WHISKEYTOWN, Calif. - Dick McDermott knows these parts as well as any man can.
The 92-year-old used to earn a meager living mining the creeks that meander through the deeply wooded hills. He has slogged through the brush and hiked overgrown logging roads hunting deer and gathering wood for his homemade fiddles.
But McDermott says he's never laid eyes on the nearly 400-foot waterfall that park officials recently discovered in a remote corner of the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, 43,000 acres of wilderness in northern California.
"Sure, I was surprised," he said from his home in the park, where he's lived for more than 70 years. "I've been all around that place, I never seen 'em."
Until recently, very few had seen the roaring water that tumbles three tiers before pouring neatly into Crystal Creek. That such a spectacle should evade even park officials for nearly 40 years is remarkable, said park Superintendent Jim Milestone.
"It wasn't on a map, no one on the trail crew knew about it. People who been here 27 years had never seen it," said Milestone, who is leading an effort to clear a trail to the newly named Whiskeytown Falls. It's expected to be finished by next summer.
There's no doubt the falls have had visitors over the years. The Wintu Indians were probably the first, although archeologists have so far found no traces on the site. A small band of loggers that harvested Douglas firs in the early 1950s left behind a choker cable and part of a bulldozer. A knife blade stuck in a nearby tree indicates that others have also made the trek.
But for park officials, the falls were merely a rumor for many years, said Russ Weatherbee, the wildlife biologist credited with the find.
A couple years ago, Weatherbee was cleaning out a cabinet of old maps when he stumbled across one from the 1960s marked with a note reading "Whiskeytown falls" near Crystal Creek.
"I just decided to go looking for it. But I went in and hiked up and never found anything," Weatherbee said. The map had been more than a mile off.
In the spring of 2003, he was looking at satellite maps on his computer when he saw a stretch in the creek that dropped in altitude quickly with a sliver of white leading through it.
"I thought, 'That looks like white water to me,"' he said.
Since Weatherbee's discovery, a handful of rangers and park guests have made the nearly two-mile hike to the falls. The trek veers off a well-trodden trail and follows an eroding logging road through thick brush and manzanita, an evergreen shrub found in the West.
The falls are best viewed from a spot Milestone calls Artist's Point, where a hiker can sit and admire the rushing water from a rocky jut. Milestone said he wants to bring groups of painters there for inspiration.
He also hopes Whiskeytown Falls will draw other people past the park's popular lake - a favorite for boaters and water-skiers - and into the woods.
Not surprisingly, however, there are some who would prefer the falls remain a secret. Milestone has even received an anonymous letter criticizing him for inviting outsiders to overrun the park.
Dave Girard, an avid hiker who lives in Redding, said he's known about the falls for about 10 years and has visited at least twice. He said he doesn't oppose Milestone's efforts to open the falls to visitors because he believes no matter how much hikers like to covet their favorite places, "there's always someone who's been there before you."
From his home on Grizzly Gulch a few miles from the falls' new trailhead, McDermott also said he has no problem with officials trying to draw more people into the park.
There are plenty of natural wonders out there for everybody, he said. For example, he's seen a giant manzanita shrub with a 3-foot diameter stump, and he said he may be the only person to know about it.
If park officials want to build a trail to it, however, they're on their own.
"They're going to have find it themselves," he said.
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