Freeway Free in California: Burney Falls Hides East of Redding
Get to Redding in Northern California and you may be mesmerized by the vision of Mt. Shasta rising before you and elect to stay on I-5 to get as close as you can to this spectacular mountain. But if you hang a right at CA299, you are headed into the Empty Corner of California. A place of rolling foothills, expansive sugar pine forests, burbling creeks, widely spaced towns with tiny populations, and secret spots known only to the locals and to the fishermen who come to test their luck in the streams flowing down from the East Cascade Range.
Hiding sixty miles east of Redding is Burney Falls, which Theodore Roosevelt once described as “the eighth wonder of the world.” Coming from someone who had certainly seen Yosemite and Niagara, that is high praise. The miracle that is Burney Falls is not just due to its natural beauty as it falls panoramically along a 129 feet cliff into a clear 22-foot deep pool below. The miracle is that Burney Falls exists at all. The above photo was taken in late September, before the winter rains had begun. One mile above the cliff, Burney Creek is bone dry. Where does all the water come from?
The answer to the mystery is an underground aquifer that bursts out of the ground a half-mile above the falls. The water flows year-round at a steady 42-48 degrees, shockingly refreshing in summer, a refuge for aquatic life in winter. From the falls, the water flows into Lake Britton, a recreational resource open for canoeing, kayaking, swimming for the hardy, and fishing.
The falls and the lake are a popular stopover for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail who need rest, refreshment, and re-provisioning. If you want to visit, the loop trail from the top to the bottom of the falls over a rainbow bridge gives a beautiful introduction to the area.
The two small motels in Burney, the nearest town, have merged management under the name of “Burney Falls Lodging”, but they are still pretty much unchanged from the cabin-style single level buildings with individual front porches such as I used to stay in with my parents when we traveled on Route 66 or Route 40 in the years before the interstates. The rooms at the Green Gables Motel now have a coffee maker and a window air conditioner, but the fish cleaning stations are still here and no effete swimming pools or hot tubs have been added.
If you aren’t looking, the passing of lumber trucks along 299 in front of the motel sounds almost like waves surging along the beach. I relaxed into my 1950’s vintage porch chair at the Green Gable Inn and sip my 2010’s vintage champagne. Later we enjoyed dinner at Art’s Outpost, another ’50’s throwback with pine paneling , substantial servings, friendly servers, and lots of hunting and fishing décor.
The next morning we got an early start the next morning for our walk around the falls. The view from the top was exciting, with beautiful fall colors just beginning to show in the bordering forest areas.
I recommend walking the loop in the clockwise direction. It’s an easy mile, with only a few spots where the steps a bit steep.
After the loop, we stopped at the campground and the lake. The campsites are spacious, and the wooden cabins have snug space for four people as long as they are on friendly terms. I’m imagining a family camping trip in the future.