I would normally define my fitness level as “pretty good but definitely enjoys tacos”. This hike chewed me up and spit me out.
Curtain Falls has been on my list for the past year. I keep a little index card by my desk with the names and driving distances to waterfalls we’d like to visit, so when the opportunity arises and we have a free day, we can choose a spot to explore. Finally a Sunday arose where 1) everyone was home and 2) no one could hide fast enough before I announced it was a hiking day.
The info I’d gathered suggested this would be a moderate 5 mile stroll across granite boulders with some altitude changes. Not bad, certainly nothing insurmountable. We packed our waters, a picnic and some gear and headed out.
Driving there presented the first hurdle. The trail is off a very rutted, very remote dirt road up near Berry Creek, California, about two and a half hours drive time from Sacramento or an hour from Oroville, California. I doubted my turn at least three times before we started seeing appropriate signage.
We decided to hit Curtain Falls on one of the hottest days of the year. In my mind, hot weather = refreshing waterfalls. We got a fairly early start and looked like camels lugging our water packs. The first half mile was quite pleasant. There are interesting trees, a few little creek crossings, chipmunks scurrying across the trail, and crazy views of the granite boulders that mimic some of the best Yosemite scenery. Then the switchbacks started. There are 31 switchbacks down the mountain, to give you a little picture of the angle of the trail. It’s lovely on the downhill, but I couldn’t help but be apprehensive about the hike back in the afternoon.
At approximately one hour from the car, we emerged from the nicely wooded trail onto the granite. There’s still a trail to follow, but it’s not in the well-maintained shape of the trail before. There are a few areas where there were obviously handrails before to put a barrier between the hiker and a significant drop-off, and the fence and rail is now in a crumpled, tangled mess where it looks like time and weather have won the battle.
At this point, we’ve used up most of our water. The water that was supposed to last the entire hike. It’s 106 degrees out, the sun is beating on the granite, and no one is happily remarking on the scenery any more. People are now asking who came up with this ridiculous idea in the middle of August (shhh, it was me!) and trying to figure out how much of the trail stands between us and the waterfall (a lot).
We took breaks wherever the granite shadowed the trail. We passed out apples, hoping the kids would get some extra energy from the fruit. And we eyeballed the water supply, realizing we were now well and truly screwed. I didn’t think we’d have enough water to get the kids safely back to the car from our point on the trail. Thankfully, my husband comes on these hikes prepared. I normally laugh at him a little for lugging his giant pack filled to the brim with all the things we’ll never need. I’ve never been more thankful to find out he threw the emergency iodine and Life Straws into that giant pack, because it meant we’d have a way to get more clean water at the bottom of the trail.
At about a half mile from the bottom, the trail changes again. A rickety ladder deposits you into some tight squeezes through the granite, but you can finally hear the river and see glimpses of it through the trees.
Our one hour hike down to the river turned into three hours. The water is absolutely freezing, even in the middle of August, and ripping off my boots to dip my feet felt like heaven. There are so many pools here carved out of the granite, some mellow and some where the water rushes incredibly fast. The water itself is crystal clear and a beautiful sparkling green, unique to these areas where the mineral content and the granite help to color the water.
Our goal was to visit Curtain Falls, and from the bottom of the trail, with our tired feet soaking in an emerald-colored bliss, we could see it. We could even see how cool a water slide it would be with the granite so smooth from years of rushing water. We could also see it was still almost a half mile away, across mammoth granite boulders and a very enthusiastic river. We made the call to spend the day in our little mellow pool instead. This is the first time we’ve set out for a waterfall, touched our feet to the trail and did not reach our goal. And it stung a little, but after that insane hike and the iffy nature of the river ahead, Curtain Falls just didn’t seem safely attainable. Thankfully the kids still had a blast!
We ate our picnic (all gooey and a little wilted from the heat) and filled up the water bottles treated with iodine, then decided we had to get back on the trail before we lost too much daylight. The hike back was ugly. The blessed downhill climb from the way there turned into a monster of a trail on the way back. I had packed emergency gummy bears (yes, emergency gummy bears) as a morale booster, and we went through every last bear, even the blue ones that no one likes.
As we left the bare granite and approached the dirt path, our trip took a scary turn. Everything had looked so well marked and clear on the way down, and after six hours in the heat, exhausted and rationing even our iodine water, I couldn’t find the trail with certainty. Three trails looked promising. They all had boot prints from past hikers and they all looked to be going in the right direction. I left the kiddos with my husband and checked on the trail that looked the most promising. There was even a downed hand rail on the ground, and I thought for sure this marked our trail. Just as I went to call for the kids, I slipped on the pine needles and loose granite, and went hurtling down the slope.
I’d never understood how easy it can be to get lost in the woods, or to ridiculously put yourself in a position where you could possibly need a rescue. Curtain Falls is an official trail, well maintained for the most part, and hundreds of people visit every year.
All I could think was that no one knew where we were or when we were expected home, and that my cell phone had absolutely no coverage.
I was able to stop my fall on a root and pluck my way back up the mountainside, and Ry in the meantime found the right trail (which in hindsight was obvious). Just 31 switchbacks stood between us and salvation. We broke out the Life Straws at the creek, desperate for cold water. The kids were such troopers, but even so, I pulled every bargaining chip I had to keep us moving. I didn’t say it out loud, but I was so scared we’d have to have a sleepover with the bears of the woods that night because I wouldn’t attempt the trail in the dark. I even promised the kids ice cream for dinner.
We made it back to the car right at dusk. Ally flung her arms open and ran to it. I’m pretty sure Ry kissed it, though he denies it.
Curtain Falls kicked our butts, and we didn’t even get to slide off the waterfall. We did have ice cream for dinner.
IF you attempt this hike, pack twice the water you think you will need, then pack another three bottles. Or grab a Life Straw or iodine just in case. DO NOT go out in the heat, because the sun against all that exposed granite is merciless. Tell someone (or several someones) where you’re going and when you’re expected back, then check back in when you get home. It really is a gorgeous spot, and I think if we’d gone in the cooler September, we’d have been fine. August was not fine.
Directions: From Oroville, California, take Hwy. 162 up towards Berry Creek. Turn right on Bald Rock Rd., and follow this to a signed dirt road for about nine miles to The Dome Trail (Road 21N51Y – this is actually on the signpost). Turn left about 2.7 miles down this road (also marked) and park at the trail head.
Good luck, my fellow gypsies.