Brought to you by Visit Redding
We’ve all felt like we were going in circles at some point in our lives, but just maybe there’s an active and educational way to do that very thing. That “circle” is the Sacramento River Trail, one of the most underrated features of our North State for lovers of stunning scenery, learning about the area and staying active. Used by a wide variety of people from casual hikers to hard-core runners, bikers, birdwatchers and even anglers, the trail connects with several other trail systems and offers one of the quintessential North State experiences.
I can’t even guestimate how many times I’ve hiked, jogged and ridden my mountain bike on the most popular section, from the parking lot on the south side of Diestelhorst Bridge, up to and across the footbridge below Keswick Dam, back down the other side to Lake Redding Estates, and back across Diestelhorst Bridge. It’s about 5 ½ miles, centrally located, beautiful, peaceful and a great way to get some exercise. There is that beautiful river, abundant wildlife (for being so close to town), and uplifting mountain vistas. It’s rarely crowded, and there have been a few days where I didn’t see another soul.
If you’re visiting from out of town, there are so many hotels in the area, including the brand-new Sheraton Hotel right at the Sundial Bridge. You can literally walk out of your room and be on the Sacramento River Trail in minutes. The trail is also near downtown Redding, which hosts a bevy of delicious restaurants and charming bars to wind down after your adventure.
Let’s take a little tour of the Sacramento River Trail-
The Sundial Bridge
For anyone who’s been in the Redding in the past, the Sacramento River Trail used to go just from the Diestelhorst Bridge to the Ribbon Bridge, creating a clean 6-mile loop. Today, the trail begins all the way up on Hilltop Drive and descends into downtown Redding along Highway 44 and across the Sacramento River.
Once you turn off of bike trail along Highway 44, you’ll be taken directly to the Sundial Bridge, the largest sundial in the world and Redding’s most iconic destination. The bridge, located right outside the Turtle Bay Exploration Park, spans 710-feet across the Sacramento River and is fixed with a translucent deck in order to see through to the river below.
For anyone new to the Sacramento River Trail, the Sundial Bridge would be the highlight, but the Main Loop carries with it picturesque views of Redding nature and NorCal’s premier tributary – the Sacramento River.
The Main Loop
From the Diestelhorst south parking lot the trail heads due west following the south shore of the Sacramento River. There is lots of shade right away, which is a good thing. Did I mention it can get a little toasty during summer? But don’t cross the trail off your to-do list for the warmer months. Get an early start (try 6:00am), and chances are it will be just you and the songbirds. What a terrific way to start the day.
Soon the river and trail swing due north and the landscape opens up before you come to the Sacramento River Footbridge below Keswick Dam. In the spring this area is full of blooming wildflowers, especially poppies. When I arrive at the footbridge I just can’t help taking a short break. It’s true that the water is pretty deep here, but every once in a while you can spot cruising trout down below.
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While the hike so far has been almost flat, the trail on the other side has a few hills, twists and turns, and very little shade until you get to Lake Redding Estates. Several other trails veer off from this side to connect with nearby subdivisions. At Harlan Drive you pass a few impressive homes before the trail veers to the right following the river. From now on you have the river on one side, homes on the other and it’s pretty flat from here on out. This is the main loop, the heart and soul of the Sacramento River trail, but we’re not quite finished yet.
Rather than cross over the Diestelhorst Bridge, the trail continues east along the north side of the Sacramento River. From here you can saunter through Lake Redding Park and Caldwell Park (great picnic spots) before you get to the gardens at the Sundial Bridge and Turtle Bay Exploration Park, about 1.3 miles. You can even pass by the bridge and hike up to Hilltop Drive if you want even more exercise.
The Wild Side
Instead of crossing over on the footbridge ½ mile below Keswick Dam, you can continue up to the dam where the trail connects with the Sacramento River Rail Trail (at Heart Rate Hill) leading along Keswick Reservoir up to Shasta Dam. On the Rail Trail you are less likely to encounter hikers and more likely to meet cyclists and horseback riders. The Rail Trail is also less crowded, more remote and a good place to bring a friend. It’s a good nine miles from Keswick to Shasta Dam.
Not really cause for concern, this remote section is home to various critters along with the human visitors. I’ve encountered several rattlesnakes in this section and even one black bear who felt like taking a swim.
The degree of difficulty on the Rail Trail is much more challenging than the in-town loop. There are lots of hills along lower Keswick Reservoir. It’s about 3 miles from Keswick Dam to the next access point at Spring Creek. The trail in this section remains fairly high above the water, but the views are terrific. After Spring Creek the trail descends back down to the water and straightens out somewhat.
About a half-mile above Spring Creek is the next access point, the main boat launch ramp and parking lot, complete with a restroom. Heading up the trail the next access point is Matheson (off of Iron Mountain Rd.) where there is another small launch site. You can drive a short way north from Matheson until the trail is again blocked from motorized vehicles. A short hike brings you to the footbridge over Motion Creek, which is the only place on Keswick Reservoir where there is reasonable shore access for fishing. Keswick Reservoir contains some massive rainbow trout that hardly anyone fishes for.
A ways above Motion Creek the trail runs through an old railroad tunnel. The shade and coolness of the tunnel are welcome distractions from a hot sunny day. The hike from the railroad tunnel to the Chappie-Shasta Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) Park takes about 45 minutes.
Once you arrive at the gate and restroom at the OHV park, you’ve done the whole trail. There is a campground there, but not a lot of shade. The trail here can only be accessed by driving over Shasta Dam, or coming in from below. This is a great area to start or finish a hike or bike ride, but the trail technically ends here.
While it might be possible to hike or bike over Shasta Dam and back down the other side of Keswick Reservoir, the trails on the eastern side are not paved and nothing short of a maze! If you are bound and determined to familiarize yourself with the eastern trails, check it out first on Google Maps. If that doesn’t dissuade you and you aren’t afraid of getting lost in a very remote area, at least bring a friend, plenty of water and sunscreen.
For Redding locals, the Sacramento River Trail might be the perfect place to get outside and exercise on a weekly basis. But if you’re from out of town, it’s worth visiting at least once. In just one adventure, you can exercise along the river, cross the Sundial Bridge and see Shasta Dam up close and personal. Sounds like to perfect day in NorCal to me.
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.