There’s good reason Northern California’s Lake Tahoe is a popular vacation spot. There’s that gorgeous, sparkling blue lake, of course. And, on its 71 miles of shoreline, you’ll find miles of hiking trails through forests and national parks, mountain views, and charming small towns. But with Tahoe’s popularity comes big crowds and higher prices.
If you’re looking for a lakeside vacation with plenty of outdoor adventure, there’s an alternative: Redding, in California's Shasta County. Located 3.5 hours from Reno or San Francisco, 2.5 hours from Sacramento, and barely 2 hours from the Oregon border, this region of Northern California flies under the radar compared to the state’s big-ticket tourist destinations—but it shouldn’t. With miles of hiking trails, a half-dozen beautiful lakes, tree-covered mountains, wineries and breweries, and a rich history, the area offers plenty to do and see on a very small budget.
Water, water, everywhere
Despite it being nearly 150 miles from the Pacific, Shasta County has no shortage of opportunities to get on the water. In fact, TIME has even called out Redding’s obsession with kayaking and the town is now often referred to as “the unofficial capital of kayaking.”
The most popular lake in the area is Shasta Lake. Located just 17 miles from Redding, it’s California’s largest reservoir, and third-largest body of water. The lake’s 30,000 acres are dotted with hundreds of houseboats each summer, and its mountainous and densely forested shoreline is home to wildlife, including bald eagles and black bears. If you’re not up for renting a boat or kayak, you can take a short ride on the lake enroute to the Lake Shasta Caverns Natural National Landmark, where you can tour a series of underground limestone caves and tunnels that have been forming for more than 25 million years.
Nearby, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (10 miles from Redding) offers a smaller and more placid lake that’s perfect for kayaking, fishing, and birdwatching. And, the 39,000 acres of the park that surround the lake contain four impressive waterfalls, such as Brandy Creek Falls and Lower Crystal Creek Falls, which are accessible via hiking trail.
There’s also the 129-foot Burney Falls, located about an hour from Redding, which was dubbed by President Teddy Roosevelt as “the eighth wonder of the world.”
Easy access to the great outdoors
Redding is known as “California’s Natural Gateway” for its easy access to hundreds of miles of parkland, and the greater Shasta Cascade region that surrounds it is home to a whopping seven National Forests, eight National and State Parks, and hundreds of miles of trail.
Within a few minutes of downtown Redding, there are more than 200 miles of hiking trails, including the 17.4-mile Sacramento River National Recreation Trail that runs from downtown Redding’s famous Sundial Bridge (designed by legendary architect Santiago Calatrava) to the engineering marvel of the Shasta Dam, which offers free tours daily.
With so much nature surrounding the city, it’s no surprise that some of the area’s most popular activities include hiking, camping, horseback riding, mountain climbing, and ATV riding.
Delicious fuel for adventure
While Shasta County’s culinary scene isn’t quite on par with major cities like LA and San Francisco or epicurean hotspots like Napa and Sonoma, there are plenty of options in Redding ranging from brewhouse burgers to romantic dinner cruises on Lake Shasta.
In addition to a burgeoning craft brewery scene, the area is home to a dozen wine tasting rooms, including family-owned Moseley Cellars, which has two locations and sources its grapes from top-quality producers around the state. Visitors can stop by for a sample of their chardonnays, cabernets, merlots, and other wines for just $10, which is waived with the purchase of a bottle.
For a tasting of a different sort, make sure to stop by Lucero Olive Oil. Located in Corning, it’s actually in Tehama County, about an hour south of Redding, but if you’re coming from anywhere in the south, it’s on the way and well worth a stop. The company has been producing olive oil for more than 70 years and offers in-depth tours of its production facilities and tastings of its variety of extra virgin olive oils, flavored oils, and vinegars. Prices range from $5 to $15 for a basic tour and tasting.
History at every turn
Gold was discovered in Shasta County in 1848, bringing the gold rush to this previously quiet corner of California. From the 1850s to the 1880s, the town of Shasta was a large, important settlement known as the "Queen City" of California’s northern mining region. Today, “Old Shasta” is home to the Shasta State Historic Park, where a row of crumbling 160-year-old buildings serve as an open-air museum, along with the restored 1861 County Courthouse, Blacksmith Shop, and the Litsch General Store, which operated from 1850 to 1950 and now serves as the General Merchandise Museum run by California State Parks.
The store has been completely restored to what it looked like in the 1880s and the shelves are lined with authentic and recreated merchandise such as women’s shoes and hats, canned goods, alcohol, large bags of feed, and heavy farm equipment. Visitors can browse the aisles or chat with the staff—often dressed in period garb—who will share stories of life in Shasta long ago.
For more history, head to the 602-foot-tall Shasta Dam, the second-largest concrete dam in the world, which was built from 1938 to 1945 by more than 4,700 workers. While the tour into the belly of the dam is impressive, it’s even more impressive to hear the stories of how such a massive and technologically advanced structure was built using the limited tools of the time.