Hiking to Whiskeytown Falls | Shasta County, Northern California

by Shelly Rivoli
Lower Whiskeytown Falls

At summer’s end in the drought-stricken state of California, finding a 220-foot multi-tiered waterfall in the forest feels nothing short of a miracle.

Yet, thanks to the underground springs feeding into Crystal Creek, the miracle that is Whiskeytown Falls continues cascading over its rocky slopes and mossy ledges, refreshing the eyes, ears, and souls of hikers year round—even in the midst of a mega-drought.

After driving past haunting acres of wild land scorched by the 2018 Carr Fire to reach the trailhead (the most devastating wildfire in National Parks Service history), you’ll feel especially grateful that this peaceful trail and its scenic wonder were spared.

But be warned: This hike is a workout! Prepare for a total elevation gain of 794 feet (about 73 stories), with nearly all of that achieved in the first 1.7-mile leading you to the base of the lower Whiskeytown Falls.

Fortunately, you’ll find strategically placed benches along the way and plentiful shade in hot summer months. But for the best resting spot of all on this hike? Take a seat on the long log or boulders right at the base of Whiskeytown Falls. (Don’t forget to pack a picnic!)

Here’s more information to help you plan your family’s hike to Whiskeytown Falls.

At-a-glance specs for this hike

Distance: 3.4 miles out and back

Elevation gain: 794 feet

Difficulty: Strenuous, steep with up to 20%-24% grade in some sections, also steep uneven rocky steps to upper falls viewpoint

Seasons: This spring-fed waterfall flows year round, even in drought years. Visits are best spring through fall, with the best wildflowers usually February – May. Wet weather could mean slippery conditions on the trail and possible risk of mudslides in surrounding burn areas.

What you’ll find along the way

Just a short distance into the hike you’ll start hearing the rushing waters of Crystal Creek. And at 0.2 mile the trail leads you over the creek on a sweet little wooden bridge. Take a moment to enjoy the shady spot—once you’ve crossed, the climbing begins!

At 0.4 mile, you’ll see a fork in the trail, with a sign smack dab in the middle of the Mill Creek Trail to your left, advising of its closure. With many other trail closures in the area due to safety risks and restoration efforts, be sure to respect any signs requesting you stay on the well-marked route to Whiskeytown Falls.

You’ll be rewarded by many lovely glimpses of Crystal Creek and its mini-waterfalls along the way.

Mini waterfall splashing over rocks in Crystal Creek.
The trail often meanders above and alongside Crystal Creek with is many “mini” waterfalls.

However, around 0.8 mile (depending on the timing of your visit), you may notice the small creek beside the trail seems to have dried up, and there’s no longer the sound of any rushing water at all. (Not a good sign when it’s only 1.7 miles total to a massive water fall, right?) Don’t panic!

Three kids hiking in desert with guidebook promotion for Hiking with Kids Southern California by Shelly Rivoli
Hiking with Kids Southern California includes hikes in Sequoia NP, Kings Canyon NP, Joshua Tree NP, Death Valley NP, and Channel Islands NP — and many more great hikes for families. (And yes, those are MY kids!) Thank you for your support! – Shelly

Over the next half a mile, you’ll encounter some of the steepest sections of the hike (including that 24% grade I mentioned), and without a hint of flowing water you may be ready to throw in the towel. Just take advantage of one of the benches along this stretch to let the family re-water and refuel with a quick energy snack.

It won’t be long before you hear the sounds of rushing water once again, and find yourselves crossing over a lovely box canyon whilst feeling the cool breath of a gentler micro climate.

Once you come upon a small waterfall cascading out beneath a red wooden bridge, you’ll know you’re almost to Whiskeytown Falls (think of it as the 1.5-mile marker).

Crystal Creek's small waterfalls flow from beneath a bridge
When you happen upon this picturesque scene with one of Crystal Creek’s small waterfalls, you’ll know you’re getting close to the grand finale: Whiskeytown Falls.

Photos from this post are available in my Whiskeytown Shasta Trinity stock photo gallery.

Continue following the trail up the left side of the creek, past boulders and small pools until the 30-foot lower Whiskeytown Falls comes into view. Here, you’ll find the falls spilling into a pool of water with a perfectly placed long log and side boulders to sit upon and enjoy the view.

This could be a pleasant enough reward to pause and take in, but before you go, you’ll want to see the upper falls as well–unless you have a fear of heights, tricky knees, or issues with vertigo (then just stay put!).

Rugged rocky steps and handrail leading to viewpoint for upper Whiskeytown Falls
Just a part of the “staircase” leading up to the viewpoint for upper Whiskeytown Falls — you’ll be glad for the hand rail!

Look for the steep and ridiculously rugged “staircase” (with handrail to help hoist yourself up) to the left of the lower falls. This treacherous route leads the most adventurous visitors up to view the upper Whiskeytown Falls (scroll down to see the upper falls).

When ready, you’ll simply retrace your steps back to the trailhead, where chances are you’ll all be very glad to have extra cold water waiting for you and yours in the car.

Know before you go

Restrooms: Vault toilet at trailhead

Fees/permits: A Visitor Pass is required, but any of these will work: The Whiskeytown National Recreation Area private vehicle pass ($25 for 7 days), the Lassen Volcanic and Whiskeytown Annual Pass ($55 for 1 year and good in Lassen Volcanic National Park as well), or the America the Beautiful pass. If you have a current 4th grader, display your FREE Every Kid Outdoors Pass.

Parking: At trailhead

Dogs: Yes, see note below

Trail Contact: Whiskeytown Visitor Center, 14412 Kennedy Memorial Drive, Whiskeytown, CA 96095 (note they are open limited days and hours); (530) 246-1225, https://www.nps.gov/whis

Upper Whiskeytown Falls – this photo doesn’t do them justice! But if you look closely you’ll see there are actually three tiers.

Dogs on the trail?

Yes! Dogs are welcome on trails in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, including the hiking trail to Whiskeytown Falls, as long as they are leashed and you clean up after them.

Just remember, this trail will be a workout for Fido, too, and you’ll want to bring plenty of water for you both. The trail is mostly dirt with lots of shade, so its pretty easy on a pup’s feet even on hot days.

How much time should you plan for this hike?

For the average family, I’d plan to spend 2-3 hours on this hike. Our family spent about 2 hours overall on this hike, including about 30 minutes overall of resting breaks and enjoying the waterfall.

However, we rushed a bit for the return portion (speed hiking!) knowing we still had relatives expecting us for dinner in Bend, Oregon, that evening.

Suffice to say, it took only about half as long for us to hike back down as it did going up thanks to the significant elevation gain—and loss!

Small waterfalls beneath red bridge
Pin this to your travel board for Northern California or waterfall hikes!

Getting there

The James K. Carr Trailhead is about 30 minutes west of Redding, California. From central Redding, take CA-299 West/Eureka Way for 16 miles, then turn left onto Crystal Creek Road.

Be prepared to lose cellular service and watch your odometer. In 3.7 miles, on your left (east) you’ll see the small restroom, several parking spaces, and staging area for the trail.

To the left of the restroom, you’ll find an information kiosk with area map and just beyond it, the signed “James K. Carr Trailhead” where this hike begins. Trailhead GPS: 40.639, -122.676 (click here to see on Google maps).

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