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McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Falls, Burney Creek, Rim Trails

3.5 miles round trip

President Theodore Roosevelt once proclaimed Burney Falls “the eighth wonder of the world.” High praise indeed, for the twin, thundering 129  foot falls, accompanied by numerous plumes of water, is a spectacular sight.

Burney Falls is protected by McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, one of the more off-the-beaten track units of the California state park system. The park is sometimes described as being located in “Pit River Country,” “the Shasta-Cascade Wonderland,” or “halfway between Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak.” Geologists describe the park’s location as on the edge of the Modoc Plateau or on the far south end of the Cascade Range.

Volcanic action was the dominant force shaping the landscape in this part of California. This vulcanism is evident not only around nearby Shasta and Lassen Peaks, but in more subtle ways in the state park itself.

Sometimes water percolates through the porous surface of the lava rock and is trapped in huge subterranean rivers and reservoirs. One of these underground aquifers feeds Burney Creek—and in turn, Burney Falls. The falls flows all year even though a half mile above the falls, Burney Creek is often absolutely dry.

Present-day park flora illustrates the aftereffects of vulcanism, too. Notice the scarcity of bushes—what botanists call “understory”—beneath the trees. This lack of ground cover is due to the composition of the ground itself; what moisture falls onto the porous basalt rock percolates deep into the ground and is thus unavailable to many shallow-rooted plants that would normally grow in this type of climate and ecosystem.

Several Native American groups, particularly the Ilmawi, had villages near the present-day park. They dug deep pits nearby in order to trap big game. Nineteenth-century explorers and settlers referred to these people as Pit River Indians. The falls was considered a “power spot” by the native people.

To some early twentieth-century Californians, the falls was a power spot too—for hydroelectric power that is. One dam, Pit River Number Three, resulted in the formation of Lake Britton, located a mile down-canyon from Burney Falls. For a time, the falls was threatened by dam builders but their preservation was assured in 1922 when Frank McArthur donated the falls, along with some surrounding land, to the state park system. The park honors McArthur’s pioneer parents, John and Catherine McArthur.

Park trails serve up several different views of the falls and the 200 million gallons of water that tumble into Burney Creek Gorge. A one mile nature trail with 24 stops introduces visitors to geological and botanical features. Pick up an interpretive pamphlet at the park visitor center or at the camp store.

Directions to trailhead: The state park is located off Highway 89, eleven miles north of the little town of Burney. Falls Trail begins at a viewpoint, on the west side of the park entrance opposite a little camp store.

The hike: Follow Falls Trail, paved for a couple hundred yards, switchbacks down toward the falls. Falls Trail is also the park’s nature trail, with a number of interpreted stops en route.

Most park visitors aren’t hikers, so most venture only as far as the base of the falls. The spray from the falls is terrific natural air-conditioning; it’s always quite cool in the canyon, even on a summer’s day.

I recommend following Falls Trail along the east side of Burney Creek to the first footbridge over Burney Creek, then heading up-creek along the west side of Falls Trail. After you ascend the gorge wall and get an eye-level view of the falls, retrace your steps.

Burney Creek elbows west then north, while you continue due north on Burney Creek Trail into a mixed forest of ponderosa pine, incense cedar and Douglas fir. A mile’s walk brings you to a signed junction: Burney Creek Trail continues north to its end at a peninsula separating Burney Creek Cove from the main body of Lake Britton. You’ll find a boat launch facility at the cove, a sandy beach and swimming area on the lake.

From the junction, Rim Trail ascends moderately up the rim of Burney Creek Canyon, then skirts the park’s campground before petering out just short of the viewpoint where you began this walk.

© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author.  To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at www.thetrailmaster.com.