Chasing Waterfalls at California's Second-Oldest State Park

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A lush waterfall, with dozens of separate cascades from a green, rocky cliff into a turquoise pool.
The 129-foot-high waterfalls at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. (Héctor Alejandro Arzate)

The hip-hop and R&B group TLC once famously sang, "Don't go chasing waterfalls." And while the chorus of their 1995 hit single has stuck around, it's hard to follow their wisdom at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park in Shasta County.

It's the second-oldest state park in California and home to a breathtaking 129-foot cascade that draws visitors year-round. Supposedly, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once called this spot the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

A brown-and-white state park sign with distances to three trails listed, amid a clearing alongside a trail.
A trail sign at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. (Héctor Alejandro Arzate)

"This is a very powerful, beautiful place," says Marlon Sloan, the park's interpretive specialist. "It's truly a singularly unique and beautiful place."

For the past 15 years, it's been Sloan's job to get visitors excited about the falls and surrounding forest. Dressed in khaki shorts and a big smile, he's eager to share a wealth of knowledge about its history and the local wildlife.

"I like meeting the people and being able to entertain and educate them about why the falls are working the way they are — seeing that little light bulb go off as they see the land in a whole new light," says Sloan, who was born and raised in the area.

He says the falls never stop or slow down. That’s because there’s a constant flow of millions of gallons of water every day, even during  drought years, like this one.

At the base of the falls is a deep blue pool, and in the air you can see water droplets create rainbows. It also causes a cooling effect on typically hot summer days, when temperatures can rise above 90 degrees.

A lush waterfall, with dozens of separate cascades from a green, rocky cliff into a turquoise pool.
Park visitors gather around the base of Burney Falls. (Héctor Alejandro Arzate)

"It's so nice. It’s very hot everywhere and it's very cool here. It's like a refrigerator," says Leah Brorstrom, who’s visiting from Sonoma County.

The water looks refreshing, and while it may be tempting to go for a swim around the base of the falls, doing so is not allowed. It can be dangerous, and keeping people out is meant to protect some of the species living there.

Sloan says wildlife in and around the waterfalls is abundant, including mule deer, porcupines and trout.

Couple posing in front of falls
Reporter Héctor Alejandro Arzate with his wife, Michelle. (Courtesy of Héctor Alejandro Arzate)

"We benefit from having this cool water coming out and in this canyon," says Sloan. "So there are animals living in the canyon that can't live anywhere else, as well as benefiting from that terrific ecology that we're getting from all these different rocks and geologies, too."

Sloan says bird species are also plentiful in the park's unique ecosystem.

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"We're on the bird migratory routes, so there's about 260 different birds you can see in the park," he says. "We've got bald eagles down at the lake, osprey flying overhead. Black swifts migrate in from the main colony, from the coast, to nest behind the falls."

Sloan says people from all over California and beyond have taken notice of the park in recent years. He thinks it’s because of the pandemic, which has prompted more people to get outdoors.

Charisse Hedgebeth, who drove here from Sacramento, says Burney Falls is simply a must-see.

"Well, it's my birthday tomorrow," she says. "So what's a better way than to chase waterfalls for my birthday? This is one of my bucket list items that I can check off now."

A long, steep concrete stairway in sun, with a rocky hillside on one side and a rock composite wall and trees on the other.
A staircase leading to the base of the waterfalls. (Photo by Héctor Alejandro Arzate.)

The park is located off Highway 89, about six miles north of the town of Burney. It costs $10 per vehicle to get in. Once inside, a paved trail slightly over a quarter-mile long — with multiple stairs — leads visitors to the base of the falls.