Now that summer has officially started, I figured I’d write about one of my favorite family road trips we’d go on every summer when I was a kid: Lake Shasta. As usual we’d pile up the Country Squire station wagon with camping gear and comic books, then head up I-5 in the blistering heat until we reached the Mount Shasta Fish Hatchery, where I’d drop a nickel in the fish-food dispenser and let the pellets fly.
And that was just the start of a memorable week of fishing, camping, houseboating, spelunking, exploring, and sneaking sips of beer. So if you haven’t already planned your summer holiday getaway, read on….
There’s a reason why they call Lake Shasta the “Houseboat Capital of the World.” As the largest fresh-water reservoir in California, it’s the perfect introduction to the pleasures of houseboating, and one the most enjoyable ways friends and family can spend a summer week together.
To fully appreciate Lake Shasta’s 365 miles of shoreline, you need to explore it by boat, and even if you’ve never driven a boat in your life there’s nothing to worry about: You’re going too slow to do much damage, and the banks are mostly soft mud anyway. Think of them as giant floating bumpers cars (but, you know, try not to hit anything).
You can rent houseboats from several companies around the lake. A couple that I recommend are Antlers Resort & Marina and Packers Bay Marina, but also be sure to check out Houseboats.com—their Titan model is a floating mansion.
There’s usually a 1-week minimum during the summer, and a 3- to 4-day minimum during the off season. And while you’re tooling around the lake, keep your eye on the sky for a glimpse of the mighty bald eagle, the largest bird of prey in North America. Lake Shasta is currently the home of some 25 pairs of our national symbol, one of the largest nesting populations of bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
Lake Shasta Caverns
About 10 miles north of Lake Shasta is another popular attraction: guided 2-hour-long tours of the impressive, crystal-studded stalagmites and stalactites within Lake Shasta Caverns. The stalactites and stalagmites in these caves are massive, and 60-foot-wide curtains of them adorn the great Cathedral Room.
Just getting there is an adventure in itself; after you pull off the highway and check in at cavern headquarters, you’ll have to hop aboard a ferry for a 15-minute trip across Lake Shasta, then climb onto a bus for a white-knuckle ride up to the caverns (open every day, year-round).
And anglers take note: The stretch of the Sacramento River between Lake Shasta and Mount Shasta is one of the top spots in the country for trout fishing, so don’t forget to pack the rod and reel.
If you’re heading up to Lake Shasta on I-5, the monolithic 3,640-foot-long Shasta Dam and Power Plant is a great place to pull over for a lengthy pit stop. Shasta is the second-largest and second-tallest concrete dam in the United States.
In fact, Shasta Dam contains enough concrete to build a 3-foot-wide sidewalk around the world, and has an overflow spillway that is three times higher than Niagara Falls. It’s one of the most impressive civil engineering feats in the nation.
The free hour-long dam tour here is outstanding. It kicks off with a speedy elevator ride into the chilly bowels of the 15-million-ton, 602-foot-high structure—definitely not recommended for claustrophobes. Dam tours are scheduled every day; call 530/275-4463 for tour information.
Mount Shasta Fish Hatchery
A great place to bring the kids is Mount Shasta’s Fish Hatchery, which was built in the town of Mount Shasta in 1888. Here you can observe rainbow and brown trout being hatched to stock rivers and streams statewide—millions are born here annually. You can feed them with food purchased from the coin-operated food dispensers, and observe the spawning process on certain Tuesdays during the fall and winter.
Admission is free; hours are daily from 8am to sunset. The hatchery is located at 3 N. Old Stage Rd. in Mount Shasta; from I-5, take Central Mt. Shasta Exit, turn west 1/2 mile to the stop sign, then cross North Old Stage Road to hatchery entrance.
Shasta Historic Mining Town
About 3 miles west of Redding is the old mining town of Shasta, which has been converted into a California State Historic Park. Founded on gold, Shasta was the “Queen City” of the northern mines in the Klamath Range. Its life was short, and it expired in 1872, when the Central Pacific Railroad bypassed it in favor of Redding.
Today the business district is a ghost town, complete with a restored general store and a Masonic hall. The 1861 courthouse is now a museum, where you can view the jail and a gallows out back, as well as a remarkable collection of California art assembled by Mae Helen Bacon Boggs. The collection includes works by Maynard Dixon, Grace Hudson, and many others.
For more insider tips on fun things do, see, and explore in California, the place to go is LocalGetaways.com, where you’ll always find best California travel deals.