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“Doubly happy,” said John Muir, “is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach.”
Mountains, whether large or small, have always been terrific metaphors for life. If you’re looking for a good workout with a truly unique psychological boost at the end, it’s hard to beat climbing mountains for pure inspiration. There are seven summits worth exploring within easy striking distance of Redding, each offering different degrees of difficulty and breathtaking vistas.
Not only is Redding, California a marvelous destination for outdoor enthusiasts, it’s also easy to get to. It can be conveniently accessed via California’s Interstate 5, and now there is a direct flight from Los Angeles the Redding Airport. See the inexpensive and easy flight details for yourself.
Before climbing even the smallest hill, it’s good to do a little research to get a handle on what you will be asking your body to do. Smaller hills may require as little as a good pair of hiking shoes, snacks, sunscreen and water. Larger ventures may require technical equipment like mountaineering boots, crampons and an ice ax. It’s good to learn all you can before bagging even the smallest summit, and Active NorCal is here to help.
Few people would like their tombstones to read, “Cause of Death: Stupidity,” preceded by the last words, “Hold my beer.” With proper preparation climbing mountains, even small ones, contains an element of risk. While rare, people have died on a few of these summits. Let’s look at a few basic “don’ts,” things you may want to avoid before charging up any of these peaks.
Don’t overestimate your physical prowess. Not that it’s bad to push your limits a little, but always give yourself permission not to make the summit before you start. Good reasons to turn around include weather (heat, rain, snow/ice, storms, etc.), your body (blisters, turned ankles, injuries, altitude sickness, insufficient water/snacks), dangerous conditions (bears, rattlesnakes, cougars, questionable human activity). Don’t go unprepared and always error on the side of caution.
Looking westward from Redding, Shasta Bally is the tallest mountain you see, the one just behind Whiskeytown Lake. The name “bally” is one of the few terms from the Wintun language still in local use today. It meant “bare or bald mountain” and was used to name several peaks to the east of the Trinity Mountains.
The best place to park your car and begin your ascent of Shasta Bally is Sheep Camp, within the boundaries of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Going west on Hwy. 299 from Redding, turn left on J.F. Kennedy Memorial Road near the Whiskeytown Visitors Center (a good place to get a parking permit). Follow the shoreline around the bottom of the lake and back up the far side, then turn left on Brandy Creek Road and follow it up to Sheep Camp. There are signs for Sheep Camp and Shasta Bally.
While it’s a good idea to park in the shade at Sheep Camp, it’s a fairly lousy idea to leave valuables in your car in this remote location.
A little research will tell you it’s just shy of six miles to the summit (meaning six up, and six back down). Everyone’s different, but here’s where I tank up on water so I don’t need to carry as much on the hike. It’s pretty difficult to get lost since you simply follow the dirt road to the top. There is one spur road splitting off near the summit. Just remember to take the one going Uphill, not down.
The hike begins in a forest and continues to above timberline. There’s almost no shade at the top, so bring sunscreen. Some parts of the road are fairly gradual, other portions steep. At the top (and even before you summit) there are wonderful views of Redding and the Sacramento Valley to the east, as well as lots of other mountains and forests to the west. There are also telecommunication towers and a few small buildings surrounded by shrubbery. It’s a great lunchtime spot at about 6,200 feet elevation.
While the road to the top is considered an easy to moderate hike, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time. During warmer months it’s best to get an early morning start so you can be back down in the shade when things heat up. I’ve never had any problem making this hike, but I’ve seen both bear and mountain lion tracks on the road. It’s close to Redding, but wilderness always requires heightened awareness and safety.
Most NorCal residents have never even heard of Chamise Peak, which might be a great reason to check it out. Chamise is sandwiched in between Keswick Reservoir to the west and Shasta Lake City to the east, so it’s close to Redding.
There are two ways to hike Chamise. You can either go the short way (Flanagan Trail, 5-mile round trip) or the long way (Upper Sacramento Ditch, 13-mile round trip). The more popular Flanagan Trail begins off of Flanagan Road north of Redding, which is just off of Lake Blvd. There is a modest 700-foot elevation gain, making this hike accessible to just about anyone.
The Upper Sacramento Ditch route begins at the Shasta Dam Visitors Center and eventually connects with the Chamise Peak Trail. There is little to no shade on this hike.
This popular hike is one of the few that requires an entrance fee. The trailhead is actually in Castle Crags State Park just south of Dunsmuir, even though most of the hike is just outside of the park. Nevertheless, it is a well-loved hike, mainly for the stunning vistas and granite scenery up near the top.
The trail is fairly steep (2,135 elevation gain) and 5.5 miles long to the Castle Dome. If you just can’t get enough, you can also continue another mile to take in Vista Point and Indian Springs Spur. Unlike some of the other climbs, this one is almost sure to have other hikers nearby doing the same thing you are. There is security in numbers and knowing the other hikers were also willing to pay for the experience.
