River of the Month | July, 2020

Deer Creek

One of the healthiest salmon streams of the Sierras, Deer Creek flows cold and clear for 70 miles from the northern Sierra Nevada foothills to the Sacramento River, south of the city of Red Bluff. From the conifer-lined meadows at its source, Deer Creek descends into a narrow volcanic canyon within the Lassen National Forest and Ishi Wilderness, which protect the upper two-thirds of the river as it descends to the Central Valley floor.

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Deer Creek
Deer Creek, California
Photography | Cindy Diaz

Why It Matters

Undeveloped and dam-free along most of its length, Deer Creek is one of precious few streams that hold the hope of restoring threatened salmon and steelhead runs in the Sacramento system. Deer Creek’s diverse habitats—ponderosa forests, grasslands, oak savannah and chaparral—support large deer herds and diverse wildlife. Equally rich in cultural history, Deer Creek flows through the remote Ishi Wilderness, named for the last surviving member of the Yahi people, who inhabited the area for over 2,000 years.

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Deer Creek is a lynchpin stream for salmon and steelhead of the Sacramento River and one of the last places native fish can access the full range of their historic habitat. Along with nearby Antelope, Mill and Butte Creeks, it is a stronghold for a distinct run of Central Valley spring Chinook, a threatened species. Deer Creek also supports threatened steelhead, fall Chinook, Pacific lamprey and rainbow trout.


Named for the Tehama black-tailed deer that thrive in the area—the largest migratory deer herd in California—Deer Creek is also home to diverse wildlife like black bear, mountain lion, coyote, great gray owl, willow flycatcher, greater sandhill crane and Cascades frog, while falcons, eagles and other raptors nest in the rocky cliffs.

How to See It

From Highway 32, hikers, anglers and boaters will find easy access to upper Deer Creek, good trails and beautiful waterfalls within the Lassen National Forest. This reach also has a string of campgrounds, including Potato Patch and Alder Creek. To access the Ishi Wilderness, with its rugged trails and dispersed camping, you don’t need a permit, but a high-clearance vehicle is recommended. Summers are hot; beware of poison oak and ticks.

  • Hike


    Park at the Deer Creek Trailhead for an easy day hike to beautiful Lower Deer Creek Falls, which WRC protected in 2012. In the spring, wildflowers blanket the Ishi Wilderness along the Deer Creek Trail, which traces the river for seven miles and features canyon vistas, lava pillars and great views of the creek.

  • Fish


    While the salmon and steelhead runs are too fragile to fish, you can walk and wade from Highway 32 to find gorgeous trout waters with plentiful insect life and ample wild (and stocked) rainbows, along with brook and brown trout. Alder Creek is a great place to start. Check regulations.Check regulations.

  • Paddle


    Exciting Class IV-V rapids in a deep volcanic canyon make Deer Creek a go-to California paddle for advanced kayakers. The usual put-in is at the Highway 32 bridge for the 16-mile Upper Deer Creek run, which has one waterfall portage. Combine it with Lower Deer Creek for a 40-mile multi-day adventure through the Ishi Wilderness, including Class-V Ishi Falls. Scout carefully; these runs are for experienced paddlers only.

The WRC Story

To protect a vulnerable reach of Deer Creek, including the beautiful Lower Deer Creek Falls, Western Rivers Conservancy purchased 600 acres from a timber company in 2010. Two years later, we conveyed the property to the Northern California Regional Land Trust, which now manages the land for public recreational access and to protect area’s unique fish and wildlife. Our efforts filled a gap in an otherwise protected river corridor along Deer Creek, between the Lassen National Forest and the Ishi Wilderness, while also improving public access to spectacular waterfalls, whitewater boating and scenic trails. The project paved the way to improve fish passage in 2018 at Lower Deer Creek Falls, opening miles of new habitat for salmon and steelhead.

Best Time of Year

Deer Creek
Spring and Fall
Trout fishing

Go Deeper

  • Lassen National Forest Interactive Visitor Map

    (Lassen National Forest)
    Learn More
  • Two decades in the making, Lower Deer Creek fish passage project finally complete

    (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
    Learn More
  • The Story of Ishi, the “Last” Native American

    (All Thats Interesting)
    Learn More

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