Burney Falls in McArthur-Burney Falls State Park
The Crown Jewel
By Jordan Venema
Living in California, it’s easy to take for granted its sweeping landscapes and natural beauty. Between mountain peaks and sandy shores, a glut of national and state parks, aesthetes and adventurers alike grow spoiled. Even when her every treasure seems uncovered, and we think we’ve seen all she has to offer, this state still surprises with some hidden grove or watering hole just around the bend.
Twice as wide as its 129-foot drop, Burney Falls is not an easily hidden waterfall, and the roar of its rushing water can be heard before it is seen. And yet Burney Falls is something of a hidden gem, tucked away northeast of Redding.
The crown jewel of McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, a 910-acre forest that includes Lake Britton, Burney Falls is the outpouring of Burney Creek, just another trout stream along the Pacific Crest Trail. Yet even in the hot summer months, as Burney Creek dries to a trickle, Burney Falls still roars. Fueled by underwater springs, this waterfall can move 100 million gallons in a day.
Safe to say there is nothing like Burney Falls in California, and maybe even in the world. In fact, President Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed by Burney that he called it the eighth wonder of the world. In a photo, the falls appear remote and removed, untouched and preserved. And it is – but the falls are also a short walk from where you’ll park your car.
It almost seems unfair that Burney is so accessible. This is the kind of beauty you want to earn, that deserves working up a sweat. But despite the park’s $8 entry fee and short jaunt to the falls, Burney offers a sense of isolation.
While the short, paved switchback to the bottom of the falls makes the “hike” easy enough for any age and skill, the bottom of the falls provides a meditative space. The expansive volcanic face rises above you, and before you the sapphire pool seems still. Mist cools on a summer day, and casts spectral colors as it filters the sunlight. The roaring crash of water drowns out all sound, and while sitting on one of the boulders at the edge of the pool, one gets the sense they are entirely alone, with nothing before them but the tremendous force of nature rushing over the rising precipice.
At its fullest, Burney Creek splits in two and cascades about 130 feet below, but dozens, if not hundreds, of rivulets pour out of the dark volcanic rock from secret sources hidden by moss and shadow. Water rushes and trickles from every facet of the cliff, creating the image of something out of a fairytale.
The blue pool below the falls keeps a cool 42 degrees, and posted signs encourage hikers not to swim in the water. Some people dip their toes just enough for a photo opportunity, and in the mornings, fly fishermen will wade in the shallows.
A 1.3-mile loop begins from the overlook, winds around and down to the base, following the stream, and up and over the creek itself. The hike is simple enough, but provides different views and perspectives of the falls, to watch swallows dart around the face of the falls, or glance at eagles’ nests in the bare branches reaching above Burney Creek.
The beauty of Burney Falls is enough that some would hike many miles to see it, and yet the hike to its base can be made in the most casual sneakers. The only tools or supplies needed to visit the falls are maybe a small lunch, a camera and some sunscreen.
Burney is certainly the allure of McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, but the 910 acres also offers six miles of hiking trails through evergreen forest, and a portion of Lake Britton is open to boating activities.
In 2007, the park built 24 new cabins, which rent for about $100 a night and accommodate 4-6 people. There are also more than 100 developed campsites with no utilities. But of course, even a day trip to the falls can provide the kind of natural nature that many explorers and adventures have spent their lives searching for.