Last Updated on July 10, 2023
When renowned American naturalist John Muir first caught site of Mount Shasta over the braided folds of the Sacramento Valley, he said, “my blood turned to wine and I have not been weary since.”
It takes a spirit of adventure to look beyond California’s flashy theme parks and golden gates and journey to its lands of glaciers, caverns, volcanoes and waterfalls. That is precisely what this magnificent, awe-inspiring wild northwest corner of the country, the Shasta Cascades, promises outdoor-loving travelers – unforgettable experiences to last a lifetime.
Magnificent Mount Shasta
Cresting at over 14,000-feet, the crown jewel of the Cascades, Mount Shasta, is visible from over 100 miles away. Lower elevations are covered with green conifer forests and even in summer, its volcanic-coned peak is snow-capped.
Snow skiing and hiking are popular on this gigantic mountain, but Mount Shasta Ski Park added chairlifts running at various times during the summer and early fall for visitors to experience the immense beauty of this region before the snow begins falling.
Gentle cooling breezes offered me and my friends a welcome respite from the central valley’s intense summer heat as we were slowly lifted up the slopes. At the top, we enjoyed music and refreshments at a take-my-breath-away vantage point overlooking this vast wonderland.
Historic Town of McCloud
It’s not every day we get the chance to experience rustic small-town America with Mount Shasta looming in the near-distance. With its tin-roofed buildings, old cabooses, and historic churches, the small mountain hamlet of McCloud is honestly a journey back in time.
Charming Kyody Café located in the 1895 Mercantile Building serves breakfast and lunch in a mellow atmosphere perfectly befitting the mood of the mountains. Diners order from a chalkboard list of daily specials. Entrées are served at tables brimming with fresh meadow-picked wildflowers. Paninis are definitely a favorite house specialty here.
A delightful candy, ice cream shop and mercantile next door was an added treat offering a uniquely fun shopping experience and bringing back childhood memories of our favorite candy and ice cream places.
Lake Shasta and Shasta Caverns
Lake Shasta, California’s second largest lake after Tahoe, is known as the “houseboat capital of the world.” The massive, man-made recreational reservoir was formed by one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century—Shasta Dam, the tallest overflow dam in the world.
My group boarded a small catamaran for a scenic cruise across the serene, sky-blue waters of Lake Shasta. Disembarking on shore, a small passenger bus transported us more than 800-feet up the rocky, tree-covered mountainside.
A small museum provided historical information of the mining, dam construction and wildlife of Lake Shasta and included a small viewing platform. We gaped and then gasped at the breathtaking vistas of the lake below, surrounded by clear bluebird skies and forested verdant slopes.
A tour guide then led our small group through a steel door in the rock face of the mountainside and into the magnificent Shasta Caverns.
Geological dating suggests the caverns formed by flowing water are at least 200 million years old. In 1964, a tunnel was driven into the cavern for the first-time allowing visitors to witness for themselves the underground world of fantastic geological formations studded with crystals and glistening limestone.
What a masterpiece of nature.
Magnificent Burney Falls
Former President Theodore Roosevelt called McArthur-Burney Falls Park the “eighth wonder of the world” with its spectacular 129-foot Burney Falls which moves 100 million gallons of water through every day year-round.
A short paved switchback hike from the falls’ observation point led to more awe-inspiring views from the bottom of the falls. The tall fern-draped cascade booms over a volcanic-formed edge tossing mists of water into the air and creating a multitude of rainbows before plummeting into a turquoise pool below.
Additional rivulets of whitewater sinuously wind their way down the steep cliff sides framing the falls on both sides, enhancing its impressive natural beauty.
At a chilly 47-degrees, the only ones brave enough to stay in the water very long were the catch-and-release fly fishermen.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Home to pristine mountain lakes, steaming fumaroles, and meadows covered with a painter’s palate of wildflowers, Lassen Volcanic National Park was definitely the biggest surprise of our visit.
A dominant feature of the park is Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world. Near the peak, the national park road reaches over 8,500-feet making it the highest spot in the Cascade Mountain Range. The volcano last erupted in 1915 with an impressive display of pyrotechnics and continued fuming until 1921.
Lassen boasts stunning mountain scenery reminiscent of Yosemite and amazing thermal wonders similar to Yellowstone, all without the madding crowds of these other popular national parks.
Short hikes led to picturesque bubbling mountain streams and watery meadows, cauldrons of tourmaline pools, and belching mud pots. Who would have guessed that in mid-summer we’d actually see partially ice-covered lakes, snow-covered mountaintops and layers of heavy snowbanks?
McCloud River Falls
Where there are mountains, one can expect waterfalls, and there are many here in the Shasta Cascades including McCloud River Falls.
Three spectacular waterfalls within the Shasta Trinity National Forest are all accessible together within a short walk of the parking areas. For those preferring more activity, a 3.8-mile roundtrip hiking trail runs along the fast-flowing McCloud River offering equally impressive vistas of three very different cascades.
Each spectacular in its own right, the Middle Falls is the quintessential show-stopper. Rushing waters plummet 44-feet of this 120-foot-wide waterfall gathering in a pool of churning turquoise waters.
The Upper Falls is the tallest of the three. Water squeezes through a steep narrow ravine and picks up speed downward along this rocky chute. The short, but powerful falls crashes over basaltic lava into a beautiful swirling pool below as the river continues its journey down the tree-lined gorge.
The Lower Falls, though smaller than the others, is still an impressive force of nature— a final cascade emptying into much calmer waters. It’s a popular spot for rock jumping and perfect for swimming and sunbathing on its massive surrounding boulders.
Breathtaking Whiskeytown Lake in the 39,000-acre Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is an area favorite for sailing, swimming and canoeing its cool, clear waters teeming with fish.
Our 2 ½ hour ranger-led kayak tour led us to peaceful coves where we saw birds such as the acorn woodpecker and osprey while learning about the history, nature and culture of this amazing park.
It’s no wonder it’s earned the title of “unofficial capital of kayaking.”
It was a morning of perfect peaceful serenity.
Star-Studded Night Skies
Local amateur astronomers at Whiskeytown Lake regale guests with stories of how ancient cultures used the sky to navigate and mark important seasonal changes. Uninterrupted by urban light pollution, the Shasta Astronomy club shared their powerful telescopes for an unforgettable evening of stargazing into pitch-black skies filled with celestial wonders. It was quite the show.
Four days in this incredible wilderness paradise was not nearly enough. An unknown author once wrote, “the spirit needs places where nature has not been rearranged by the hands of man.”
The Shasta Cascades are such a place.nature