Middle Falls plunges 50 feet along the Upper McCloud River Trail in Northern California. It's one of three waterfalls in a three-mile stretch of the trail. Nancy McClain photo

Waterfall-hopping in the Shasta-Trinity

Monday's hike along the upper McCloud River in far Northern California begins with a detour. We're going to start at Lower Falls and hike about three miles upstream to Lakin Dam, passing Middle Falls and Upper Falls on the way.

But first things first. This stretch of the McCloud is loaded with trout, and because it's still too dark to see the trail, I might as well toss a line in the swirling water below Lower Falls.

The first strike comes on the first cast, and it's a thrill to hear a fish jump that you can't yet see. A chubby 18-inch rainbow goes into the creel, landed entirely by feel. A 16-incher joins her following the second cast. The first glow of dawn arrives, and it's almost like the light is a handicap, because the next two trout manage to spit the hook, but it's not long before a pair of 14-inchers and another 16-incher are in the creel. It's only 6:30 a.m. and the daily bag limit is filled.

And so the hike begins at this idyllic getaway south of the Oregon state line, just about exactly 100 miles from Medford. We're camped beneath ponderosa pines at Fowler's Camp, a Forest Service campground a quarter-mile upstream from the fishing hole below Lower Falls.

We stop back at the camp to quickly clean the rainbows and put them on ice. Then we fill our daypacks with water and snackage, and step onto the trail. It's a good thing black-tail deer don't bite, because we almost run directly into five of them who don't seem spooked enough to step aside.

We admire them for a few moments and head up the trail, a wide, well-maintained track that is easy enough for families with small kids to walk.

The upper McCloud River Trail runs for roughly 12 miles through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, part of a 2,600-acre tract the Forest Service acquired from the Champion International timber corporation in 1989. The trail dips in and out of woods full of pines, dogwood, alder, maple, cottonwood and willow, passing three picturesque waterfalls and an old mill dam. Lizards, ground squirrels and chipmunks scamper across the trail with regularity. The woods and riparian areas are alive with kingfishers, sparrows, rufous-sided towhees, Western tanagers, redwing blackbirds and warblers. Osprey and bald eagles are common overhead.

A mile or so from Lower Falls, we can hear the rumble of Middle Falls, a picturesque, 50-foot-tall cascade at an elevation of 3,250 feet. On a hot summer afternoon, the brisk pool beneath the falls is a favorite swimming hole for campers and hikers. But in the early morning it belongs to the swifts and American dippers feeding busily on the river's abundant insect life.

At the base of Middle Falls the trail takes a sharp turn left and switchbacks up the canyon wall to the Middle Falls overlook. From here, the falls that seemed so mighty down below appear rather small, but the open views of Mount Shasta to the right and the Castle Crags straight ahead more than make up for it.

In another mile, or slightly less, the trail leads to Upper Falls. While not as tall as Middle Falls, this two-tiered beauty bursts forth with power into a turquoise pool that shimmers in the morning light. There's a paved overlook at this falls, too. If the view from above isn't enough to satisfy, there's a steep branch trail next to the overlook used by anglers who fish below the falls. Down this side trail, with a little bit of scampering over streamside boulders you can get close enough to breathe the mist of Upper Falls and wet your feet.

About a mile past Upper Falls is Lakin Dam, a concrete dike built to power an old mill. Behind this impoundment the waters move more slowly, creating good water for an abundance of native redband trout and marsh birds.

It's our turnaround spot and a great spot for the picnic we're carrying on our backs.

To reach Lower Falls, take Interstate 5 south for 87 miles to the third Mount Shasta City exit, which puts you on California State Route 89. Drive 5.5 miles past the town of McCloud and turn right at the sign for Fowler's Camp, then drive 1.2 miles to the Lower Falls parking area.

Reach Mail Tribune features editor David Smigelski at or 776-8784.

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