Aerial view of the Sundial Bridge and Sacramento River in Redding, California.
Sheraton Redding Hotel at the Sundial Bridge in Redding, California
Two woman toasting at Lake Shasta Dinner Cruise in Redding, California.
Conference event at Redding Civic Auditorium in Redding, California.
Aerial view of the Sundial Bridge and Sacramento River in Redding, California.
Sheraton Redding Hotel at the Sundial Bridge in Redding, California
Two woman toasting at Lake Shasta Dinner Cruise in Redding, California.
Conference event at Redding Civic Auditorium in Redding, California.

Insider's Guide to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

By Ry Glover | 06/07/2022

Situated along the crystal-clear waters of Northern California’s Whiskeytown Lake, in the rugged Klamath Mountains, a mere 15-minutes from downtown Redding, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is a place where sweeping natural beauty and sprawling adventure collide. It’s a place dripping with Gold Rush history and gushing with waterfalls, a place where the word “biodiversity” doesn’t even begin to capture the complex, comprehensive, completely mesmerizing array of plants, birds, mammals, and reptile species.

In short, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is a must-visit!

At 42,500 acres, it’s no slouch in the size department either. (Combined with the broader Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area, the amount of explorable land jumps up to a whopping 246,087 acres!) And with about 70 miles of multi-use hiking, equestrian, and mountain biking trails, there’s no shortage of ways to dive deep into its breathtaking backcountry. Of course, the namesake Whiskeytown Lake is considered by many to be the star of the show, the recreational epicenter, the piece de resistance (and for good reason!). But for in-the-know locals and savvy visitors, they know there’s also so much more waiting to be explored.

Without further ado, here’s how to make the most of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area (plus a little history of how it came to be).

Since time immemorial, the area surrounding Whiskeytown Lake has played host to human civilizations. For thousands of years, the Wintu People and their ancestors lived off the bounty of the water and land, fishing salmon and foraging acorns, intimately in tune with the cycles of the seasons. 

In 1848, European American pioneer Pierson Redding discovered gold on Clear Creek, and life for the Wintu and for the area at large would never be the same again. Prospectors and miners arrived in droves during the Gold Rush. They poured into the foothills of the Sierras and the Klamath Mountains in search of new beginnings. By the 20th Century, the area was dotted with an array of outposts and townships from Shasta to Weaverville, French Gulch to Whiskeytown.

Still today, remnants of the Gold Rush can be found throughout Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, most notably in the Tower House Historic District of the park.

During the 20th Century, water played a huge and hugely important role in the area’s evolution. As part of the Central Valley Project, dozens of engineering feats were constructed—dams, reservoirs, hydroelectric powerplants, the works. Whiskeytown Lake and Whiskeytown Dam were both products of this project. President John F. Kennedy, in fact, visited the area to dedicate Whiskeytown Dam in 1963, less than two months before his tragic assassination. 

In 1965, Whiskeytown, as we know it today, became Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, passed by congress and signed into legislation as a protected area managed by the National Park Service.

Today, the character and vibe of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is one of nostalgia and nature. The metaphorical footprints of all that came before can be found humbly lurking throughout the park, mixing and meshing in step with the natural surroundings. In other words, the unique history of the area is alive and well in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

Hikers, boaters, birders, bikers, photographers, families, the real question is who won’t love Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. 

Like an ecological Venn Diagram, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area sits at the intersection of the California Chaparral & Woodlands ecoregion and the Klamath Mountains ecoregion. What this balancing act of flora and fauna means for visitors is a Goldilocks-like array of the best of all worlds—fire-adapted shrubs and chaparral intermingling with live oaks, ponderosa pines, sugar pines, Douglas firs, chinquapin, and more. Not to mention towering mountains, carved canyons, hidden hollows, and dozens of glittering water features.

Hikers can find shade-covered trails in Davis Gulch or Clear Creek Canal. They can discover sprawling vistas from Guardian Rock, Papoose Pass, South Fork Mountain, and more. They can traipse along creeks to gushing cascades and plunging waterfalls (more on these shortly). 

Paddlers can explore roughly 40 miles of shoreline, getting lost and found among dozens of coves, islands, and open waters. Anglers meanwhile can cast for kokanee salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, bass, and sunfish. (To learn more about specific rules and licenses, check out the California Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations.)

In short, this area delivers the scenic goods. And it doubly delivers in its variety of ways for visitors to take advantage. 

Put simply, there is a TON to do in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area year-round. Here are a few can’t-miss activities.

Cascading through rocky canyons throughout the recreation area are four stunning waterfalls (though Brandy Creek Falls remains closed due to trail repairs). Hiking to one of these silky bands of whitewater is a must.

Boulder Creek Falls

At Boulder Creek Falls, you effectively get three cascades for the price of one. Spilling down a shaded box canyon filled with verdant mosses and ferns, Boulder Creek Falls is your just reward for completing either the 1,000-foot elevation gain, 2.7-mile one-way hike from South Shore Drive, or the 1.1-mile one-way hike from the top of Mill Creek Road.

Crystal Creek Falls

A short and sweet hike followed by a swimming hole at the base of a beautiful cascade? You can’t ask for much more than that! But that’s exactly what you get at Crystal Creek Falls—one of the park’s most stunning (and refreshing!) destinations.

Whiskeytown Falls

Whiskeytown Falls is not only the namesake falls of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, it’s the tallest cascade in the park. Getting there requires a steep and strenuous 3.5-mile round trip hike along the James K. Carr Trail. Once you arrive, you won’t regret it!

Think hiking is the only activity in the area? Think again. 

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is practically bursting at the seams with top-notch mountain biking trails. From moderate, mostly flat gravel and dirt trails to rip-roaring black diamond singletrack, there’s no shortage of trails (or trail variety!). 

For a casual ride, you can’t go wrong with the Lower Sacramento Ditch Trail—a 2.9-mile green run with expansive views of the surrounding forests and the Keswick Reservoir. For an intermediate ride, the South Fork Lookout Road offers a two-track fire road climb to an old fire lookout with excellent vistas. For singletrack speed demons, the Papoose Pass Trail offers a dizzying descent that drops at an average 8% grade (with a max 30% grade!) over the course of five glorious singletrack miles. For hardcore riders looking for a burly distance challenge, the Lemurian Long Course has it all—26.5-miles of mixed terrain, magnificent surroundings, and majorly fun riding.

Of course, no list of things to do at Whiskeytown would be complete without mentioning the lake activities on offer at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. 

Formed by Whiskeytown Dam on Clear Creek, Whiskeytown Lake is a 5-square-mile body of water with roughly 40-miles of forested shoreline and near endless numbers of ways to enjoy it. From kayaking to stand-up paddleboarding, boating to fishing, beachside lounging to swimming, it’s all here—and more. And with water so clear that you can see 30 feet of depth visibility, the words “crystal clear” and “pristine” only halfway tell the story.

From Oak Bottom Marina, visitors can launch kayaks and SUPs and patrol the lake’s waters by human power. Alternatively, there’s a huge list of rental boats on offer in their fleet, from pontoons to ski boats.

If you’re looking for world-class outdoor recreation, mere minutes from a bustling town in Redding, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better destination than Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. We’ll see you out there! 

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