The 10.7-mile hike up and back down Mt. Eddy is rated as moderate/difficult, plus you really have to want to get to the trailhead. The mountain itself is visible northwest of the town of Mt. Shasta, or southwest from Weed. You can only access Mt. Eddy from the back (Trinity Alps) side, and the easiest way to drive to the trailhead is down from Weed.
Those in reasonably good shape are rewarded with incredible mountain vistas on this hike including Mt. Shasta and the Trinity Alps in the distance as well as several of the Deadfall Lakes along the way.
Head up I-5 just a few miles north of Weed and take exit 751 Turn right on old Hwy. 99, then a quick left on Stewart Springs Road, a right on Forest Rte. 42N17. It’s about 17 miles before the road intersects the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and this is where the Mt. Eddy hike begins.
Take the PCT southeast from the parking area. The trail crosses a stream about 1.5 miles in, but do not make the mistake of not filtering this water before taking a drink. At 2.9 miles in you will come to a four-way trail intersection. Take the left-hand trail (Sisson-Callahan Trail) uphill. At Deadfall Summit (4.2 miles into your hike) turn left on the Mount Eddy Summit Trail, and it’s less than a mile to the summit.
This summit falls into a whole other category than the others. To do the Mt. Shasta summit properly you need to be in excellent physical condition and have done your homework. This is where casual hiking meets authentic mountain climbing.
You will need to buy (or rent) hard mountaineering boots, crampons and an ice ax. The Fifth Season in Mt. Shasta is a great resource and has everything you will need, plus many years of experience on the mountain. There you can pick up the Wilderness Permit you will need to legally be on the mountain.
If you are in that top 10 percent of athletes with a super-fit cardiovascular system, you might consider hiking the mountain in one day. The main advantage to this is not having to carry a tent, sleeping bag, extra food/water, etc. for a longer stay on the mountain. Many such climbers start their hike around midnight, and there will appear a strange line of headlamps slowly plodding up the mountain.
Avalanche Gulch is by far the most popular route (John Muir’s favorite) and starts from the Bunny Flat Trailhead. Take the Everitt Memorial Highway north from the town of Mt. Shasta until it eventually veers northeast. The trailhead/parking area is well marked.
The Sierra Club Hut (Horse Camp) is at 7,900 feet. There you have access to fresh spring water.
From there it’s a long plod up Olberman’s Causeway to Helen Lake, a tent village which is the traditional overnight spot for hikers wishing to climb the mountain in two days. From there it’s up Avalanche Gulch to the Red Banks (steepest part of the climb) to Misery Hill (a long hike with several false summits) to the top.
The summit is not a comfortable place to stay very long. It is small with numerous places where a person might actually fall off. At times the wind is simply howling. Most everyone at the top has some degree of altitude sickness.
One advantage of hiking the mountain in one day is, by the time you’re ready to head back down, the snow isn’t hard anymore. It is, literally, “all downhill from here.” When conditions are right you can glissade (sliding on your butt in the snow) from top to bottom in about two hours.
Climbing Mt. Shasta is the real deal and is not something to be taken lightly. Train for it. Do your homework. Talk to others who have done it and develop a plan. Safety has to be number one.
The third-highest mountain on this list (9,235 feet), Brokeoff Mountain gets far less traffic than a lot of the other hikes on this list. There is limited free parking outside the southwest entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park off of Hwy. 89, or another area inside the park for those willing to buy a day pass. The hike is seven miles round-trip with a 2,600-foot elevation gain.
The trail initially goes through some seasonal wetlands before entering the forest where the real uphill work begins. Eventually the switchbacks will take you above timberline before you reach the summit. The view from the top includes some easily-recognized shapes (Lassen Peak, Mt. Shasta) and also some lesser-known volcanic remnants of ancient Mt. Tehama. It’s not to be missed.
Hiking Lassen Peak is no-doubt the most popular hike on this list, and with good reason. It’s easy enough for almost anyone to do, yet offers scenery toward the top second only to Mt. Shasta. Because the hike begins at 8,500 feet, there is only a 2,000-foot ascent to the top.
Getting to the trailhead and parking lot is quicker going in the southwest entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park. Here you are almost never alone. People climb the mountain day and night, and summer nights when there is a full moon are especially popular. It’s best to call the park first (530) 595-4480 before coming to make sure the road to the trailhead is open (free of snow) and it’s possible to make the climb. The ascent is pretty straightforward, just follow the crowds! The hike to the summit takes most people 2-3 hours and the reward at the top is substantial. There is a party atmosphere and I’ve never been there when people weren’t just super happy to be there.
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.