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Go Chasing Waterfalls: Our Favorite Cascades in Northern California

Who doesn't love waterfalls?  There are a bunch of places within driving distance where you can get your feet wet. Here are our favorites.

Berry Creek Falls, Big Basin State Park
Getting to this small oasis not far from Santa Cruz is half the fun: Veering off of scenic Highway 236 or 9 (depending on from which way you’re coming), you’ll wind your way through a cluster of Mayberry-like towns of mailboxes, picket fences and not much else. The 12-mile trail leads through magnificent redwoods to Berry Creek - a series of four gushing falls. You can stock up on sustenance like bottled water and fruit at Big Basin Grocery Store (21600 Big Basin Way # 4) in Boulder Creek before entering the park. Side trip: Stop off of Highway 9 and sneak a peek at Howden Castle, a pretty old thing in Ben Lomond built in the early 1927 and modeled after a Scottish fortress. Today, it’s used as a vacation rental.

Sardine Falls, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest
The volcanic landscape of Mono County can’t be better experienced in a mere day than through the diversity of Sonora Pass (unless, of course, you’re up to the challenge of strapping on a pack and hiking its entirety). To get there, turn west on Highway 108 where it meets up with 395. Drive 12.3 miles to Sardine Meadow and park along side of road; Sardine Meadow is an additional 2.5 miles east of Sonora Pass summit.  Sardine Falls' highest point is 9,000 feet, with the trailhead elevation at 8,800; 11,000-foot volcanic peaks surround it. The area’s pretty desolate, so if you need picnic goods stop in one of the bigger towns like Bridgeport (29 miles east on 395) or Coleville (30 miles north on 395) before you get too far off the beaten path.

Waterfall Loop Trail, Mendocino County
Those with a little more spring to their step (and endurance, as well) might consider this 13-mile-long hike that starts at the West Crockett Trailhead in Mendocino National Forest, which encompasses nearly a million square acres. Passing through a patch of pines and on over the Middle Fork of Stony Creek, the waterfall trail comes to Lake Pillsbury Basin and a handful of mountains. From there, you’ll continue on to Milk Ranch, which is private property, but the kindly owner allows hikers and horseback riders to pass through at their leisure. Just beyond, there are spectacular views of the surrounding ridge. The elevation climbs from 5,200 to 6,400 feet, but the U.S. Forest Service has designated the trail easy. Just get an early morning’s start, and you should be back before the afternoon heat sets in. If walking the equivalent of half a marathon isn’t in your cards, fear not: The first the falls is at the beginning of the trail, so you could always head there and straight back out if you’re pressed for time—or energy.

Cataract Falls, Marin County
If you don’t have the opportunity to venture too far out of the city, you’re in luck: Marin boasts one of the most popular waterfall paths around, Cataract Falls. A moderate 2.6-mile walk, the trailhead starts just off Bolinas Road at Alpine Lake at 680 feet, but quickly climbs another 500 in under half a mile. You’ll travel along a flowing creek with just the redwoods—and a mile-long series of seven waterfalls—for company. Be wary, though: Cataract is only gushing after a good rain; other times, it’s merely a spring. If you’re coming up to Mt. Tamalpais from the south, be sure and stock up on picnic goods at popular market, Venice Gourmet, in downtown Sausalito along the waterfront. Otherwise, you’ll find plenty of supermarkets Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and in Fairfax. If approaching from West Ridgecrest Boulevard, the trail will be marked “Laurel Dell.”

Whiskeytown Falls, Whiskeytown
(near Redding)
A remote spot smack in the middle of the Shasta Cascades, Whiskeytown—likely most recognized for its lake of the same name—has four waterfalls in his vicinity. (If you hike to three of them, you can even get a free day pass to Redding Aquatic Center.) Perhaps the most stunning of the quartet is Shasta County’s largest, a 220-foot monstrosity that was only discovered by a park ranger in 2004 after he had heard the story for years of this mysterious waterfall hidden away in the far reaches of the park. In 2006, a 1.5-mile moderate trail to Whiskeytown Falls was completed, allowing the public to access the wonder as well (via a 700-foot incline). The other three cascades include Boulder Creek Falls, Brandy Creek Falls and Lower Crystal Creek Falls. If you’re planning on staying the entire afternoon, you’ll need to pick up picnic fare in Shasta’s bustling hub, Redding, 12 miles east, as there’s very little along the way once you get on Highway 299.

Feather Falls, Plumas National Forest
Freefalling at an impressive 410 feet, Feather Falls is the sixth highest in the nation. A favorite of many, the fall boasts swimming holes and killer views. The view of the canyon, from the brink, is to die for. Take careful steps though. 

McWay Fall, Julia Pfeiffer State Park
McWay is fed by water from the underground springs at McWay Creek and ends by spilling over a cliff and onto the gorgeous beach below. Public access to the beach is not allowed, which in our opinion, only adds to its charming mystique.

Basin Falls, Uvas Canyon Park
Basin Falls, measuring in at a smallish 20 feet., is one of five falls in the park. This quaint cascade is perfect for those looking for a sweet reward at the end of a lazy afternoon stroll. When you feel replenished, visit the nearby Gilroy Gardens, a horticulture-themed family fun park.

Donner Creek Falls, Mt. Diablo State Park
Best viewed after heavy rain, Donner Creek Falls is comprised of four cascades. On the return, visit the Albany Bulb, inside Albany Waterfront Park.

Golden Cascade Fall, Boulder Creek
The Golden Cascade Fall in Boulder Creek gives new meaning to the term golden shower. The minerals growing on the sandstone beneath give the fall a gold tint. 

Devil’s Punchbowl Falls
This scenic stretch is mostly known for the pool that collects underneath, but the actual waterfall is quite pleasant. Best seen during winter, Devil’s Punchbowl Falls is short in size (14 feet). But its reputation as the most visually stunning swimming hole around is no tall tale.

 

*Some trailhead and mileage information courtesy of Trails.com.