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Shasta Lake

Cozy cabin, scenery make Shasta ideal for fall

By CARY ORDWAY

If you've driven along Interstate 5 as it twists and turns through the Shasta Lake area, you probably have been at least tempted to go back and explore this gorgeous, forested recreation mecca just north of Redding. Fall may be one of the best times of the year to finally give into that temptation.

While not quite as brilliant as the fall colors you'll find near Lake Tahoe and other areas of the Sierra Nevada, the sights will nevertheless be as spectacular as the weather is comfortable during what is usually an extended period of warm daytime temperatures. It's that time of the year when the summertime crowds have left but the winter rains have not yet arrived.

Shasta Lake was created by the second largest dam in the United States and has 365 miles of shoreline. Especially in summer, it's a boater's paradise - and is considered the houseboat capital of California. But during off-season, Shasta Lake offers visitors a different look and experience. The water level is down from its springtime peak and, to some extent, boating gives way in the off-season to sightseeing and hiking nearby trails - all the easier now that the hottest summer temperatures have abated.

We enjoyed a quiet off-season respite at a place called the Tsasdi Resort, a charming lakeside group of 20 cabins that has been operated as a resort since the 1950's. Well landscaped and with trees shading much of the 20-acre property, the Tsasdi Resort has built a regular summertime clientele of families who return each year - many with their boats - to spend a quiet week in one of the resort's cozy cabins. If you want to visit in the summer, chances are you'll need to book up to a year in advance because regular customers treat their reservations like season tickets to pro sporting events. Even if they can't make it this year, they'll reserve their cabin and sell the time to a friend just so they don't fall out of line.

Tsasdi is much less busy during the fall and even offers off-season rates that are about a third less than in summer. During our September stay, just a couple of guests had boats tied up at the resort's state-of-the-art concrete dock. Most visitors were like us - just people who love to get out into the forest and experience some great hikes and sightseeing and, at night, come back to a "cabin-in-the-woods."

The cabins at Tsasdi are of three different vintages, but all are sparkling clean and in good repair. Our cabin was built in the early '50's and featured living, dining and bedroom areas that were all separated, while others built in the 70's and 80's have a more open floor plan. But all feature wood paneling and other touches that make them feel like a real cabin, not just a house in the woods. There are several restaurants in the area including a new 4-star Italian restaurant in nearby Dunsmuir, so you can do all your meals in the cabin or go out , whichever you prefer.

Aside from the lake itself, the major attractions in the area are Lake Shasta Caverns, Shasta Lake Dam - which provides an informative tour - and numerous hiking trails, many of which take visitors to scenic waterfalls. Some of the waterfalls are flowing year-around and well worth visiting in the fall.

We took some time out to visit the Lake Shasta Caverns, an unusual adventure that combines a boat ride, a bus ride up a steep, winding road to the caverns' entrance, and a fascinating tour through several cavern "rooms" where there are passageways and stairs to take you deep into a mountainside.

Wear your walking shoes and save up your energy, because the trip into the caverns involves some great exercise - first walking a winding trail to and from the boat, and then walking up and down hundreds of steps inside the caverns. There's no need for you to hit the Stairmaster when you get home; your workout for the day is done.

Over a million people have been to the caverns since they opened in 1964 after a long, painstaking preparation in which concrete steps were laid throughout the caverns, and electricity - for lighting -- was wired into most of the rooms. Inside, visitors get an up-close view of rock formations that were 200 million years in the making - everything from cave coral and drapery to the stalagmites, stalactites and columns that you'll remember from pictures of the more-famous Carlsbad Caverns. On our tour, we got to see something special: a colony of bats flew through one of the rooms we were visiting and then stuck themselves together in one big dark clump on the ceiling. Our tour guide, who was just as amazed as we were, said she never had seen a group of bats in the caverns before.

Altogether the Lake Shasta Cavern adventure takes a couple of hours and gives you a chance to see area wildlife both from the 65-foot catamaran and the bus ride. Tours leave at certaintimes of the day so be sure to plan plenty of time, or call ahead to plan exactly what time to arrive.

We also had the chance to travel some back roads near the lake, most of them very curvy but paved and appropriate for most types of vehicles. Trailheads are located throughout the area - in fact you could easily travel 25 to 30 miles to any particular trailhead so it's good to get some maps and literature from the resort that help locate the various waterfall trails and other points of interest.

There are several communities in the area worth visiting including Dunsmuir, a quaint turn-of-the-century railroad town that today offers a variety of many specialty shops, and a City Park with its retired steam engine.

We're told that, later in the fall, fishing becomes a major activity on Shasta Lake. The Tsasdi Resort dock has a fishing cage where they expect to place about 700 rainbow trout.

"What makes this project a lot of fun is the wildlife is brought to the dock when the feeder on the cage goes off," explained Tsasdi Resort owner David Grey.  "The birds come to feed as well as large fish in the lake. So far the largest fish caught from the dock during this time was an eight-pound trout caught when it came up to feed when the sound of the feeder started."

Wherever one goes in this area, the magnificent forest and spectacular lake views are never far away. It's the kind of place where you can sit on your cabin porch at Tsasdi or hike a remote trail and not hear a sound other than the birds in the nearby trees, or a squirrel's rustling of the leaves on the forest floor. With a good measure of sunshine and fewer crowds in the fall, the Shasta Lake area definitely is worth jumping off the Interstate to explore.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Shasta Lake is just north of Redding on Interstate 5. Tsasdi Resort is in the Lakehead area, about 25 miles north of Redding, and reached by taking Lakeshore Drive off Interstate 5.

WHAT: Shasta Lake is one of California's most scenic lakes and a favorite with houseboaters.

WHEN: In summer, the lake is at a higher level but you'll also find more visitors. Off-season visitors will encounter fewer crowds. Because of the mountain scenery, the area feels like it is at a high elevation; however, the lake's only at 1,000 feet and gets snow quite infrequently.

WHY: A great family area that also can be a quiet retreat for couples and singles who just want to "get away from it all."

HOW: For more information on the resort and area attractions, contact Tsasdi Resort at 1-800-995-0291 or visit www.tsasdiresort.com. For more information on the Lake Shasta Caverns, phone 1-800-795-CAVE or visit www.lakeshastacaverns.com.

Photos: Shasta Lake is one of California's most scenic (photo courtesy Tsasdi Resort); cabins at Tsasdi Resort are cozy; stalactites at Lake Shasta Caverns; visitors climb and descend hundreds of steps on cavern tour.

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.


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