BURNEY, Calif. —
Streaming from porous basalt, its watery fingers spreading lacelike over rock and lush vegetation like the wings of a dragonfly, Burney Falls is one of the great scenic attractions of the American West.
Yet relatively few people have heard of it.
This highlight of the Southern Cascades, and the central feature of California's McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, is not on the way to anywhere — unless you're traveling the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway between Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen.
But these 129-foot falls are worth a detour east of Interstate 5, whether you deviate southbound from Mount Shasta City (50 miles) via California State Highway 89, or northbound from Redding (65 miles) via California State Highway 299.
Until I visited on a rainy Memorial Day weekend, I had heard mere whispers of their natural beauty. (Over a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt called them “the eighth wonder of the world,” according to park literature.) That was sufficient intrigue to inspire me to make the five-hour drive south from Bend. And although the weather could have cooperated better, I was not disappointed.
A rare geological phenomenon has created Burney Falls. Located at about 3,000 feet elevation on the edge of the volcanic Modoc Plateau, the falls gush from a subterranean reservoir that originates 15 miles to the southwest as snowmelt from Burney Mountain. The water is carried underground until hard rock forces much of it to the surface at the Headwaters Pool, less than a mile upstream of the falls.
Above the pool, in midsummer, Burney Creek is dry. Yet more than 100 million gallons of water, most of it in two fierce cataracts, surge over Burney Falls every day of the year. More water continues underground, emerging from the cliff face in dozens of tiny falls and hundreds of feathery rivulets that seep through the rock.
So rich is the spray from the falls that a few rays of diffused sunlight turn the mist into a rainbow of colors. Migratory black swifts, which nest behind the falls, flit through the moist curtain to feed their offspring.
At the foot of the falls is a deep, cold pool, a place of spiritual renewal for Native Americans from time immemorial. Descendants of the Ilmawi tribe continue to gather at the site to perform rituals in the spray of the falls. State Parks officials discourage but do not ban swimming in the pool, which is 22 feet deep and never warmer than 48 degrees.
Below the falls, Burney Creek continues a mile to Lake Britton, a reservoir six miles long and no more than a mile wide. Lower Burney Creek is extremely popular with anglers, who use barbless hooks to fish for rainbow, brook and brown trout from April to November. The creek is rich with the larvae of stoneflies, mayflies and caddis flies, adding to its appeal for fly fishermen.
On a promontory that separates Burney Creek Cove from the main part of Lake Britton, a small marina rents motorboats, paddleboats and canoes on an hourly or daily basis. A parking area separates the marina from a sandy beach with picnic tables and a designated swimming area but no lifeguard. The lake feeds the westerly flowing Pit River and, ultimately, Lake Shasta and the Sacramento River.
In a small visitor center — it will be expanded and renamed the McArthur-Burney Falls Nature Center before the 2013 tourist season — park rangers tell the story of Samuel Burney. The woebegone wanderer from South Carolina spent just enough time in the area in late 1858 and early 1859 to have a waterfall, a mountain and a town named after him.
Burney was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was working as caretaker of an area farm when he was murdered by an angry band of Indians. Unbeknownst to him, his employer had treated many native women poorly, and their kin found a scapegoat for their vengeance.
The Pit River tribes were long established in this region when the first white trappers began to show up in the 1820s and 1830s. Living on an abundance of fish and wild game, complemented by nuts, roots, seeds and grasses, they had everything they needed for a good life. But by the 1850s they were being displaced by European and American homesteaders. And with the Army's establishment of nearby Fort Crook, those who were not felled by disease introduced by the settlers were moved to a reservation across the state.
Among the early settlers were John and Catherine McArthur, who bought thousands of acres of land in the 1860s and opened a mercantile store.
A half-century later, when the newly formed Pacific Gas and Electric Co. began buying up land and water rights in the area for hydroelectric development, some residents feared that damming the Pit River might destroy Burney Falls. Frank and Scott McArthur, sons of John and Catherine, purchased 160 acres surrounding the falls; in 1920, they deeded the property to the State Board of Forestry, requesting only that it be named for their parents.
That bequest was the origin of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.
My favorite park activity was hiking. Within the 565-acre park are five miles of trails, none of them strenuous; and that doesn't include a two-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail that passes through the grounds.
I can't recall where I have found a wider range of vegetation than in the riparian zone along Burney Creek, on both sides of the Falls Loop Trail. Ponderosa pine, adapted to a drier climate, share the forest with Douglas fir and incense cedar, normally found in cooler, rainier locations— except here, where the mist from the falls has deceived Mother Nature.
Lining the streamside slopes are vine maple and flowering dogwood, California black oak and Oregon white oak, alder and ash. Buckbrush and serviceberry bushes, bracken ferns and thimbleberries rise from the forest floor. And last weekend, wildflowers were prolific. Wild rose, mountain misery, red flowering currant and other plants — such as the tiny orange trumpets of the scarlet larkspur and the bright yellow blossoms of mule ears — brightened the trails even as a light drizzle fell.
