busy summer months and departs from the Adventure Center at the base of Mammoth Mountain and The Village at Mammoth. Closed in winter.
Everybody loves Hatchet Falls (or Lions Slide Falls, depending on who you ask). A Montgomery Creek swimming hole, Hatchet Creek cascades down creating Lion Slide Falls and a large pool beneath. It’s one of the most recognizable, as well as most popular, swimming holes in NorCal. Its familiarity amongst locals is most certainly due to the giant fallen tree that lays right in the middle of the falls, creating a makeshift stairway for swimmers to climb and jump into the water.
At Hatchet Creek, kids can swim around in a shallower area formed by a dam. The waterfall and creek are easily accessible after a short trail walk. It’s the perfect place to spend a summer day. Another popular feature with this swimming hole is the cliffs on either side of the falls where adrenaline junkies can perform cliff jumps.
7. Eagle Falls
Eagle Falls, located in Tahoe’s Emerald Bay State Park, is a year-round waterfall that is only about a 2-mile round trip excursion from the highway. Once you hop on the trail leading into the Desolation Wilderness, you’ll get increasingly gorgeous views of Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay and the top of the falls has a bridge that overlooks it’s cascading water.
While the trail can get steep at times, it’s a quick trip for any family or day hikers that want a thrill. You can also choose to take the loop all the ay down in order to have different views each way.
6. Horsetail Falls
Horsetail Falls is typically not that unique in Yosemite, where waterfalls are vast and beautiful. It is a somewhat low-flow waterfall that flows about 1,000 feet down off the eastern edge of El Capitan to the ground.
But when the water flows are strong and the lighting is right, this waterfall lights up and appears to be on fire. This phenomenon typically appears for about two weeks in the month of February and can cause quite the tourist attraction for people looking for a rare view. That’s why it’s earned the nickname “The Waterfall of Fire.”
Grizzly Falls, located in the heart of the Trinity Alps Wilderness, is not only an incredible 600-feet waterfall, it’s also extremely hard to get to. If you’re willing to trek 14-miles (roundtrip) up 5,400 feet of elevation, you deserve to gaze upon the beauty of this secluded gem.
The waterfall flows from Grizzly Lake, a beautiful place to camp (it’s probably a good idea to rest after that hike) and provides overhead views of the 2,000 feet granite wall that holds the lake in place.
You will have to work to see this beauty, but nothing worth doing comes easy.
Mossbrae Falls is one of the most popular waterfalls in the Mt. Shasta/Dunsmuir area due to its incredibly unique features. Let’s just say, it’s not your typical waterfall. The difference between Mossbrae Falls and other NorCal waterfalls is that it seems the rock and moss are continually bleeding fresh, mountain water. It’s a sight to behold.
Mossbrae Falls is actually a series of springs that burst from the cliffs above the Sacramento River and then rain down into the water. Mossbrae Falls is composed of two primary clusters of spring-fed waterfalls, which reach about 50 feet high and 150 feet wide. The presence of the river beneath the falls enhances the scene and makes for one of the prettiest sights in the Mount Shasta area. There are numerous springs feeding the falls so they are great year-round.
3. McCloud Falls
McCloud Falls, located just outside of Mount Shasta, California, actually consists of three different waterfalls, all with their own distinct personalities.
The three tiers of McCloud Falls – Upper, Middle and Lower – provides visitors one of the best outdoor experiences in NorCal. It’s a beautiful hike to see all three waterfalls and in the summer months there is some great opportunities for swimming and recreation.
While Upper is difficult to get to and Lower is the smaller of the three, Middle McClouds Falls remains the most popular waterfall in the area. It contains a large swimming hole at the bottom and you can even catch some crazy cliff jumpers putting on a show. But one thing’s for sure, you can’t go wrong with any of them.
2. Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls, one of the world’s tallest waterfalls, is actually made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet). You can see Yosemite Falls from numerous places around Yosemite Valley, especially around Yosemite Village and Yosemite Valley Lodge.
While Upper Yosemite Falls is probably the most impressive section of the falls, it isn’t an easy hike – a 7.2-mile (roundtrip) trek up a 2,700 feet elevation gain to be exact. Lower Yosemite Falls, on the other hand, is only a mile (roundtrip) with almost no elevation gain
Whichever part of the falls you choose to visit, you won’t be disappointed.
1. Burney Falls
We’ve spent a lot of time admiring NorCal’s king of all waterfalls, Burney Falls. We’ve asked the question “did Tarzan dive off of Burney Falls?” We also showed you it is possible to jump off of Burney Falls (although very, very dangerous and illegal). But getting enough of the NorCal destination that President Theodore Roosevelt named the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” isn’t possible.
Located just north of Redding between Lassen Peak and Mt. Shasta in California’s lava country, is famous for its 129-foot waterfall, which cascades from Burney Creek down into Lake Britton. The falls are a sacred place for the Pit River Indian Tribe, who have held ceremonial rituals here for thousands of years.
The year-round falls are formed by melting snow from Burney Mountain, which travels through underground streams before hitting solid rock and flowing back to the surface. Each day, more than 100 million gallons of water plunge over the falls.
That’s our list! Let us know what you think and what we missed in the comments!
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine