Road Trippin’ Northern California’s Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

Brought to you by Discover Siskiyou

Mount Shasta overlooks much of the North State and provides a certain familiar presence. Yet deep underground, at least in terms of geologic time, it’s not dead, but merely sleeping. There’s always the distant possibility it might suddenly hear the alarm clock and come back to life during our lifetimes. While there are people who might allow such talk to frighten them, we would rather embrace the situation in true Northern California spirit. Heck, if there’s no escape and we’re going to die anyway, let’s go out having as much fun as possible!

Roughly a hundred miles of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway (VLSB) stretches through NorCal’s Siskiyou County, celebrating our immensely beautiful volcanic surrounding. Of course, the best way to enjoy this stretch of highway is a good ole’ fashioned road trip. This follows Highway 89 north to the I-5 corridor, then through Weed and up Highway 97 all the way up to the Oregon border.

It’s a volcanic road trip unlike any other in the world, and it sits right here in Siskiyou County:

McCloud, California

McCloud, California. Photo: Discover Siskiyou

As you drive north on Highway 89 coming from Burney Falls, you’ll eventually capture a stunning view of the crown of California – Mount Shasta. As the mountain comes into clear view, you’ll land in the historic town of McCloud, once known to house lumber workers, but now known as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts looking to experience the McCloud River, and the majestic three tiers of McCloud Falls.

There is a good trail all along the river, and it’s fun to start at Lower Falls and hike upstream. At Lower Falls there will likely be fishermen as well as swimmers cooling off in the pool below. Above Lower Falls is a section very popular with anglers and sunbathers. California Department of Fish & Wildlife stocks this water heavily with rainbow trout, and often some very large rainbow trout. As the trial ascends toward Middle Falls the anglers thin out as access is more difficult. Middle Falls is a stunning waterfall and often there are death-defying cliff divers to keep you entertained. Don’t forget to bring your camera. Upper Falls is where most people turn around, and it’s fun to have seen so much natural beauty along with a good workout.

History buffs will appreciate the excellent accommodations and ambiance of the McCloud Mercantile, which doubles as a historic hotel and vintage store. McCloud isn’t one of the more-talked-about towns in NorCal, but might be the most underrated for anyone looking to start a volcanic road trip.

Dunsmuir to Weed

Dunsmuir, CA. Flickr/cswtwo

Highway 89 intersects I-5 just north of Dunsmuir and the VLSB follows the freeway north until it veers off at Weed. It’s a short section of busy mountain road, but it also offers quite a bit for action junkies.

Just a few miles south on I-5 brings you to Castle Crags State Park, famous for incredible mountain vistas, fishing and hiking. History buffs can even learn about the Battle of Castle Crags where soldiers, miners and Shasta Indians battled the Modoc Indians in 1855.

The quaint old railroad town of Dunsmuir is a little like finding yourself in an episode of “Andy of Mayberry.” It’s somehow managed to hang on to its small-townness even as one of the busiest freeways in the nation rockets through it. Dunsmuir City Park is very appealing as a cool, shady spot to grab a picnic, but the upper Sacramento River flowing through the middle of it also offers some pretty outstanding fishing sandwiched between the park and the railroad tracks.

Speaking of tracks, the short hike up to Mossbrae Falls is also very popular to see the water seep over the rocks forming a curtain of water. It is illegal to hike the railroad tracks to the falls and people have been injured by the trains, but some people still do it. The Mt. Shasta Trail Association is currently working to extend the Hedge Creek Falls trail up to Mossbrae Falls. Stay tuned for progress reports.

A few hotel options to consider in Dunsmuir include the Mossbrae Hotel, Dunsmuir Lodge and the totally funky Railroad Park Resort, where you can stay in a refurbished railroad car.

Dunsmuir to Mount Shasta

The city of Mt. Shasta is next heading north on I-5 where hard-core climbers travel to summit the volcano of the same name. Seasoned climbers rent a motel in town and grab a few hours of sleep before ascending the mountain in the middle of the night when the snow is hard.

For those hardened enough to achieve the summit, by the time they begin their descent the snow has softened making it ideal for glissading (sliding back down the mountain on your butt). It’s possible to make it from the top of the mountain to the bottom in two hours, if conditions are right.

Mount Shasta to Weed

Just west of Mt. Shasta and I-5 is another outdoor wilderness known as the Trinity Divide where there are streams for fishing and more than 20 mountain lakes. Castle, Gumboot, Toad, Mumbo and Cliff Lakes are only a few of the more popular spots, and all are delightfully cool on hot summer days.

The VLSB veers off I-5 in the town of Weed, where Hwy. 97 continues north to the Oregon border. Weed is the gateway to Lake Shastina (boating, fishing) as well as the Lumber Town Museum. In Weed you can stay at the Town House Hotel or the Hi-Lo Motel.

If you enjoy wide open spaces and high desert scenery, Highway 97 from Weed up to the border is for you. While it might seem like there’s a whole lot of nothing north of Weed, there are a few notable exceptions.

Antelope Creek Lodge is a fly fishing venue offering deluxe accommodations, fine dining and access to private lake and stream fishing on a catch and release basis. The lodge is located just south of the village of Tennant, CA east of Highway 97.

North to Lava Beds National Monument

Last on our list of active adventures along the VLSB is Lava Beds National Monument. This one is remote! Continue north on Highway 97 past Dorris, CA (almost to the Oregon border). Turn right (east) on Highway 161 along the Oregon border. Make a right-hand turn at the sign and follow the road past Tule Lake to the Monument.

The Lava Beds experience is at least half underground, literally. There are numerous caves and cave systems you can explore on your own, or as part of regular tours. The caves are ranked in terms of their physical difficulty, easy, moderate and difficult so no one gets in “over their heads.” Besides the opportunity to learn about the area’s volcanic past, there are bat colonies and other cave-dwelling creatures to explore, plants, animals, history and culture.

Embracing our Volcanic Roots

So here’s the thing: If there’s even a possibility we may be going out in a fiery volcanic eruption at some point anyway, there’s no reason to sit around making absolutely sure your sofa doesn’t drift off into outer space in the meantime. Get out there, be active, and discover what the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway in Siskiyou County has to offer.

Chip O'Brien

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.
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