6 Underrated Northern California Wonders for Less Than $50

by  Katie Hammel | May 10, 2018

Surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides, Northern California’s Shasta County is arguably one of the most beautiful regions in the state. Covering 3,500 square miles, but home to fewer than 200,000 people, it’s also one of the least populated areas, making it a prime spot for nature lovers. In fact, the county’s largest city, Redding, is known as “California’s Natural Gateway” for its easy access to the great outdoors. The best part: it’s a bargain, with plenty to do on a small budget.

Redding is two-and-a-half hours by car or three hours by Amtrak from Sacramento, and three and a half hours by car or five-and-a-half by Amtrak from San Francisco. Redding Airport (RDD) is served by United Express, via San Francisco; the flight is approximately one hour. (For more on this region, check out our slideshow.)

Here are six incredible adventures and beautiful nature spots to visit for less than $50.

Lake Shasta Caverns National Natural Landmark

Cost: $28 per person

The Lake Shasta Caverns National Natural Landmark is an underground wonderland of limestone stalactites, stalagmites, columns, flowstone, and other rock formations that have formed over the last 25 million years. The extensive cave system—which was discovered in 1878—is only accessible via a short boat ride across the Shasta Lake. Tours last about two hours and take visitors through several large tunnels and massive “rooms” where the rock formations stretch several stories overhead and three-foot-thick stalactites hang like giant icicles. Knowledgeable guides explain the different types of rocks and the various ways each is formed over thousands, and hundreds of thousands, of years through the reaction of water, minerals, and gravity.

Lake Shasta and Shasta Dam

Cost: Free

The 602-foot-tall Shasta Dam across the Sacramento River is the eighth-tallest dam and the second-largest concrete dam in the U.S. Built from 1938 to 1945 by more than 4,700 men working around the clock, it’s an engineering marvel that prevents flooding, regulates water, and generates electricity via massive turbines. Free tours are held daily and start at the top of the dam overlooking the sapphire waters of beautiful Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir, and the Sacramento river. From there, visitors travel down 428 feet via elevator to the base of the dam, and into the power room to see the gargantuan generators. Among the highlights of the tour: standing in one of the long “galleries,” or concrete tunnels, in which you can actually hear a sound wave travel down the length of the gallery and echo back at 758 miles per hour.

Whiskeytown Lake National Recreation Area

Cost: $20 for 7-day vehicle pass

Lake Shasta isn’t the only large body of water in the area. While the more famous Shasta lake is well known as a hotspot for houseboat rentals, Whiskeytown Lake National Recreation Area is the preferred lake among locals for its quieter beauty. Personal watercraft like Jet Skis are not allowed, making the lake ideal for more laid-back water pursuits like fishing, swimming, pontoon boating, and kayaking (half-day rentals are available for $30). The clear waters offer up to 30 feet of visibility and the lake’s 36 miles of shoreline and 39,000 surrounding acres are home to bald eagles, black bears, deer, and other wildlife. On shore, there are 70 miles of hiking trails and four beautiful waterfalls to explore.

One of those waterfalls is Crystal Creek Falls. Technically a man-made waterfall, it was created when Crystal Creek was moved about 50 feet to the left to accommodate an overflow structure. The creek now cascades down a series of steps, making a stunning waterfall that’s accessible with just a five-minute walk from the parking lot.

Come nightfall, Whiskeytown Lake is also home to the Star Party. Held from sunset to midnight on select dates, the gathering is hosted by the Shasta Astronomy Club, whose members will point out the constellations clearly visible in the night sky thanks to the area’s extreme darkness and lack of light pollution. There’s no cost to attend other than the park admission fee.

McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park

Cost: $8 daily pass fee per vehicle

The second-oldest state park in California, McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park boasts 901 acres of forest and five miles of river and lake shoreline, but its main claim to fame is the 129-foot Burney Falls. Fed by Burney Creek, which starts in the park's underground springs, the falls carry 100 million gallons of water each day. Dubbed by President Teddy Roosevelt as “the eighth wonder of the world,” the falls make for a beautiful sight as the water plunges over the cliff and creates a thick mist where it hits the pools below. Visitors can take in the sight from above, or walk down a paved path to see the action at ground level. Additional trails, part of which connect to the Pacific Coast Trail, connect to the path to the falls.

Wild Horse Sanctuary

Cost: Free

For more than 30 years, the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, about 30 miles east of Redding, has been rescuing and sheltering wild horses. Today, the sanctuary is home to more than 300 horses living on 5,000 acres, and guests are invited to come view them Wednesdays and Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Along with the wild horses, guests can also meet the farm’s saddle horses (which can be hired for multi-day trail rides on the property) and visit with burros and baby cows. Depending on the day’s activities, guests might get to watch a farrier putting new shoes on a saddle horse, or meet a newborn foal up for adoption. Touring the farm and viewing the wild horses is free, through the sanctuary gladly accepts donations.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Cost: $25 for a 7-day vehicle pass

The 100,000-acre Lassen Volcanic National Park is a must for geology enthusiasts. The park contains three of the world’s four geothermal features—fumaroles (steam vents), boiling hot springs, and boiling mudpots—which can be seen at several spots around the park.  It takes about a full day to drive through the highlights; an even better plan is to spend a day or two checking out places like the otherworldly Sulphur Works, where a boiling mudpot spans five feet across and steam rises from dozens of fumaroles, and Devil’s Kitchen, the park’s second-largest geothermal area. 

While the geothermal attractions are among the most unique features of the park, there are plenty of other reasons to visit, including the tranquil Lake Manzanita, a 26-acre lake located near the park’s entrance and ringed by an easy, flat trail shaded with pine trees. With beautiful views of Lassen Peak, the lake is also a great spot for picnicking, birdwatching, and fishing. Note that some areas of the park are only open seasonally after the snows have been cleared while others, such as Lake Manzanita, are accessible year-round.

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