Northern California is known for, among other things, its plethora of wild rivers. Flowing freely through deep river canyons and racing through endless rapids, the rivers are the life blood of the region, gushing powerfully from the marrow that is the North State’s spectacular mountains. The foremost of these rivers, the Sacramento, the Klamath and the Trinity, are rivers of great renown; even the lesser known rivers, the Salmon (often referred to as the Cal Salmon, to distinguish it from Idaho’s Salmon River, the famed River of No Return), the Scott, the McCloud and the Pit, are still held in high regard by the fishermen and rafters who frequent their remote waters. Only a handful of dams impound the waters of these exceptional rivers. Granted, the Shasta and Trinity Dams are major stoppages on the rivers’ flow, but there are only a few other small reservoirs on these rivers. Yet among these spectacular rivers there is one that is consistently overlooked, but nonetheless delivers beautiful, albeit different, scenery. The Shasta River, one of the North State’s most forgotten rivers, is an important resource to the ranchers of the Shasta Valley, but rarely attracts those in search of beauty.
The Shasta River is the first major tributary of the Klamath River once the former has entered California from southern Oregon. It begins on the northern flanks of Mount Eddy, the second highest peak in the Mount Shasta area. It is not often noted that Mount Eddy is a triple divide peak; waters flowing off the mountain’s summit are divided into the three watersheds of the Sacramento, Trinity and Klamath Rivers. Emerging from a series of springs scattered around Mount Eddy, the Shasta River flows north, descending into the Shasta Valley. After making an unheralded passage under Interstate 5, the river flows past the small town of Edgewood and is soon stilled by the Dwinnell Dam, which forms Lake Shastina. This is the only impoundment of the Shasta River. Beyond the dam, the river meanders north, through the Shasta Valley. Unlike most rivers in the North State, the majority of the Shasta’s course is characterized as high desert. Sage and juniper are common here, where most of the other rivers have a riparian environment or a more alpine mix of pine and fir. Consequently, the arid land gives the Shasta River an atmosphere that is more akin to the northern half of the Deschutes River or the Malheur River, two of eastern Oregon’s high desert rivers. It may be a dry land but it does not lack beauty, enhanced all the more by the overwhelming presence of mighty, glacier-clad Mount Shasta. The great mountain can be seen from most of the river’s course. Ironically, the massive volcano contributes no water to the Shasta River. What little water flows north does so primarily through Whitney Creek, which typically dissipates into the parched, porous land of the Shasta Valley long before it reaches the Shasta River.
While making its northward journey, the Shasta River is eventually joined by the Little Shasta River, the largest tributary of the Shasta. Although a rather diminutive waterway, the Little Shasta River makes an impressive trip of its own. With its source in the large but seldom visited Little Shasta Meadow high on the flanks of the Cascades’ Willow Creek Mountain, the river makes a steep descent down the western slope of the Cascades. It eventually enters a rugged canyon that cuts into the region between Willow Creek Mountain and the towering volcanic dome of the Goosenest. At the canyon’s outlet the Little Shasta River passes fascinating lava formations such as Solomon’s Temple and Table Rock. The Little Shasta then makes a slow, meandering push to the west, flowing through the northern Shasta Valley. Part of this section of its course enters the Shasta Valley Wildlife Refuge, one of the few publicly accessible areas in the entire Shasta River watershed. It finally arrives at its confluence with the Shasta River just south of Montague.
North of the two rivers’ junction the Shasta River continues to wind through the upper extremity of the Shasta Valley. After passing beneath Interstate 5 again, the river’s character changes dramatically. The surrounding land remains arid high desert, but rather than flowing through the broad Shasta Valley, it now enters the rugged Shasta River Canyon. Here the canyon walls soar over 2,000 feet above the river. The water, once a meandering waterway with occasional rapids, is now transformed into churning whitewater, twisting and turning through narrow bends and roaring through narrow, rocky gorges. It is, without doubt, the most rugged and impressive portion of the Shasta River. In the 19th century this region was mining country, and remnants of that heritage are scattered throughout the mountains in this area. The combination of mining detritus and the rugged, barren cliffs high above the swift moving river gives the area a feeling akin to the westward flowing rivers of the Sierra Nevada such as the Merced and the Tuolumne, where miners plied their trade in arid, steep-walled river canyons.
Enabling vehicular passage through the Shasta River Canyon marked a major achievement in road engineering. The original route connecting California and Oregon passed through the canyon on a dirt road at the bottom, alongside the Shasta River. In the late 1920’s increased automobile traffic demanded a better route and the current route through the canyon was built. Over 200 tons of TNT were used to blast out the road’s route, and four large bridges were built to straighten the highway out (one bridge is an unsung twin to the famed Bixby Bridge down in Big Sur). At one time this was the most heavily bridged section of road in California. Initially the route through the Shasta River Canyon was part of Highway 99, but the arrival of Interstate 5 relegated the spectacular road a backwater, seldom used except by locals looking to bypass the freeway. Today this section of old Highway 99 is designated Highway 263. It follows the Shasta River through its awesome canyon all the way to its rugged confluence with the mighty Klamath River.
Public access to the Shasta River is unfortunately limited. Most of its course travels through private property. In the Shasta Valley, only a few isolated railroad crossings provide good access to the river. The stilled waters of the Shasta can be reached at Lake Shastina. This is best done from the public campground on the lake’s south shore. On the occasions that the lake is dry, one can hike out onto the dry lakebed and enjoy the river. One interesting feature is the Nature Conservancy’s Big Springs Ranch Preserve. Several miles of the Shasta River flow through the ranch. This area is particularly attractive, since it races through some shallow but scenic, rocky canyons. Access to these lands is limited and can only be done when the Conservancy allows guests. Hopefully the area will be made open to the public, much like the Nature Conservancy’s McCloud River Preserve is open to hikers and anglers. Further north, those motivated to enjoy the Shasta River’s wild passage through its awesome canyon are blessed with some utterly forgotten but excellent hiking options. Several miles of the river in the heart of the canyon pass through public lands, and hikers can enjoy an epic trip through a tremendous but nearly unknown river canyon…but that is a post for another day.