Trip Report - Feather Falls

Feather Falls (Matt Pritchard) More photos below.

By Jody Pritchard

Selecting a weekend backpacking destination in Northern California in mid-June is a tricky task. Elevation too high? Snow. Elevation too low? Scorching. At the beginning of the year we penciled in a “Northern Sierra” outing for this particular weekend and I wasn’t quite ready to give up on our goal despite the lingering snow at approximately 5,000 ft. After a bit of research and some phone calls we found a location that was just right: Feather Falls.

Technically, Feather Falls is not an overnight trip; Matt wasn’t even sure this was really in the Sierra (it is, barely). Ask the good folks at Plumas National Forest ranger station and they’ll tell you no backcountry camping is allowed since much of the land near the falls is privately owned. However, we did some prior web research that suggested poaching was a viable option and we decided to chance it with the knowledge we may need to turn our five mile trek in to a nine mile round tripper with oversized “day packs”.

Opting for the clockwise route, the hike in offered more visual variety than expected. On the way, we passed several large granite rocks with mortar holes used by the Maidu Indians to grind acorns, and we discovered Frey Creek is a popular spring hang-out for lady bugs in Northern California. The lower section was a bona fide rain forest, complete with rich fern ground cover and waterfalls. Higher up, the terrain became drier and more exposed; Manzanita flanked the path and watching for rattlesnakes felt necessary.

We could hear the main attraction of this trail well before we could see it. Although not well known, 640 ft. tall Feather Falls is said to be one of the tallest waterfalls in the Lower 48, although there is some controversy on this subject. (For more information on misconceptions about the largest falls in the US check out this interesting website.) The winding and sometimes hard-to-follow trail leads up then down to a viewing platform. The platform is roughly halfway up the height of the falls and provided us with front row seats to Feather River’s roaring spill.

After baking on the exposed overlook for lunch and photos, we continued uphill and followed the trail along the river’s edge. Just a short way from the falls we found a few well established campsites that were likely too snug to the water’s edge for a by-the-book backpacker, but a brief push forward yielded no other options. So, despite the signs noting Private Land, we decided to chance it and agree to make up our zero impact infraction by packing out the excessive trash deposited in the area. Our private / public land concerns were put to rest when an old timer rolled in noting that he had camped in our spot for the last 30 years. We, uh… didn’t offer to move and after having the same luck we encountered further up the trail, he returned to set up camp near the other established sites.

If you did the math earlier you probably noticed this hike wasn’t exactly an Ironman training session. Since the trip was relatively short on mileage and elevation gain, we matched our camp activity level to the same leisurely pace. Napping, reading, and hanging out together occupied our weekend and provided a peaceful escape from our frazzled weekday lives. We returned home feeling refreshed and pleasantly surprised that Feather Falls offered more than we expected.

Next time we’ll go in summer proper and aim for a higher elevation in the Bucks Lake Wilderness for a slightly more demanding weekend in the Range of Light’s northern reaches.

Questions or comments about this trip report? Let us know.