The post provides a brief introduction to the intriguing human history and natural history of Shasta Lake, along with a list of Shasta Lake hiking trails, all of which are either in my book Day Hiking: Mount Shasta, Lassen & Trinity Alps Regions or are here on the blog.
Shasta Lake: the Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit Rivers
Shasta Lake reigns as the dominant body of water in Northern California. Its 370 miles of shoreline encompass a 30,000-acre surface area and hold the waters of three major rivers: the Sacramento River, the McCloud River, and the Pit River. Shasta Lake has also become a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors from all over who enjoy hiking, swimming, picnicking, fishing, sailing, house-boating, and water skiing.
Shasta Lake: Geology of the Region
The mountains surrounding the lake represent the southeastern boundary of the Klamath Mountain province. The Klamath Mountains are primarily a series of volcanic island arcs and fragments of continental crust in the Pacific Ocean that were accreted over a period of approximately 500 million years onto the western edge of North America.
Shasta Lake Limestone and Caves: Shasta Caverns
Massive gray limestone outcroppings provide visual relief to the surrounding forested slopes on the east side of the McCloud River arm. Limestone is comprised of the compressed skeletal remnants of animals that lived in an ancient sea. Water circulating through the easily dissolved limestone created Shasta Caverns. Other caves may exist in the area, but don’t have a surface opening to facilitate their discovery.
Find info about visiting Shasta Caverns here.
Shasta Lake Trees and Shrubs
The region’s major tree and shrub species belong to the gray pine and ponderosa-pine plant communities. Foothill species, such as gray pine, interior live oak, and whiteleaf manzanita, flourish at both lower elevations and in drier, exposed areas. Ponderosa pine and associated tree species, such as Douglas fir and black oak, dominate at higher elevations and on cooler, moister, north-facing slopes.
Shasta Lake Wildlife: Common Species
Wildlife abounds at Shasta Lake. Common mammals include deer, gray squirrels, and black bear. Scrub and Steller’s jays scream loudly from the trees, making them the most noticeable of the many bird species that call Shasta Lake home. Keep your eyes open for the relatively rare osprey and bald eagle, which both compete with humans for the lake’s fish.
Wintu Indians: The Original Inhabitants
The Wintu Indians originally inhabited the land under and around Shasta Lake, often dwelling by the banks of the now flooded rivers. As with other Native American tribes throughout California and the United States, they were forced off their land by the influx of miners and settlers.
Mining in the Shasta Lake Area
Beginning in the 1850s, prospectors combed the hills and mountains in search of gold, but by the turn of the century mining efforts focused on copper. Large towns erupted near the copper mines: Kennett, just north of Shasta Dam, had 10,000 residents; however, sulphur fumes and other toxic substances from the copper smelters killed most vegetation for many miles in all directions.
The resultant outrage from surrounding communities, combined with falling copper prices, forced the mines to close, and the towns died with them. Evidence of the environmental damage remains. In some areas relatively short trees comprise forests that sprouted only after the mines closed. And patches of bare soil mar mountainsides, the result of over seventy years of erosion.
The 1945 completion of Shasta Dam and subsequent filling of the lake flooded the decaying remnants of Kennett and similar towns, as well as Wintu Indian homes and settlers’ ranches. The dam, which measures 602 feet high and 3,460 feet long, has two main purposes. First, it generates electricity by allowing the lake’s water to flow through turbines. Second, it anchors the Central Valley Project: Shasta Lake (and other reservoirs such as Trinity Lake and Whiskeytown Lake) stores water for use in irrigating crops in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys during the dry summer month In addition, by regulating water flow, the dam ameliorates winter flooding and also helps repel San Francisco Bay salt water from the delta, thus helping protect fresh-water species sensitive to high salinity.
Shasta Dam Visitor Center
The dam’s Visitor’s Information Center is open 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily, except major holidays, with potentially shorter hours in winter. Interpretive photographic displays describe the history of the small towns under the lake and the building of the dam. More details here. You can also give them a ring at 530-247-8555.
Shasta Lake National Recreation Area Visitor Center
The main visitor center for the entire Shasta Lake National Recreation Area can direct you to one of the sixteen campgrounds (fee required) and provide you with informative brochures about local human and natural history; of course, they can also give you details about Shasta Lake hiking trails. To reach the Visitor’s Information Center, take the Mountain Gate exit off Interstate 5 about 4miles north of Redding, go to the east side of the freeway, then head south 100 yards on Holiday Road, It’s open 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, though these hours may change. (Phone: 530-275-4463)
My book Day Hiking: Mount Shasta, Lassen & Trinity Alps Regions covers several of the most popular hiking trails at Shasta Lake:
Hike 26. Shasta Dam to Dry Creek
Hike 27. Waters Gulch Trails
Hike 28. Bailey Cove Trail
Hike 29. Hirz Bay Trail
In addition, I have full write-ups here on the blog of the following hiking trails: