With summer road trip season just around the corner, we tapped Corte Madera’s Doug McConnell — for nearly two decades the host of Bay Area Backroads, exploring the nooks and crannies of our state — for suggestions on close-to-home jaunts. Given last winter’s tremendous snowfall and McConnell’s recent alliance with Marin-based Bay Institute, a protector of our watershed, he focused on favorite stops along the route the Sacramento River takes as it winds from its mountainous origins to the Pacific.
“The 400-mile course from the slopes of Mount Shasta down through the Central Valley, the Delta and the bay, and out into the oceanic wilderness of the Gulf of the Farallones is a wonderful place for families to see a cross section of California’s rich and diverse human and natural history,” he says, “and hopefully come away recognizing the beauty and vulnerability of this precious resource.” While most of Marin’s tap water flows from the Mount Tamalpais watershed, nearly 7 million Bay Area residents and millions of acres of California crops rely on the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed, a significant portion of which comes from the snowmelt atop Mount Shasta and nearby peaks. Want to follow McConnell’s path with a trip of your own? We’ve mapped out one option.
Start Headwaters of the Sacramento
Begin in Mount Shasta City, where the Sacramento River bubbles to the surface in the town’s namesake park. An imposing volcanic presence at over 14,000 feet, Mount Shasta looms high. Associated with the southern Cascade Range, which includes Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier, Shasta has the potential to erupt as did its cousins — Lassen Peak, which blew in the teens and early ’20s of the last century, and St. Helens, which erupted in 1980.
when there, consider: Word has it a hidden civilization of superior beings, called Lemurians, lives within Mount Shasta. To the believer, they can be seen walking the mountain in white robes.
Stop 1 Dunsmuir
Just south of Shasta along the Sacramento River lies the town of Dunsmuir, with world-class fishing. “Dunsmuir and the Upper Sac is to fly-fishing what the Louvre is to art lovers,” the town's website boasts. Railway buffs also flock here from all over the state to snap photos of trains winding through scenic canyons nearby, especially during the Dunsmuir Railway Days festival, this year happening June 10 to 12.
when there, consider: In 1991 a toxic chemical spill from a train derailment killed everything in the river for 40 miles, including the wild trout population. The spill was contained just before it reached Lake Shasta, 43 miles south. Fortunately, the river has since completely recovered.
Stop 2 Shasta Lake
Driving south on I-5 takes you past Shasta Lake, created by Shasta Dam, beloved in the summer for houseboating, water-skiing, wakeboarding, fishing and just plain relaxing in the heat. (The average temperature in late July is in the high 80s.) The dam was built in the early 1940s, creating electricity that is distributed to 15 states, and has dramatically transformed the watershed. Boats can be rented for the day or longer.
When there, consider: According to Peter Vorster of the Bay Institute, by this April the lake was at full capacity, with well over 4,552,000 acre-feet of water.
Stop 3 Sundial Bridge
Just below the dam are the city of Redding and the Sundial Bridge, which crosses the Sacramento River and connects the Turtle Bay Exploration Park. This bridge-to-somewhere is a cable-stayed structure with an inclined 217-foot pylon constructed of 580 tons of steel. The deck, made of 200 tons of glass and granite, is supported by more than 4,300 feet of cable. Oh, and it’s visually stunning.
when there, consider: The Sundial Bridge (which is, in fact, a giant sundial) was completed in 2004. It cost $23.5 million to build, and most of the funds were from the Redding-based McConnell Foundation (no relation to Doug McConnell).
Stop 4 Colusa
Continuing south, the river flows down through the valley past the towns of Red Bluff and Corning. To beat the summer heat, McConnell suggests making a stop to swim in the Colusa–Sacramento River State Recreation Area. The main attraction, however, is about 20 miles east of Colusa — at the Sutter Buttes, said to be the smallest mountain range on the planet with an elevation of just 2,000 feet. Coincidentally, McConnell went to high school in nearby Gridley, and his great-grandfather founded the town of Live Oak on the eastern flanks of the Buttes in the 1870s. While most of the Buttes are on private land, McConnell suggests contacting the Middle Mountain Foundation for access to this geologic phenom.
when there, consider: The Buttes, named after John Sutter, extend about 10 miles from north to south as well as east to west and can be seen from I-80 just after Vacaville.
