We step out of our sketchy but air conditioned Redding motel room into the smokey blasting heat of northern California during an unprecedented heatwave and fire season. We're not quite in ash raining down from the sky Apocalypse territory but four days later my lungs and throat still feel a bit raspy from the air. I debate covering my face with my purple bandana Antifa style but decide against it in conservative Redding. We're just walking the few hundred feet to Heavenly Donuts.
If you find yourself in Redding, Heavenly Donuts is open 24 hours and sells an excellent old-fashioned. I've heard they're not so great late at night, but in the morning, they're fresh, light, and not greasy. We take our donuts back to our air conditioned, cockroach infested haven and bust out a couple of games of Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries. This is not how we expected to spend our weekend. My friends text me: they're having car troubles, but it's going to be okay. Should we go ahead with our camping plans?
I call them. I send them photos. They say it looks like Beijing. It's not looking good, but we're heading north and east, so the smoke should clear up and at the higher altitude, the temperatures will be lower. We made the right decision.
We drive through thickening smoke north toward Mt. Shasta. The dense, pink brown smoke cloaks Lake Shasta in an ethereal haze. Castle Crags barely peeks through. Mt. Shasta is not visible. My boyfriend worries over leaving me camping with my friends here; he has to go back to work the next day and is unable to join us.
When we arrive at Fowler's Campground just outside the town of McCloud, approximately fifteen miles from I-5, the sky is clearing and the temperatures dropping. Our campsite is close to the entrance and trees separate it from the other campsites. Despite the holiday weekend, overflowing trash bins, and blasting Tejano music, it does not feel crowded here. My boyfriend and I unload the truck, and we say our goodbyes. He has a five-hour drive back to the bay.
I wake up early to haze and squirrels hell bent on removing every pine cone from the surrounding trees. I grab my day pack with its Camelbak, camera, and lenses, and pull on my Tevas. Part of being a travel blogger and photographer means getting up before the crowds and taking advantage of what's called the "golden hour".
I walk the short paved path to Lower Falls. Pushed into a narrow slot between basalt columns, Lower Falls is the smallest of the falls but has the best swimming area above and below it. Even in the early morning, people are out fishing right at the edge of the falls. I follow a stairway up to a picnic area to get an overlook of the entire area. Later in the day, we follow the dusty River Trail to a secluded swimming area.
After snapping a few shots, I backtrack to the campground and walk the half-mile to Middle Falls, the most impressive of the waterfalls. No one else is here except a couple of other more professional looking photographers with tripods and a stronger sense of derring-do, perched on a precipitous log. I stake out a spot in the middle of the McCloud River and snap a few long exposure shots of the falls.
I decide to turn around. I've been gone for about an hour and don't want to worry my friends. I return to the campsite to find them just waking up. We cook up a breakfast of sausages, get into our swimsuits, and head back to Middle Falls with the dogs. McCloud Falls is dog-friendly as long as you keep them on a leash. The trail continues up the side of the canyon and further up the river to a reservoir. There's a parking area with picnic benches not five minutes from the Upper Falls.
Ending our hike at the reservoir, we head back to camp to relax and grab some snacks. The rest of the afternoon is spent coaxing ourselves into the icy cold waters near Lower Falls. It was a refreshing treat after the 115-degree temperatures in Redding the previous day. The smoke mostly cleared and the evening was spent peacefully drinking wine and beer, eating chili, and laughing at the dogs encountering their first deer.
Driving back the next morning, Mt. Shasta was visible from the adorable mountain town of McCloud. We bought a couple coffees from Kyody Coffee, the type of place that sells horehound candy, and ate lunch at Penny's Diner in Dunsmuir. One full day at McCloud Falls is the perfect time to relax and enjoy the scenery without feeling like you're trying to fill up the hours.