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I-5 Northern California

Otherworldly caverns, a motel made of antique railroad cars, and a bridge that tells time, all on a short stretch that passes through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Sundial Bridge peeks from behind the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Redding, Calif.
Photo caption
Sundial Bridge peeks from behind the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Redding, Calif.

“When I first caught sight of [Mount Shasta] over the braided folds of the Sacramento Valley,” John Muir wrote in 1874, “my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since.” No promises about your blood, but the 62-mile drive from Redding to Mt. Shasta, both in California, will invigorate you. Squint a little at the dramatic red banks of Shasta Lake along I-5 and try to imagine the explosion of industry that once turned this region upside down. That first bit of gold in 1848 preceded not just the Gold Rush but also years of heavy logging, railroad building, and copper mining. Over time that commerce mostly vanished, but much of the natural beauty remains, as do the marks made by human endeavor here over the years. Mt. Shasta Visitor Center: 300 Pine St., Mt. Shasta, (530) 926-4865, Redding Convention and Visitors Bureau: (800) 874-7562,

Area code is 530.

  • SUNDIAL BRIDGE This stunning steel, glass, and granite pedestrian bridge in Redding, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, is a technical marvel with translucent decking that tells time. Grab something hot to eat or drink from the Turtle Bay Museum Coffee Bar and enjoy a leisurely stroll over the Sacramento River. If you reach the north side and want to keep walking, take advantage of the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens’ 300 roamable acres. 840 Sundial Bridge Dr., Redding, 243-8850.
  • WHISKEYTOWN NATIONAL RECREATION AREA This 9.5-mile detour off I-5 is worth it in part for what’s no longer here. Whiskeytown, a prominent Gold Rush settlement, was flooded in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and an entire zip code was retired. In its place came Whiskeytown Lake, parts of its southern shoreline traced by the Davis Gulch Trail. The full hike is 6.6 miles round-trip, but even an hour-long walk through the pines and oaks is enough to give you a sense of what the first settlers saw. From Highway 299, turn left onto J.F. Kennedy Memorial Drive at the visitor center. Drive about 2 1/2 miles to the trailhead on the right. $10 weekly use fee. 14412 J.F. Kennedy Memorial Dr., Whiskeytown, 246-1225,
  • SHASTA DAM About seven miles north of Redding, take exit 685 and drive west for seven miles until you see 15 million tons of concrete. By mass the Shasta Dam is the second biggest in the United States—it’s made from enough concrete to wrap a sidewalk around the equator. Don’t miss the free tour, which takes you deep inside this marvel of engineering that prevents Sacramento from flooding. The dam’s employees have clearly got a sense of humor: “Best dam tour in the country,” a guide boasted. 16349 Shasta Dam Blvd., Shasta Lake, 275-4463,
  • LAKE SHASTA CAVERNS Exit 695 puts you on Shasta Caverns Road; follow this down about a mile and a half to the parking lot. A 15-minute boat ride and a brief bus trip up the mountainside deliver you to a new world of stalagmites and stalactites. Given geology’s central role in the region’s development, this up-close glimpse feels especially worthwhile. (Kids can also sluice for gemstones, miner-style.) From October through March, tours run at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m; in April, May, and September, tours run every hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; in summer, tours run every half hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The caverns are open year-round, but call first on snowy days. 20359 Shasta Caverns Rd., Lakehead, 238-2341,
  • RAILROAD PARK RESORT About 45 miles north of Redding, exit 728 lands you on the road to this nostalgic wonder. Doesn’t matter how old you are—your inner 10-year-old has always longed to sleep in a converted train. The Railroad Park Resort grasps this existential truth and grants your wish with minimal fuss. These restored antique railroad cars fashioned into motel rooms are genuinely charming, and far more comfortable than your last Amtrak ride. An outdoor pool and hot tub await, as the Mordor-like mountains loom in the distance. Though the vintage dining car restaurant is only open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in winter, good dining options exist in nearby Dunsmuir. 100 Railroad Park Rd., Dunsmuir, 235-4440,
  • MT. SHASTA SKI PARK From exit 736, head onto Highway 89, drive around five miles east, then left onto Ski Park Highway—the resort is about four miles farther. With 32 trails and 450 acres of skiable terrain, Mt. Shasta offers slopes for all levels and budgets. (Day passes start at $39.) At some point, you might pause to consider whether you’re picking up any odd vibes. Mt. Shasta has long been an epicenter of New Age spirituality, and some believe mystical beings—of a species dubbed Lemurians—live within the mountain. Something to ponder on the lift, perhaps. 4500 Ski Park Highway, 926-8610.

Photography courtesy Turtle Bay's McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens

This article was first published in November 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.