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Volcanoes to the Sea

Heading north from Sacramento, this trip includes stops at two California classics—Lassen Volcanic National Park and Mount Shasta

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Golden past, bright future

California’s state capital is undergoing an energetic renaissance. Young adults looking for an urban vibe are moving into this low-key city, with microbreweries, gastropubs, and trendy boutiques popping up to serve them. Award-winning chefs are gaining attention for their focus on hyper-local ingredients, and relationships between restaurants and surrounding farms and ranches have become not a novelty, but the norm. Hot summer days create some of the nicest evenings anywhere in the state, where locals sit on porches in elegant Victorian-era homes, and kids scamper in leafy parks until the sun goes down.

As the state capital, there’s plenty going on, and gatherings of various colorful groups around the cupola-topped Capitol are common. Museums are centered largely around the Capitol Mall area and in historic Old Sacramento, the renovated area along the Sacramento River that was a core hub during the Gold Rush. Getting around to all these different locations is easy, and traffic jams are fleeting. Granted the gold award for bike-friendliness by the League of American Bicyclists, Sacramento is also a great place to explore by bike, with wide designated lanes, and paved trails along the American and Sacramento Rivers. There’s also a convenient light rail system to linking popular sites around town.

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Milk Money

Milk Money

Venture to Sacramento's midtown for a bite at one of the neighborhood’s hip eateries, Milk Money, and try the vanilla brioche donut.

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Sierra Nevada Brewery

Sierra Nevada Brewery
Hoist a mug to the Californian brewers who redefined the art of ale

The leafy city of Chico makes an inviting destination. It’s home to a state university, and where there are college students, there is likely beer—in this case, very good beer.

Get a taste for where California’s current craft beer craze began with a visit to Sierra Nevada Brewing's expansive tasting room/restaurant/brewery complex. Take a self-guided tour, or join a guided one—offerings include a sustainability tour showcasing California’s largest privately owned solar installation, and an in-depth exploration of the brewery’s inner workings. Cool off with a frosty pint in the trellis-shaded Taproom & Restaurant. Sierra Nevada Brewing has been the catalyst for other small-batch breweries to open in the area. Stop by the Handle Bar for a great selection of craft beers on tap.

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Tehama Trail

Tehama Trail
Visit farms and farm stands along the Sacramento River

Continuing north from Chico, discover a surprisingly abundant region near the leafy and cool Sacramento River. Rich soil and plenty of water make this fertile area a prime place for farms and ranches, and many invite visitors to come by to buy fresh produce, artisanal olive oils, and other local food products.

Established by local farmers, the Tehama Trail meanders through rural communities, linking together nearly two dozen vineyards, orchards, and grass-fed beef ranchers and other specialty meat producers. Though you can hop onto the route at any point, the driving tour technically begins in Corning, a town that has been linked with olives for generations. Stop in at the iconic Olive Pit for samples of traditional black and green olives, or try more exotic options, like herb-and-garlic-cheese-stuffed Sicilian olives. Head over to sleek and shiny tasting room at Lucero Olive Oil to sample artisanal olive oils and vinegars and shop for classy gifts.

Continue along the Tehama Trail to sample and buy heirloom tomatoes, juice-down-your-chin peaches and plums, and just-picked berries, as well as fresh pies and honeys. Swing by New Clairvaux Vineyard in tiny Vina, just south of Redding, where Trappist monks (yes, monks) invite you to sample their Barbera, Pinot Grigio, and other varietals in a large tasting room that’s on the monastery grounds. 

Your road trip now swings east and north to take in some of California’s most amazing and wild regions. First up, a visit to a remarkable, ultra-family-friendly guest ranch on near the south entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Next Stop
Lassen Volcanic National Park (71mi/114km; 1hr17min)
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Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park
See where the earth still steams and boils

Steaming sulphur vents, splattering mud pots, boiling springs—these lively features at Lassen Volcanic National Park prove that our planet is a living entity. Start at the outstanding Kohm Ya-mah-nee Visitor Center, then head out to explore some of the park’s remarkable and safely accessible features, such as the geothermal site Bumpass Hell (open seasonally, check website for details). An easy, well-marked trail travels past roaring fumaroles and hissing vents (3 miles round-trip and worth the effort). Along the way, a short spur trail leads to a stunning panorama of peaks—actually the remnants of a massive volcano called Mount Tehama, which exploded some 500,000 years ago. The park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in May 1914. Today, things have settled down, and trails and overlooks let you safely see and learn about volcanic activity. In the park’s southern reaches, you’ll find two easy-to-reach waterfalls: 50-foot-high Kings Creek Falls is accessed by a downhill tromp through a verdant meadow, then a descent on a rocky staircase alongside Kings Creek. Mill Creek Falls plunges 75 feet over a moss-covered cliff (to see it, hike 1.5 miles from Southwest Campground).

