Thursday, July 23, 2020

Burney Falls Loop

Burney Falls
1.2 miles loop, 180 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, McArthur-Burney Falls State Park entrance fee required

This short and easy loop in Northern California visits a spectacular, spring-fed waterfall and then meanders through a lovely, lush canyon. California is a state well-known for incredible waterfalls but even here, 129-foot tall Burney Falls stands out. While far shorter than the state's well known waterfalls in Yosemite, Burney Fall's spring-fed curtain of water tumbling down a mossy cliff is extraordinarily scenic and worth the detour if you around Lassen Volcanic or Mount Shasta; it's also much more reliable later in the summer than Yosemite Falls or other waterfalls in the Sierra Nevada. Unfortunately, the trail's scenic highlights also makes it an extremely popular destination: many locals come to cool off in the pool at the base of the falls, so come early if you're looking for a hike where you can social distance in the time of Covid-19.

I visited Burney Falls on a hot July afternoon as I drove down during my move from Seattle. The closest city to the falls is Redding; many visitors from farther away will likely come to the falls as part of a visit to either Mount Shasta or Lassen Volcanic National Park. From Redding, you can reach the falls by taking Highway 299 east from the city into the mountains and past the town of Burney, turning left at the junction with Highway 89 and then heading north 6 miles to the entrance of McArthur-Burney Falls State Park. Turn left for the state park and the trailhead is the main parking lot just past the visitor center.

From the trailhead, a paved path leads immediately to an overlook with a view of the falls in the canyon below. If you just want a glimpse of the falls without any physical effort, you'll be easily satisfied.

Burney Falls from the overlook
The far more impressive views of this waterfall, however, come from the base of the falls. A sign marks the start of the Burney Falls Loop: the paved trail heads to the right from the overlook and then begins to descend into the canyon via some switchbacks. The roasting temperatures in the parking lot began to drop as we dropped into the canyon, with the mist of the falls providing natural air conditioning in the canyon.

As we descended to a switchback near the edge of the falls, we got a close-up look at this beautiful 129-foot waterfall. Burney Creek itself fed the two main branches of the falls that flowed from the top of the canyon. Numerous smaller spring-fed cascades flowed out of the walls of the canyon, creating a beautiful curtain of water.

Burney Falls
The paved path ended at a viewpoint of the falls at the base. Multiple social trails led from here out onto the rocks along the side of the pool at the base. This area was unfortunately a bit crowded on a July weekend afternoon, with many people cooling off in the water. We found a less crowded spot and enjoyed the falls for a bit before escaping to the less crowded latter stretches of the loop.

View at the base of Burney Falls
Theodore Roosevelt once declared these falls a wonder of the world. That might be stretching it a bit, but this is certainly one of the more impressive waterfalls in California and the moist, verdant surroundings are a nice respite from the hot and dry summer conditions in this part of the state.

The falls' unique appearance of streams emerging from a cliff is a result of the area's volcanic geology. The falls are in the California Cascades, which start at Lassen Peak to the south and run north into Oregon and Washington as a chain of volcanoes. One of those volcanoes is nearby Burney Peak, the source of the water in Burney Creek and the falls. Eruptions that built Burney Peak laid down a surface layer of porous basalt here, but underlying that igneous rock are impermeable layers of sedimentary rock. Thus, rainfall on Burney Peak collect in the basalt as groundwater; this groundwater is forced to flow by the underlying impermeable rock and this water then emerges from the ground at the boundary between the two rock layers at Burney Falls. Unlike seasonal waterfalls in the state that dry up in summer when the snowmelt ends, spring-fed Burney Falls maintains a flow rate of about 100 million gallons per day throughout the year.

Spring-fed cascades
To continue the loop, we took the trail down the canyon from the falls. Here, the pavement switched to dirt and the crowds quickly thinned out. The trail followed Burney Creek down a lush, cool, and beautiful canyon. Cooled by the mists of the waterfall, the canyon is home to Douglas Fir and other other trees and plants that are typical of wetter and cooler climes which survive here because of the temperature and moisture effect of the falls. A number of sizeable trees grew along the trail at the bottom of the canyon. Burney Creek itself burbled as it flowed next to us.

Burney Creek
After passing a talus slope along the riverbank, we came to a trail junction: the Burney Creek Trail continued onward, following the creek, while the Falls Loop Trail made a left turn here to cross Burney Creek on the Rainbow Footbridge.

Rainbow Footbridge over Burney Creek 
Crossing the bridge, we quickly came to another junction with the PSEA trail, which headed downstream along the west bank of Burney Creek. We stayed on the Falls Loop Trail, which began a gradual ascent up the west canyon walls as it headed back in the direction of Burney Falls. This climb brought us out of the cool canyon air and returned us to the scorching 90-degree temperatures over Redding and the California Cascades that day.

The trail fully climbed out of the canyon after a few final switchbacks as the trail neared the waterfall; from this angle, Burney Falls was obscured behind trees and there were no good views. Once out of the canyon, the trail followed the canyon rim with the roar of the falls below still audible. Following Burney Creek upstream, we soon came to the Fisherman's Bridge. At a junction right before the bridge, the right fork led to a junction with the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes by the falls; we took the left fork and crossed the bridge. Burney Creek is itself entirely spring-fed and emerges from the ground just a mile upstream from here. The groundwater source keeps the water flow fairly constant, nurturing the flowers and other lush vegetation in the creek's riparian zone. True to the bridge's name, we spotted a handful of visitors fishing below the bridge for trout.

Burney Creek viewed from Fisherman's Bridge
After crossing Fisherman's Bridge, we followed the trail to the left as it paralleled a service road until we returned to the Falls overlook at the start of the trail and then the parking lot.

This was a very enjoyable, easy hike. The highlight is undoubtedly the curtain of water view at the base of Burney Falls, but hiking the loop and adding a mile rather than just returning directly was a good choice that helped us avoid many of the other visitors while taking in pretty views along other stretches of Burney Creek and appreciating the lush vegetation in the canyon. Burney Falls is a highlight of far Northern California and this loop is an excellent way to experience the park.

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