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Hidden across the highway from the more well known Cascade Lakes Highway, with profound lakes, forests, and views of the Three Sisters and Broken Top mountains, is a gem that most out-of-state travelers never even give a second glance. Three words. Lots Of Waterfalls.
If you’ve read our recent blog, Northern California Waterfall Hikes, you know that we’ve seen a lot of huge and unreal waterfalls. But this long and quaint stream that runs out of Paulina Lake and down Paulina Falls gave us an experience those other waterfalls didn’t. What makes this creek unique is actually due to lesser amount of water (at least compared to falls like McCloud, Burney, and Nevada) that runs over short cliffs, making fun places to wade under waterfalls, and down smooth, flat stones, creating noteworthy waterslide adventures. Let’s not forget the cool lake that’s not cold (unlike the beautiful Cascade Lakes). Paulina Lake is, moreover, a hot spring. The temperature runs at about 90 degrees (F°) and, in certain pools, 120 degrees (F°). The highway up here ain’t too shabby either and wait till you hear about the downhill bike ride. You can also opt to hike up Paulina Peak, a 14-miler with forest and falls views… plus some adventure cred too.
There are a bunch of campgrounds around here but I’d recommend staying at and hiking from McKay Crossing campground. It’s really primitive camping, however, the seclusion and beauty are worth it. PS. Don’t miss the McKay waterfall down by the creek in the campground.
Route A (Mountain biking loop)
Personally, this would be my highest recommend route. You’ll get to see everything and have the most amazing adventure. This is super kid friendly mountain bike route and is also plenty entertaining for adults. When you enter the campground, notice the fire road to the right of the self-registration board, that’s where this mountain biking loop finishes. Starting from McKay Crossing campground, begin mountain biking from the Peter Skene Ogden Trail to the right of the metal bridge. Notice that the sign says uphill only and take this into account with your abilities. The trail is uphill for seven miles straight (no kidding) and gains 2200 feet in those seven miles. It’s so totally worth it though because the whole time you’ll be a stone’s throw away from the creek, which you can scramble down to at ANY time and slide down natural water slides, cool off in the creek, or wade under waterfalls. There are more than 10 waterfalls on the trail! See our favorite falls to stop at below.
Now for a change of scenery. After you Finish the Peter Skene Ogden Trail and top out even with the lake, follow the signs for “downhill bike route” to the right, over the bridge and onto the highway. The great thing is, there is very little traffic on the highway and the speed limit is 30 mph. Enjoy 8 miles of the wind in your face, views of snow-capped mountains, and the lush forest blurring past you on the left and right. After eight miles, 30 minutes, you will have to start searching the right side of the road for Fire Access Road NF-9736. Trust me on this, you don’t want to miss it. If you get to the dirt road that you used to drive into the campground you’ve gone too far. If you end up on that dirt road you’ll be stuck with a long, seemingly endless (2 mile) uphill ride back to your car at McKay Crossing. If you’re on the right fire road you’ll come out right at the campground.
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Route B (Hiking Out and Back from McKay Crossing)
If you have little kids or don’t feel like a full day excursion. Choose to hike only a few miles of the Peter Skene Ogden Trail from McKay Crossing and you will be still be rewarded with a lot of waterfalls! The four-mile mark is signified a wooden bridge about a hundred feet after a waterfall. There is also a trail sign on a tree on the left side of the trail pointing to the wooden bridge. One and a half miles out is marked by the natural water slides to your right that come after two sections of trees that’ll feel sort of enchanted.
Route C (One Way Hike and Drive Back)
If you are lucky enough to have two cars on hand or are hiking with a friend that has their own car. Hike the whole seven miles from McKay Crossing to Paulina Lake and leave one car at Paulina Lake ahead of time to drive back to the campground. Start the hike from the Peter Skene Ogden Trail to the right of the metal bridge. You’ll get to splash in the creek, see all of the many waterfalls, and jump in the hot springs before the day is over. While you’re at it, might as well camp out at the beautiful McKay Crossing campground.
Route D (Hiking Loop from Paulina Lake)
Last, if you decide you want to camp by the lake. You can hike downhill on the Peter Skene Ogden Trail until you get to the wooden bridge on the left marked by a wooden trail sign on a tree to your right after 3 miles (about and hour and a half). Cross over the bridge and hike back uphill to the lake. If you look at the map above you’ll see the the bridge closest to Paulina Lake, this is the one you cross. You’ll get to see a lot of Paulina Falls from both sides of the creek along with quite a few other waterfalls.
- The natural water slides about 1.5 miles in from McKay Crossing which is about 30-45 minutes hiking or 15-20 minutes biking
- The waterfall with a large pointed rock to the right of the water stream and a knee-deep pool of water (the description doesn’t help much). We saw some people jumping in but I don’t know if I’d recommend it… it looked pretty shallow.
- The waterfall only 5 minutes on a bike, or 15 minutes walking, past the last waterfall I mentioned.
- Paulina Falls. You’ll know it when you see it. You’ll know you’re close when your legs are burning and your thinking how much longer can this trail go uphill. The Falls can’t be accessed but they can be viewed from a metal fenced, manmade lookout.
- Paulina hot springs. You can access the water from almost every side. I hear the on the north side of the lake you can dig your own spring. You can also choose to bike or hike around the lake for 5 miles.