California's Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park

In the shadow of magnificent Mt. Shasta lies a relic of ancient times.
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In the shadow of magnificent Mt. Shasta lies a relic of ancient times.

Little Known Fact: Ahjumawi ("where the waters come together") is one of the largest freshwater springs in the world.

A fine dawn mist hangs over the Tule River and our campsite in the shore grass under an aged juniper. Crystal Springs looms in the distance, an inlet so unchanged by time that the Ahjumawi Indians who once thrived here would feel at home crouching on the lava-strewn banks while spearing fish in the shallow spring waters.

We arrived at Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park yesterday, trading our car, hiking boots, and civilization for sport sandals, kayaks, and a watery wilderness. Fewer than 2,000 people a year visit this isolated gem accessible only by boat and dominated by 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta. Waiting for us on the northern shore were 6,000 acres of primeval beauty with nine primitive campsites.

Paddling out Crystal Springs into Big Lake, we passed bronze tule bulrushes lining the banks while a pair of bald eagles circled overhead, their white tails flashing silver in the autumn afternoon sun. We pulled silently across the waters to the point where Big Lake, Tule and Fall rivers, and Ja She and Lava creeks converge at one of the largest freshwater springs in the world. This is Ahjumawi, which translates to "where the waters come together."

Ahjumawi Lava Springs, the ancestral homeland of the Pit River Indians, is one of California's newer parks. It was deeded to the state in 1975 by Ivy Horr, whose family logged and raised cattle in the area after they bought it in 1944. An occasional weathered ranch building emerges along nearly 10 miles of shoreline. Bedrock mortars, village and ceremonial sites, and prehistoric fish traps still used today are signs of the area's Native American cultural richness.

The next morning, we hiked away from the lake on a 6-mile loop trail that breaks out of the trees and into a desert of jagged black basalt that stretches north to the Modoc Plateau. This is one of several loops that lets paddlers stretch their legs. About 15 miles of trail wind through Ahjumawi, crisscrossing and overlapping for plenty of dayhiking options.

Picking our way over the porous rocks, it is easy to believe, as hydrologists do, that we are following the route of an underground river that drains Tule Lake, located nearly 50 miles to the north. Our destination is a spatter cone, a volcanic vent whose "recent" frothy outbursts ~ 5,000 years ago ~ left a layer of lava clinging to the steep sides of a 20-yard depression.

On the hike back, we are rewarded with views of Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen and the southern Cascades. Two anglers casting from the rocks near our camp are the only other people we encounter during the weekend, testifying to the solitude that waits at Ahjumawi.

Location:

Ahjumawi is in northern California, 190 miles north of Sacramento and 65 miles northeast of Redding. Fall River Mills is 7 miles to the southwest. Ahjumawi is the northeastern-most unit of the California State Park system.

Contact Information:
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Rt. 1 Box 1260

Burney, CA 96013

(916) 335-2777

Getting There:

From Sacramento take I-5 north to CA 299 east. In the town of McArthur turn north onto Main Street and drive past the Intermountain Fairgrounds. After crossing over a canal, 3 miles of dirt road will lead to McArthur's Swamp (also know as "Rat Farm"), a public boat launch maintained by Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Seasonal Information:

Ahjumawi is open year-round. Summer can be hot (mid-80s to 100 degrees F). In winter, temperatures range from the teens to the 40s.

Wildlife:

Great blue herons stalk the shallow waters beside the tules, while white pelicans preen on a mud spit. Inland, look for deer, marmots, and signs of black bears among the ponderosa pines.

Insects:

Ticks are abundant in spring and early summer. Mosquitoes are voracious.

Plant Life:

Oak, redbud, and mountain mahogany blaze in a rich display of October reds and golds. Pine and juniper forests and slopes of rabbit brush and sagebrush are also part of the great variey of vegetation in the area.

Facilities:

Camping is allowed only in designated areas. Nine Environmental Campsites operate on a first come, first served basis. There are three, each located near Ja She Creek, Crystal Springs, and the north shore of Horr Pond. Pit toilets are located nearby and water is available from the many springs, but it must be purified.

Parking:

Park at the "Rat Farm" boat dock.

Permits:

Overnight camping fee is $7.

Policies:

  • Fire is permitted only within rings.
  • Hunting is prohibited.
  • Fishing is permitted in specific seasons ~ check with park for details.
  • Dogs are prohibited, except on leash on park trails and roads.

Hazards:

  • Ahjumawi is wilderness consisting mainly of extremely rugged lava rock, so wear sturdy shoes for travel on the lava flows.
  • Dress for extreme heat in the summer and cold in the winter.
  • Beware of swarming mosquitoes, ticks, and rattlesnakes.
  • Leave your pets at home. Domestic pets have a difficult time adjusting to the wild nature of the park.
  • Be sure someone knows your itinerary.

Leave No Trace:

Camp only in designated areas.

Maps:

A free map and brochure are available from McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park.

Other Trip Options:

Visit McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, which is located on CA 89 approximately 21 miles by highway from McArthur.