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Shasta Lake & Lake Shasta Caverns

The announcement of the first annual Shasta Lake Recreation Fair inspired me to finally do something I had long planned—visit Lake Shasta Caverns!

Many times, over many years I’d driven by the Lake Shasta Caverns sign while traveling up or down I-5 north of Redding, California. Each time, either my wife or I would comment, “We should stop here some day.”
Visiting Lake Shasta Caverns is a multi-experience adventure. It starts at the Visitor Center where youngsters can sluice for gemstones, scale a 6 foot climbing wall and explore a unique tree house. The actual cave tour begins at the Snack Bar and Store where you receive your boarding pass before exiting out the back and descending 100+ steps (or take the ramp) to the shore of Shasta Lake. Here you will board a boat to cross the lake where a 30 passenger bus awaits to take you on a scenic ride 800 feet up the mountain to the cave entrance.
In May of 2012 the Secretary of the Interior designated California’s Lake Shasta Caverns as a National Natural Landmark — one of less than 600 sites so designated since the program began in 1963.

Lake Shasta Caverns

The National Park Service website describes Lake Shasta Caverns as being extraordinarily well-decorated with an especially diverse assemblage of calcite cave formations ranging from millimeters to tens of meters.

Visitors in Lake Shasta Caverns

In the photo above visitors are awed by the immense size of one “room” in the cavern as well as the size and variety of rock formations. The space is approximately twice as tall and three times as wide as what is shown in this photograph.


The next image shows the area that the girl in the above photo is looking toward.

section of large room in Lake Shasta Caverns

Below is a close up of several much smaller formations in another area.
Measuring just a few inches, they seem to grow randomly from the rock walls.

Small rock formations in Lake Shasta Caverns

Surprisingly, not all formations are vertical—dropping from the ceiling or growing from the floor.
In the photo below—looking straight up in another room—soda straw formations grow horizontally roughly 20 feet above the floor while darker stalactites hang from the ceiling another 10 or 15 feet above them.

View straight up inside Lake Shasta Caverns

Knowledgeable guides lead all tours, providing historical information, explaining how the caves were formed and pointing out various limestone formations including stalactites, stalagmites, multi-coated fluted columns, stone draperies, flowstone and soda straws.
Below: Dave, a Tour guide, stands next to a wall of flowstone.

Tour guide and flowstone in Lake Shasta Caverns

Expect to traverse many steps as you climb upwards inside the mountain. Our guide pointed out some calcite that was exposed in the effort to open a passageway between sections of the cavern.

Calcite in Lake Shasta Caverns

This is the material that water slowly dissolves over millions of years.
Shasta Lake Caverns are estimated to be at least 200 million years old.

Limestone formations

Some formations look like leather or mud.

multi-colored flowstone in Lake Shasta Caverns

Some flowstone and many stalactites are milky-white.
The guide would occasionally hold his flashlight next to them to show how translucent the stone can be.
Dramatic lighting enhances the visitor experience in the caverns.

Dramatic lighting in Lake Shasta Caverns

While there appeared to be many more stalactites (growing down) than stalagmites (growing up) the two large stalagmites below were in the large room featured in the first couple of photographs above.

Stalagmites in Lake Shasta Caverns

Shasta Lake and the Gray Mountains

When you exit the caverns, back into daylight, your first view is of the aptly named Gray Mountains. This area was once all under water as illustrated by the many marine fossils imbedded in the rocks at the cave entrance and pointed out by the guide.

View of Grey Mountains at exit to Shasta Lake Caverns

Its easy to see, looking at the steep rocky terrain, how difficult it was to discover the original cave entrance.
While the Wintu Indians may have been aware of the caves since antiquity, James A Richardson, a federal fisheries employee, was the first white explorer to find the cave entrance in 1878.
Having climbed some distance inside the mountain you will need to descend a number of steps and ramps to return to the cave entrance and your bus ride to the lake. Along the way you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of Shasta Lake.

Shasta Lake panorama picture

Water demonstrations by the Sky Ski team—part of the first annual Recreation Fair—enlivened passage across the lake.
Water ski show on Shasta Lake
If you would like to extend your time on the lake beyond the brief trips back and forth to the caverns tour make a reservation for the Lake Shasta Dinner Cruise. The same boat is outfitted with tables for a leisurely buffet meal and two hour cruise.

Sunset dinner cruise on Shasta Lake

In addition to the good food, chance to relax and photo opportunities,
I enjoyed learning about the history of the lake—it is an artificial lake created by Shasta Dam which was constructed between 1935 and 1945 and keystone of the Central Valley Project. Shasta Lake is California’s largest reservoir with nearly 400 miles of shoreline while Shasta Dam is the second largest concrete dam in the United States.
I also appreciated seeing the Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial Bridge from lake level—I’d driven over it at least a dozen times—and learning a bit about it. For instance I didn’t realize that it was two levels with a train track below or that it is the highest combination road and rail bridge in the world. Also known as the Pit River bridge, it was constructed in 1942.

Veterans of Foreigh Wars Memorial Bridge

Recreation on Shasta Lake — Marinas and Houseboats

A number of local business displayed products—life vests, kayaks, etc.—on a lawn area next to the snack bar/store and several small marinas participated in the Recreation Fair, providing houseboats to explore.
Marina on Shasta Lake
While there are a couple of large marinas on Shasta Lake there are many more smaller, mom-and-pop type operations.


Packers Bay Marina owners on houseboat

Packers Bay Marina owners and operators were on hand to show one of their 28 houseboats. This particular boat had the full roof available as an outdoor deck in addition to small front and back shaded decks.

Pakers Bay Marina houseboat stateroom

The houseboat had several staterooms (bedroom with a door) including one that was the largest of the boats on display.
Houseboats are designed to maximize the number of people able to sleep aboard—multiple families, family reunions or other small group events is how you make the experience affordable—so small staterooms and dual-purpose utilization of seating in the public rooms as additional sleep surfaces is common.


Antlers Resort houseboat

Antlers Resort & Marina displayed a beautiful boat with a closer ratio of indoor to outdoor space. In addition to renting houseboats Antlers Resort & Marina has rental cabins, boats & personal watercraft, and services including a fuel dock and convenience store.
You can see in the photo above some features common to many houseboats such as outdoor bars, covered and open decks, upper and lower pilot areas and a slide for entry into the lake.


Hot tub on Shasta Marina Resort houseboat
The large hot tub on this Shasta Marina Resort houseboat shows that you don’t need to jump in the lake to get wet and is another popular feature on many boats. Shasta Marina Resort has one houseboat that sleeps 14 (5 person hot tub) and two that sleep 16 (8 person hot tubs). Their brochure features a nice map of Shasta Lake and its tributaries.
I’m glad I finally made that stop and visited Lake Shasta Caverns. It was a real bonus to do it on the day of the first annual Recreation Fair. I wish everyone involved success with future efforts and encourage everyone to visit the caverns and consider a Shasta Lake houseboat vacation.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson