A magnificent peak reigns over a land filled with natural highlights and the warmth and delights of small-town America. Just watch out for the Lemurians.
When the chief of the sky spirits grew tired of his home in the heavens, legend has it, he created Mount Shasta. Whenever he had a need for fire, he simply caused the volcano to erupt. It’s good to be chief. Serene and solitary, Northern California’s preeminent peak has long inspired myth and legend. In the 1800s, word spread of a city hidden inside Mount Shasta peopled by an ancient race of superior beings called Lemurians. Believers still exist, if the New Age book and crystal shops that abound in the mountain’s namesake city are any indication. But you don’t have to believe in hidden civilizations to feel that Shasta is magical. Its graceful 14,162-foot summit can be glimpsed from 100 miles away on a clear day. It presides over miles of hiking trails, trout-filled rivers, alpine lakes, lava fields, and ridges of glassy black obsidian. Visitors can climb a crag, browse through antique shops, fish, play a round of golf, dunk in a swimming hole, and at the end of the day curl up with a good book on a veranda, never far from a view of the mountain’s perennially snow-covered heights.
McCloud, 10 miles east of Interstate 5, is a peaceful place to stay. Established as a logging company town in 1897, it’s known these days for the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train, which serves a four-course repast as it rattles around the base of the mountain on the old McCloud Railway line. The town is also a magnet for square and round dance devotees, who kick up their heels at McCloud Dance Country, a 1906 ballroom built for the lumber workers.
You can see some of those early residents at work and play in the collection of old photographs on display at the cozy Heritage Junction Museum on McCloud’s Main Street. Afterward, a stroll eastward will take you down streets lined with cookie-cutter wooden homes also erected for the workforce. The McCloud Hotel, which once housed unmarried employees, now hosts travelers in sumptuous rooms. The wood-paneled lobby with its upright piano is worth a look even if you end up staying at one of the other Victorian bed-and-breakfasts downtown. In the old mercantile building nearby, you’ll find a vintage general store, the McCloud Book Gallery, and the Sugar Pine Candy Shoppe, a museum in its own right that features many nostalgic favorites. (Remember candy cigarettes and necklaces?)
The area around the mountain is a hiker’s paradise, with trails ranging from easy to strenuous. One of the most beautiful also happens to be a fairly easy walk: a two-mile path that begins at Lower Falls and follows the McCloud River as it winds through forests and spills over two more waterfalls. If you don’t have time to hike, you can drive to parking areas close to each of the falls by way of the river loop road. Though all three cascades are beautiful in their own way, Middle Falls is the stunner. Here the water plunges over a wide rim and hits dozens of rocky outcroppings on its way down, fanning out into an intricate lacework of smaller falls.
Geology enthusiasts shouldn’t miss the Modoc Volcanic Scenic Byway, off Highway 89 about 17 miles east of McCloud. This four-hour loop drive takes in cinder cones, lava tubes, and an ice cave deep enough to wander into. (Bring a jacket.) Medicine Lake, which partially fills an ancient volcano’s caldera, has a sandy beach, picnic tables, and a campground. On a sunny day the reflection on its placid surface looks like a piece of sky fallen to earth. Travelers with high-clearance vehicles can drive a few miles more and reach Little Glass Mountain, a wondrous pile of sparkling jet-black obsidian.
Wherever you go, you will sense Mount Shasta’s imposing presence. Mountaineers love the peak—hardy climbers can reach the top and be back at camp in one day. But you don’t need to pack climbing gear to experience the mountain. Take the Everitt Memorial Highway and you’ll feel as if you made the ascent. The road climbs from the city of Mt. Shasta through meadows and forests, ending above the tree line, not far from the point where the snowfields begin. From the parking area at 7,880 feet you can hike farther up or unwrap your picnic at one of several tables and take in the sweep of the mountain and all it overlooks.
On the descent, a perfectly situated bench at Bunny Flat affords a panoramic view of the mountain—and of the sunset painting Shasta in gold, red, and purple. It’s one of the locals’ favorite spots.
Truth is, there are many. Ask a dozen residents about their favorite places and you’ll hear a dozen different answers. All it takes is a day or two to fall under the spell of the mountain and its environs. But why rush?
Photography by Steven Peterson
This article was first published in July 2006. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.