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Drakesbad Guest Ranch

Drakesbad Guest Ranch

Drakesbad Guest Ranch is located at the south entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park. This 1900 lodge offers snug accommodations with nice extras—massage services, guided trail rides, a welcoming restaurant, and a hot-springs pool.

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McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park

McArthur Burney Falls Memorial State Park
Visit a booming cascade nicknamed the “eighth wonder of the world”

Burney Falls, the 129-foot-tall, fern-draped cascade, 60 miles northeast of Redding in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the western U.S. It’s no wonder 26th President Teddy Roosevelt dubbed it “the eighth wonder of the world.”

As you approach the main overlook, you’ll have to raise your voices to talk (or be happy in silence)—the broad wall of water faces you head on—splashing down the fern-covered face, tossing gushers and shards of rainbows left and right—finally plunging into a clear pool.

Continue down the path to the pool—where you are likely to look but only briefly touch: the water never goes much above 42 degrees. Fishermen don’t seem to mind; the big pool at the base, and Burney Creek above and below the cascade, are popular for catch-and-release fly-fishing.

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Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta
Experience wildflower meadows, year-round snowfields, and a New-Age-y vibe

If skies are clear, this perennially snow-capped peak will dominate your view, a behemoth rising from the flat valley floor, topping out at a staggering 14,179 feet/4,322 meters high. While some mountains climb gradually, this one rises from surrounding flatlands in such perfect, cone-shaped majesty that it seems unreal. (Famed naturalist John Muir wrote his “blood turned to wine” when he first caught sight of the Fuji-esque peak.) Summiting the mountain is for the hardiest of climbers; ask about guide services at The Fifth Season outdoor store in the town of Mt. Shasta, on the mountain’s west side.

You don’t have to bag the peak to enjoy this alpine paradise. Easy paths loop through wildflower-filled meadows and into cool forests. A mellow two-mile path, along the McCloud River on the mountain’s south side, leads to a trio of beautiful waterfalls—though Middle Falls stands out. There’s camping, caverns, and world-class fly-fishing too. Most winters, there’s skiing at local Mt. Shasta Ski Park, on the mountain’s western slope.

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Shasta Lake

Shasta Lake
Rent a houseboat to explore the state’s largest reservoir

Spend the day exploring California’s largest reservoir. A typical summer day finds the crystal blue waters sprinkled with fishing boats, jet skis, inner tubes—almost anything that floats. Nearly 370 miles/595 kilometers of shoreline wrap around coves ideal for dropping anchor to cast for bass, crappie, catfish, and sturgeon.

Plan an overnight (or longer) stay on a deluxe houseboat. Rentals range from basic models with comfortable accommodations to multi-tiered, floating palaces, with whirlpool spas, gourmet kitchens, and master suites with flat-screen TVs.

Other worthwhile stops around the lake include a free tour of 602-foot/183-meter Shasta Dam, the second largest concrete dam in the country. Prime your visit by listening to “This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s ode to America, which he wrote while helping build the dam’s arch barrier. Or take a guided tour of Lake Shasta Caverns, a fascinating underground world 250 million years in the making—only accessible by boat (boat ride included with tour).

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Nature and culture merge in an art-fueled Victorian seaport

Eureka is an inviting North Coast town—the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland. Start your visit along the waterfront, where a pretty esplanade provides nice views of the harbor and adjacent Humboldt Bay. Explore the small maritime museum, then board the MV Madaket, a snug ferryboat plying the bay since 1910, for a 75-minute guided cruise. In the Victorian-era Old Town district, see the hundreds of ornate 19th-century homes, like the Carson Mansion, a paragon of Queen Anne architecture now housing a private club at the end of Second Street, or head to the Eureka Visitors Center, where you can sample local wines, beers, and local oysters, ask for tips on nearby galleries, gift shops, and eateries, and book guided tours and adventures.

Eureka also has the distinction of being the southern gateway to the collection of preserves known as Redwood National & State Historic Parks, a World Heritage Site and one of the most unforgettable settings in California..