About McCloud Falls (Lower, Middle, Upper)
What we’re referring to as McCloud Falls was really a series of three major waterfalls on the McCloud River – Lower Falls, Middle Falls, and Upper Falls. The Lower Falls was really more of a wide swimming and play waterfall with a stocky 12-15ft drop into a deep and emerald green pool. The Middle Falls featured an impressively wide drop that was said to be 50ft tall and at least twice as wide as it was tall (so it’s at least 100ft wide). The Upper Falls was kind of a chute waterfall with some interesting cascades further upstream feeding its dramatic chute. Although each of these waterfalls had different sizes and shapes, hands down the most scenic of the them had to have been the Middle McCloud Falls, which we were able to scramble closer to as well as experience from a cliff overlooking the whole scene, and if we were so pressed for time that we’d have to pick just one waterfall to visit, it would have to be this one.
Luckily for us, when we made our visit, time was on our side. We ultimately visited all three waterfalls on a well-used trail that linked all the waterfalls for a 3.6- to 3.8-mile round trip hike (all waterfalls were said to be geographically within one mile of each other). That said, we very easily could have driven to each waterfall (see directions below) and essentially save a lot of time doing that though we’d miss out on a lot of the subtleties that can only be appreciated when you leave the car and the crowds behind. Indeed, we could have broken up this write-up into three where each waterfall would have its own dedicated page. But since we did this whole thing in one shot, we’ll just describe all the waterfalls on the McCloud River as a singular hiking excursion.
My mother and I began from the picnic area and overlook area of the Lower McCloud Falls. Directly adjacent to the picnic area and facilities to our left were railings allowing us to look down at the stocky waterfall while surveying the scene. We had to be careful not to make the mistake of following a McCloud River Trail sign leading people further downstream away from the action (which Mom made the mistake of doing during our visit). Once we had our fill of the overlook area, we then walked down the steps and onto the bedrock of the McCloud River amongst the hundreds of people who were chilling out around the minor cliff edges surrounding the deep green emerald plunge pool as well as further upstream where there were shallower and calmer sections of the river allowing for families (including kids) to play in or just chill out and have a relaxing time over some refreshments and lawn chairs. It was the kind of scene that reminded us of what we would typically see at a crowded beach, but this was a bonafide waterfall attraction where many weekenders were trying to beat the early Summer heat.
Next, we continued on the paved trail (so it was wheelchair accessible) for the next quarter-mile towards the Fowler’s Campground as it meandered amongst some tall trees with glimpses of the McCloud River along the way. The trail was considerably quieter than the party scene at the Lower McCloud Falls though it was still quite busy given that the campground looked full and many people were still walking back and forth to the Lower Falls and the camp. Some of the tents were practically adjacent to the trail.
Beyond the campsites, the trail stopped becoming paved and it became more of a conventional dirt trail. This was probably when the hiking experience was at its most peaceful, but it was also the stretch of trail when we wouldn’t see the next waterfall for the next 3/4-mile or so. In hindsight, if we wanted to get the best of combining hiking with autotouring, then we could have driven to the Lower Falls area as a drive-to waterfall, then get back in the car and drive to the parking lot for the Middle and/or Upper Falls just to avoid the nearly one-mile stretch between the Lower Falls and Middle Falls. Nevertheless, this was also the section of trail where we allowed the subtleties of Mother Nature sink into us as the McCloud River could be glimpses for much of this section while it was always within earshot the entire way.
The lull in waterfall activity (25 minutes from Fowler’s Camp and 40 minutes from Lower Falls) also set us up for the dramatic appearance of the Middle McCloud Falls as the impressively wide and commanding block-type waterfall made its presence known. We could get partial views of the falls from the trail, but in order to really appreciate it, we had to do a little boulder scrambling from the end of the lowermost switchback to see the falls’ base in context with its very wide plunge pool. When we showed up at almost 3pm in late June, the far right side of the falls was already in shadow, which necessitated doing some tricks with the camera to resolve the bright and dark regions of the waterfall to resolve both zones in one photo. Nevertheless, from a waterfall appreciation standpoint, Mom and I chilled out at this divine scene for a bit while we also observed other people making their way down from the overlook high above us as well as watching others who were here before us even fishing at the banks of the plunge pool.
