Pretending it's spring at Whiskeytown Falls

Whiskeytown Falls outside Redding, Calif., drops 220 feet over a series of three granite outcrops.Courtesy of Nancy McClain

When the Rogue Valley's thick, low-hanging, mushroom-making ceiling feels like it's pressing me into the duff, I start dreaming of ways to find some blue sky.

My wife, Nancy, and I recently experienced one of those days and decided to head south to the Redding, Calif., area to find a hiking trail that wouldn't require us to wear mukluks. It takes only about 21/2 hours to get there, but it's not uncommon for the temperature to be 15 or 20 degrees warmer in Redding, and by late winter the difference between 45 and 65 — as it was this day — is huge.

If you go

Whiskeytown is about 157 miles south of Medford. Take Interstate 5 south for 149 miles to the Highway 44 West exit toward downtown Redding and Eureka. From downtown Redding, follow Highway 299 west toward Eureka for about 8 miles to reach the Whiskeytown Visitor Center.

Stop at the visitor center to pay for a $5 day-use pass and pick up a trail guide, or buy a year-round pass for $25, which is also good for Lassen Volcanic National Park.

From the visitor center, drive west 8 miles along Highway 299 to Crystal Creek Road, about a quarter-mile past the Tower House Historic District. Turn left onto Crystal Creek Road and drive 3.75 miles to reach the Mill Creek Trailhead. You will pass the turnoffs for Crystal Creek Falls and Crystal Creek Campground.

For information, call the visitor center at 1-530-246-1225. Download a .pdf trail guide at http://tinyurl.com/7xuthuh

We have the advantage of family living in that area, so we had plenty of suggestions when it came to choosing a low-elevation hiking trail where we could pretend it was spring. On this day, it was the trail to Whiskeytown Falls in the 42,500-acre Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

The park has four major waterfalls — Boulder Creek Falls, Brandy Creek Falls, Lower Crystal Creek Falls and Whiskeytown Falls — and the best time to visit is in the spring when the creeks are bursting with runoff.

Whiskeytown Falls has an interesting story in that the waterfalls were "rediscovered" in 2003 after being "lost" for nearly 40 years. After hearing rumors of their existence, Park Ranger Russ Weatherbee studied maps and aerial photographs looking for them, and after a bit of trial and error, he managed to find the spot.

Because they were so inaccessible, park officials decided to keep quiet about the find until they could build a trail to the site, which was completed in 2005.

The 3.5-mile, roundtrip hike begins at the James K. Carr trailhead, where you'll find a well-maintained parking area and bathroom. The path starts off on a down slope, following the roadbed of a restored logging road. After we crossed over the west fork of Crystal Creek on a footbridge, the trail began to ascend, sometimes quite steeply, with a few level areas that let us catch our breath.

One of those level spots allows a vista of the upper forest at a place called Wintu View, and another provided ground for a rustic picnic area known as Trail Camp.

Shortly after this point the trail crossed another footbridge that led us into a box canyon about a quarter-mile from the falls. The vegetation consists of ferns, mosses, white alder, big leaf maple and poison oak, which is a bit harder to discern this time of year before the shiny leaves start popping out.

The falls themselves cascade about 220 feet down a series of three granite tiers, but we didn't realize at first how extensive they were when we caught our initial glimpse from a picturesque pool at the bottom. The water here is crystal clear and the air carries that sweetness unique to forest glades spiced by falling water.

After the climb to this point, we were happy for the chance to get out the camera and use it as an excuse to stop for a few minutes. Then it was time to climb a wet, slippery set of stairs chiseled into the rock that took us to a pair of viewing areas further up the ravine, one named "Photographer's Ledge" and the upper called "Artist's Ledge," according to a trail guide at the park office. A metal railing kept us from slipping a few times, but the view is well worth the climb.

Because of the relatively dry winter, the falls weren't as impressive as they can be, according to some regulars we talked to along the way.

But we weren't complaining. Back home our friends in Talent were watching it snow from a slate-gray sky, wondering when spring was going to arrive.

Reach Mail Tribune Features Editor David Smigelski at 541-776-8784 or dsmigelski@mailtribune.com.


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