Stop 5 Sacramento
What educational trip is complete without a tour of our state capital? The good news is it won’t be crowded this time of year; the bad news is why. Temperatures can reach into the hundreds during the summer in Sacramento; fortunately, both of the must-stops — the capitol building and the California State Railroad Museum — have air-conditioning. Thanks to the city’s location at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers, you’ll also find plenty of cooling riverside activity — try a stroll along the water in Old Sacramento.
when there, consider: You can bike part or all of the 23-mile American River Parkway, beginning just behind the state railroad museum in Old Sacramento and ending in the town of Fulton. The semi-wild river (with wild salmon) makes a beautiful backdrop.
Stop 6 Locke
From Sacramento, take I-5 to Highway 160 to get back to the river. While the Delta area is full of natural and historical gems, McConnell strongly suggests a stop in the historic Chinese community of Locke, founded about 100 years ago. “It’s been a while since I visited, but I think you can still grab a bite to eat at Al the Wop’s,” he says. “Built in 1915 as a Chinese food restaurant, today they serve steak and pasta.” Locke found its way into the history books (and onto the National Register of Historic Places) as the first town founded by Chinese people for Chinese people. And yes, Al the Wop’s (located right on Main Street) is still in business.
when there, consider: Today the population of Locke is around 80, only 10 of whom are Chinese.
Stop 7 Restoration in Action
As long as you’re on Highway 160, continue southwest to the stunning Antioch Bridge. It rises 135 feet from the banks of the surging Sacramento River, which here has just been joined by the newly restored San Joaquin River. Until last year, 94 percent of the San Joaquin’s waters were diverted for agriculture and urban use; now, thanks to restoration efforts of people from all points on the political spectrum, the water is slowly coming back and will flow once again into the bay. On the other side of the delta, consider a stop in Martinez, which has a surprising number of Wikipedia-worthy highlights. It is the birthplace of Joe DiMaggio and home to the John Muir National Historic Site, where Muir lived for many years and is buried. And according to cocktail lore, Martinez is the birthplace of the martini.
when there, consider: The Delta outflow into the bay recorded in late March 2011 was 200,000 cubic feet per second (CFS), which is about 150 percent of average to date. Late March 2010, the CFS was 8,000. For a mental picture, consider that a cubic foot holds about 7.5 gallons of water. Envision a 15-inch-diameter beach ball, which can hold one cubic foot. Then, standing near the Antioch Bridge, imagine 200,000 beach balls going past you in one second.
Stop 8 Land’s Edge
End your trip with a drive out to the Marin Headlands and see exactly where the rivers and the bay meet the sea. From here, the adventurous might envision hopping aboard a whale-watching boat, but McConnell suggests stopping in the parking lot at the end of Bunker Road, just past the path to the Point Bonita Lighthouse. “It’s the last perch before the continent falls into the ocean and a good end point for the journey from Shasta to the sea,” he says. “While it is quite a journey for us, just imagine being a salmon.”
Houseboats rentals: Antlers Resort & Marina, 530.238.2553, shastalakevacations.com; Bridge Bay Resort, 530.275.3021, sevencrown.com; Jones Valley Resort, 530.275.7950, houseboats.com; Packers Bay Marina, 800.331.3137, packersbay.com; Shasta Marina Resort, 530.238.2284, shastalake.net; Silverthorn Resort, 530.275.1571, silverthornresort.com; Seven Crown Resorts, 800.752.9669 sevencrown.com
Citizen Hotel, $149–$299, 916.447.2700, jdvhotels.com; Embassy Suites Sacramento, $139–$289, 916.326.5000, embassysuites.hilton.com; Le Rivage Hotel, $129–$839, 916.443.8400, lerivagehotel.com
Spend the night on an island in a rustic lighthouse that has been active for 130 years. It’s a 10-minute ferry ride from Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor in Marin. East Brother Light Station, 510.233.2385, ebls.org