"Lost" Giant Waterfall Discovered in California

Blake de Pastino
National Geographic News
August 15, 2005
Four hundred feet (122 meters) of raging whitewater sound hard to miss—let alone to find, lose, and then rediscover. But that's what has happened in a California park.

Officials at the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in northern California announced recently that a park ranger has discovered a giant waterfall that had languished unseen for decades because of rugged territory and inaccurate maps.

Park Ranger Russ Weatherbee discovered the cascading falls in late 2003 after years of hearing tales about a mammoth falls hidden away in the park. Officials waited to go public with the find until plans were approved to create a trail to the falls. They have named the cascades Whiskeytown Falls.

"There's a local mining community with people whose families have been there literally through the gold rush era, and I'd been hearing these rumors that there was a big waterfall in Crystal Creek somewhere," Weatherbee said.

The 15-year park employee said he grew curious about the location of the storied cataract, but he didn't know where to begin looking for it. He found his first clue while cleaning out an old Park Service map cabinet in the fall of 2003.

Weatherbee discovered a park map dating from the early 1960s that marked the location of a remote waterfall some 15 miles (24 kilometers) from where the park's headquarters now stand.

"So I went and hiked up that section that the dot [on the map] was on," he said. "However, there was nothing there."

Undeterred, Weatherbee returned to park headquarters and continued his search. A few weeks later, he began scanning aerial photos of the 42,500-acre (17,200-hectare) park. In one picture, he saw a white strip running over steep terrain, some two-thirds of a mile (1 kilometer) from where the map had incorrectly placed the falls.

The ranger teamed up with park geologist Brian Rasmussen, and the two went into the woods.

"We decided to hike in there," Weatherbee said, "and lo and behold."

The falls cascade down a gradual series of three granite tiers over a drop of approximately 400 feet. While not one for the record books, Whiskeytown Falls may be the largest in California's mountainous Shasta County, Weatherbee reported.

"We were pretty impressed," he said of the find.

Trail to the Falls

Weatherbee and Rasmussen were not the first to find the waterfall. Surveys of the area turned up evidence of a logging operation possibly dating to the 1950s. A machine cable and the remnants of a bulldozer suggest that workers had logged the area before it was given park status in 1965.

Still, the terrain around the falls has proved forbidding enough to keep out all but the most enterprising explorers. Deep ravines make for extremely steep climbing in some places, and the ground is choked with dense manzanita shrubs and poison oak.

"The land around there is at such an angle that you'd have a hard time stopping if you started to slip or fall," said Steve Thede, another National Park Service ranger who has been to the waterfall. "I wouldn't want to fall out there."

Similarly rough and remote terrain has provided cover for illicit marijuana farms in nearby Shasta National Forest.

Crews recently began work on blazing a two-mile (three-kilometer) trail to Whiskeytown Falls from an existing hiking trail.

In the meantime, park officials have closed off the falls to would-be adventurers because of the dangerous conditions. The trail will be completed next summer, the rangers say.

Until then, they are busy fielding e-mails and telephone calls from tourists who are anxious to discover the falls for themselves.

Some people want to share stories theyve heard about the elusive cascades. Others just have questions about where they can find the falls and how soon they can hike out to them.

"The better question might be, Why [did we] make the announcement now, before we have a trail to it?" Thede said. "Because people are driving me nuts with their calling."

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