Indeed, this waterfall by itself would have warranted the rating score we gave it of 3.5, and neither Mom nor myself wanted to leave. But once we finally had our fill of this waterfall, we then took the pair of gently sloping switchbacks ultimately leading up roughly 0.4 miles to the lookout high up on the top of the cliffs looking right down at the Middle McCloud Falls in context with the McCloud River as well as some mountains still clinging on to their snow way in the distance. While the view was commanding, the perspective of Middle McCloud Falls was actually a bit disappointing compared to the more angled frontal view we enjoyed earlier on. So if we did decide to park at the nearest lot (less than a quarter-mile away from this overlook), it would be well worth making the hike down the switchbacks leading to the waterfalls’ base.
Beyond the overlook, we followed the cliff-hugging railings offering us more views of the McCloud River canyon below. Further beyond the railings, the trail would continue between more trees and bush containing some blooming wildflowers for the next quarter-mile. Along the way, we were able to get partial glimpses back at Mt Shasta (too many tall trees in the way as the mountain could be better seen from the Middle McCloud Falls parking lot) as well as hiking next to some interesting rocks flanking the trail. Finally, after another ten minutes of walking, we reached the first lookout for the Upper McCloud Falls, which was angled and a bit distant, but we could clearly see the short 30ft waterfall wedging itself between a cut in the adjacent hard rock layer and lunging itself into its deep plunge pool below.
There were more overlooks as we walked closer to the brink of the falls, but of the three waterfalls on the McCloud River, this one was definitely the look-but-don’t-touch type as the plunge pool at its base was not safely accessible. Nevertheless, at the waterfall’s brink, we were also able to look upstream as the McCloud River cascading its way to the free-leap of the Upper McCloud Falls. The trail continued further upstream beyond this part, but that merely led up to the parking lot for this falls in another 0.1-mile (so again, there was a “lazy” option to experience this falls instead of hiking between the Middle and Upper Falls.
The brink of the Upper McCloud Falls was our turnaround point. The hike back was pretty quick as it was mostly flat with the downhill stretch to go from the overlook of Middle McCloud Falls to its bottom. And it took us about an hour to make it all the way back to the parking lot at the Lower Falls. Overall, we had spent nearly three hours away from the car, but we felt it was time well-spent as we could easily see why the McCloud River area was one of the Mt Shasta area’s best known and popular attractions.
We’ll pick up the driving directions from the town of Mt Shasta even though I could imagine many more accommodation options in the city of Redding (about 60 miles or 55 minutes drive further south on the I-5) as well as Red Bluff (an additional 30 miles or 30 minutes further to the south along the I-5).
Taking the I-5 south from the town at Lake Street, it was less than two miles before we took the junction with Hwy 89 leaving the I-5 and heading east. From there, we followed Hwy 89 for about 15 miles to the well-signed turnoff to the right for the McCloud River area (6 miles east of the town of McCloud). After turning right onto the Fowler Public Camp Rd, we took it for the next 0.6 miles to a signed junction. The left turn led to the Middle and Upper Falls with the right turn led to the Lower Falls and the Fowler’s Campground.
We kept right at this junction and the next one at the Fowler’s Camp access junction, and ultimately drove the remaining 0.7 miles to the parking lot for the Lower Falls. Since it was busy when we showed up at around 1:30pm on a Sunday in mid-June, the main lot was full so we had to drive a little further along the road in search of parking space along the road’s shoulder.
Overall, this drive took us around 25 minutes.
In order to access the parking lots for the Middle and Upper Falls, we returned to the first junction (going back 0.7 miles), then turning right onto the signposted road. The straight shot road led to the Middle McCloud Falls parking lot after about a mile on our right. Meanwhile, as the road continued as it curved to the right we found the signed turnoff to the right for the Upper Falls parking lot in another half-mile.
To give you an idea of the geographical context, Redding was 217 miles (over 3 hours drive) north of San Francisco, 162 miles (about 2.5 hours drive) north of Sacramento, 150 miles (2.5 hours drive) south of Medford, Oregon, and 546 miles (over 7.5 hours drive) north of Los Angeles.