The only park trail on which dogs and bicycles are permitted is the Pioneer Cemetery Trail, an old wagon road that extends 0.8 mile from the campground through sparse ponderosa woodland that bears the scars of a lightning-caused fire.
According to a park brochure, 31 early residents were buried in the little cemetery between 1888 and 1925, when a wildfire destroyed most of the original wooden crosses. Many of them were infants and youths who died in an 1891 diphtheria epidemic. Their names were re-inscribed on a large headstone placed in 1951 by the Burney Cemetery District.
Among the shrubbery, visitors may see a handful of other aged headstones, along with one relatively new one: that of Jack and Hazel Allen, who worked for the park from 1929 until their deaths in 1990.
Staying in the park
Within the state park, there are three lodging options. Two dozen cabins — $71 for one room, $91 for two rooms — are available by reservation. So are 128 assigned campsites (priced at $35) for tents or recreational vehicles.
On a busy holiday weekend, campers were offered little privacy. I opted to spend just $15 per night to stay in the “primitive” Headwaters Campground, an easy ¾-mile hike to the falls.
Only one other tent stood in the open ponderosa woodland where I set up camp; the only amenities were a pit toilet with a fresh-water tap outside. I still could use the public bath houses in the central park area, and I considered the savings of $20 per night a fair swap for peace and quiet.
Although I think $35 is a lot to spend for a campsite, I understand the charge. California state parks are in budgetary crisis. Seventy parks, about 25 percent of the state's 278, are scheduled to close this year. Among them is Castle Crags, near Dunsmuir, where Mount Shasta-area residents are mobilizing to keep the park open with private funding.
Dog lovers must be aware that while pets may visit McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, they are subject to restrictions. Dogs must be kept on leashes no longer than 6 feet, even in campsites. And except for the Pioneer Cemetery trail, they are not permitted on park trails or at any creekside or lakeside recreation site.
Beyond the park
Six miles south of the state park, State Highway 89 intersects State Highway 299. The crossroads is indicated with flashing lights that can be seen from miles away. Southbound 89 continues another 36 miles to the south entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park. But turn right or left on 299, and you'll reach the nearest towns with motels and restaurants.
Burney, five miles southwest (toward Redding), boasts a population of about 3,200. It's a friendly if unexceptional little town with supermarkets and banks, a movie theater and a bowling alley lining the highway. At the west end of town, the small Pit River Casino welcomes travelers to try their luck at the tables.
Fall River Mills, 11 miles northeast (toward Alturas), is home to about 600 people. Surrounded not by woodland, like Burney, but by irrigated farmland, it has somewhat more aesthetic appeal: The deco-esque architecture of a full block of Main Street retains the mood of the town's 1930s heyday.
On the edge of Fall River Mills is the Fort Crook Museum, built in the early 1960s and expanded in 2010 when the historic Beaver Creek Ranch round barn was reconstructed here. Nine buildings occupy the spacious grounds, which host many community events. Nineteenth-century log cabins, a schoolhouse, a jail and other buildings exhibit Native American and pioneer artifacts, including antique guns and historical photographs. Open every afternoon but Monday from May through October, the museum also offers blacksmith workshops in November.
Fort Crook — named to honor Lt. George Crook, whose name was also bestowed upon Prineville's Crook County — stood about eight miles north of the museum location from 1857 to 1867. The stockade protected those traveling through the Fall River Valley.
The broad streets of tiny McArthur (population 350), four miles east of Fall River Mills, are notable only as the place to turn off Highway 299 to reach Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park.
Accessible only by private boat from the Rat Farm boat launch — potential visitors can call ahead for information on canoe rentals — this remote and beautiful Modoc Plateau park is located upon one of the largest systems of underwater springs in the country. About 1.2 billion gallons of water flow into its lakes and streams each day.
Sapphire-colored bays and tiny islets, studded with juniper and oak trees, lie off the shores of Ja She Creek and Horr Pond. Twenty miles of trails lead along marshy shores favored by migratory waterfowl, and inland to lava tubes, spatter cones and pit craters. About two-thirds of the park's 6,000 acres are covered with lava flows as recent as 3,000 years old.
Consider the drawbacks before you travel to Ahjumawi. The fact that you'll have to provide your own water, or come with a filter, is the least of your worries. This is wild country, a 2½-mile paddle from the nearest road. Rattlesnakes are easily camouflaged in lava rock. Stinging nettles, ticks and mosquitoes can be a nuisance; bears and mountain lions can pose a real danger.
This is not a place for inexperienced campers. Better you stay at Burney Falls, whose exquisite watery web will long remain in your memory.