Mossbrae: The Forbidden Falls of Dunsmuir

Sep 18, 2014

Mossbrae Falls is one of Siskiyou County’s most scenic tourist attractions, tucked away in the small town of Dunsmuir just south of Mount Shasta. But you can’t actually get there—not legally, anyway. There's an unusual controversy surrounding this waterfall, which, until further notice, is officially closed to the public.

The train tracks in Dunsmuir are lined with sharp stones, but you can see where hikers have flattened a narrow footpath on the way to Mossbrae Falls. As the trail winds through the hillside, the path disappears in places. If a train comes, your options are to run, press against the canyon wall, or jump into the Sacramento River below. If walking along a dangerously active rail line isn’t enough to deter hikers, “No Trespassing” signs are posted throughout the trail—a reminder that access to the falls is located on private property. 

A ways down the tracks is Mossbrae Falls. Dunsmuir City Manager Brenda Bains remembers her first experience: “I went to the falls once and it was, I believe, two years ago, and it was the most beautiful experience of my life. It was almost spiritual in nature—I’ve never seen anything that beautiful.” 

Dozens of small cascades fall from the springs above over a wide, moss-covered rock face, into a deep pool. Large rocks on the bank offer a front row seat. 

Mossbrae Falls has historically been a popular tourist attraction despite the risk.  However, in recent years, a scenic photo on the Dunsmuir Visitor’s Center website is accompanied by a warning that the waterfall isn’t actually legally accessible. While it has always been illegal to trespass on railroad tracks, Brenda Bains explains that things changed in the fall of 2011 when a woman was hit by a train as she hiked to the falls. 

Brenda Bains: “She felt that she would be safe if she scrunched down and became very small, and she was hit by the step of the train. And she had a serious head injury, actually an orbital injury, of the brain.” 

The woman survived, but her injury alarmed officials at Union Pacific Railroad. The railroad began issuing tickets to trespassers and those who park at the trailhead. This might prevent some hikers from making their way to Mossbrae Falls, but there are still many who decide to risk it. 

The City of Dunsmuir has been working with the Mount Shasta Trail Association and Union Pacific for years trying to provide safe access to Mossbrae Falls. Tom Hesseldenz is a landscape architect who has been involved with the project since the beginning. He shares his vision for the proposed trail.

Tom Hesseldenz: “People would be able to pull right off the freeway at the Hedge Creek Falls trailhead, and immediately have a great view of the river and Mount Shasta looking up the river canyon. And then, they would come to Hedge Creek Falls, and then from there, maybe a half a mile or so to Mossbrae Falls.”

There would be a handicap accessible trail that crosses the springs and turns into a boardwalk before coming to a bridge over the river. From there, visitors would be able to see Mossbrae Falls or continue to the beach. The problem is that the trail crosses a sliver of land owned by a religious group called the Saint Germain Foundation. Until recently, the Foundation wasn’t willing to sell the land needed to build the trail. 

Negotiations with the Foundation have been underway for several years. The city paid for an appraisal and offered market value, but the Foundation declined, even after an outside organization teamed up with the city to increase the offer. Dunsmuir City Manager Brenda Bains says the Foundation is now asking the city to pay for a second appraisal, which could cost between ten- and twenty-thousand dollars.

Brenda Bains: “The city is unsure whether they want to invest that money to find out that any kind of offer would be turned down again." 

It’s a really sensitive issue. A lot of people I tried to talk to about this declined to be interviewed for fear of fanning the flames—some even backed out after agreeing to an interview. The Saint Germain Foundation declined to comment.  

Union Pacific has a vested interest in building a safer way to get to Mossbrae and keeping trespassers off the tracks. Buck Grochol, a manager at the railroad, is looking forward to making progress with the trail. “It seems to be dragging on. We’d like to do it as soon as possible but we don’t have a definite timeline,” Grochol said. 

It could be a while before the public can safely and legally access Mossbrae Falls. Until then, the falls will remain a remote and dangerous destination, experienced only by those willing to take the risk to see them.