Canyon playground: Curtain Falls’ natural slides, white water, deep pools and spectacular rock faces

This story was originally published by the Chico News & Review on July 9, 2015.

My strongest memory of Curtain Falls is first going there a few years ago in November, on the last warm weekend that fall. My friend Max really sold it, claiming it was the best and most beautiful hike in Butte County. So, along with our friends Zack and Jeff, we took off from Chico for an afternoon.

The four of us drove over Lake Oroville and through the foothill forests in Berry Creek, and then hiked under the shadow of Big Bald Rock and down the canyon to the middle fork of the Feather River. But from that point, reaching Curtain Falls about a half mile upstream requires hopping across smooth, chalk-white granite boulders and eventually crossing the Feather River—which meant a long swim in water that wasn’t literally freezing, but felt like it.

Max led the way, swimming across a deep, still pool while Jeff, Zack and I dipped our toes in and debated whether to follow. Jeff suggested an alternative of leaping boulder-to-boulder across a more narrow part of the creek, where the water moves much faster. Jeff was obviously miscalculating the distance of the leap, the swiftness of the current and his proximity to a small waterfall, maybe 6 feet high, just downstream. Going over it wouldn’t mean death, Zack and I agreed, but would probably result in Jeff getting battered on rocks.

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Photo by Howard Hardee

It was funny, at first, watching his jump make it only halfway across. But then the current swept him up and, despite his later claim that everything was totally under control, Jeff’s eyes got the look of a cornered wild animal. Zack bounded across the rocks in a rescue attempt that clearly wasn’t getting there in time. I just stood there in shock. It really looked like Jeff and his flailing limbs were going over the edge.

Right where the water visibly started picking up speed, Jeff managed to snag hold of a rock and pull himself out. Everything was cool, he played off; he hadn’t panicked whatsoever. We still laugh about it.

So went my introduction to Curtain Falls, a stunningly beautiful natural playground with swimming holes, water slides and rocks to hop across, climb on and jump off. Upon entrance, one must accept the possibility of getting bumped and bruised and maybe even thrashed around in white water. That might not be for everyone, but of course I’ve been back several times since.

On a recent Saturday, a group of a dozen or so friends, including Max, our unofficial guide, made a full day of it. We assembled at Chico Park & Ride on Eighth Street at 9 a.m. and didn’t return until 8 p.m.

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Photo by Howard Hardee

Curtain Falls sits below Big Bald Rock, a Yosemite-esque rock face rising above the forest and the Feather River Canyon in the general vicinity of Feather Falls—Butte County’s tallest waterfall and a much more popular destination for hikers and tourists. The trail down the canyon is steep—descending about 2,000 vertical feet in a little more than 2 miles—so hiking back up decidedly sucks after a full day in the sun. It’s also poorly maintained, with overgrowth and fallen trees blocking the path and a sketchy, disintegrating wooden staircase.

The area feels remote, even though it’s just an hour’s drive from Chico. I’ve never seen a human there I didn’t hike in with. It’s easy to imagine the place as being essentially the same as it was many thousands of years ago, and to see how the canyon is carved by rushing water over an unfathomable period of time.

It’s done wonders. There are a handful of natural slides where the creek runs over smooth rock made slick with algae, though some lead to turbulent water that can trap people in an end-over-end cycle; getting out sometimes requires a helping hand. One of the coolest features is Pride Rock (we call it that because of its resemblance to the fictional place where Rafiki raises Simba in The Lion King). There’s a great view of the Feather River Canyon in both directions, and an overhead vantage of Curtain Falls—a broad waterfall maybe 30 feet tall that assumes a slight crescent shape when the creek is running high.

Pride Rock is also a launching pad for a 40-foot cliff jump. On Saturday, most of us lounged on boulders and watched from below while Max—who’s known for taking calculated risks—put on a show, back-flipping in slow, graceful arcs and usually sticking it perfectly. (He side-flopped on his first attempt.) Then he and two fellow crazy people jumped off the top of Curtain Falls itself, clearing a rock shelf by cringe-worthy margins.

On the drive back, we agreed it was remarkable that no one got hurt and that we’re all healthy enough in the first place to enjoy such a day on the Feather River. Most of all, we were thankful there’s a place like Curtain Falls—which I believe is the most beautiful hike in Butte County—so close to home.

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