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An Insider's Guide to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

By Redding CVB | 06/18/2020 | Boating, Family Friendly , Fishing, Great Outdoors, Kayaking, Lakes, Paddling, Rafting, Sailing, Stand Up Paddle Boarding, State & National Parks, Things to See and Do, Top-Sights, Trails, Waterfalls, Watersports

The 42,500-acre Whiskeytown Lake National Recreation Area offers unprecedented outdoor recreation at the nexus of three mountain ranges. Many visitors love hiking through the oak woodlands and Ponderosa pine forests where the Klamath, Coast, and Cascade mountains meet—but the cool, clear waters of Whiskeytown Lake are the park's primary draw. Kayaking, sailing, fishing, swimming, and water skiing are just some of the park's most popular activities. The Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is a short 15-minute drive west of Redding—but feels like it’s of another time and place entirely.

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Whiskeytown History

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

The township of Whiskeytown came into being in the mid-1800s when the Gold Rush brought thousands to the Sierra and Trinity Mountain foothills. Though the exact origins of the Whiskeytown name are unknown, legend has it that a miner’s mishap sent a barrel of whiskey tumbling down a hillside; the barrel allegedly broke on the rocks below and spilled into the creek, leading to the name Whiskey Creek. Eventually, the settlement along its banks became known as Whiskeytown. But the boom town suffered the same fate as countless other mining camps throughout California, and its fortunes faded by the turn of the 20th century.

A few relics of the old camp remain visible today, but most of the Gold Rush site was buried under Whiskeytown Lake when construction of the Whiskeytown Dam began in the early 1960s. President John F. Kennedy dedicated the completed dam in September 1963—just two months before his assassination. In doing so, he called the dam "an investment in our future,” citing its ability to aid water conservation efforts and its potential for recreation. Today, the buried brick buildings and other ruins can be spied from the air or while scuba diving in the lake.

The Whiskeytown National Recreation Area was formally established in 1965, thanks largely to the popular recreation opportunities on Whiskeytown Lake. While the 2018 Carr Fire originated in Whiskeytown, the park is open. Whiskeytown Lake is still fully operational, and new growth and vegetation is appearing all the time. In fact, two of the four waterfall hikes have already reopened to the public and the other two hope to follow soon. You can find the latest park updates and advisories on the National Park Service’s Whiskeytown website.

Today, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area remains a popular outdoor recreation area. Fishing, boating, hiking, and other popular activities remain the heart of the region. Here’s how to enjoy the park and all its natural beauty.

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What to Do

Crystal Creek Falls is the only man-made waterfall in the park and can be accessed by a short, flat hike.

Whether your idea of fun is a relaxing day on the lakeshore or a busy day in the woods, there’s plenty of fun to be had here. Here’s a quick rundown.

Lower Crystal Creek Falls - This is one of two waterfall hikes open in the park post-Carr Fire—and is the only man-made waterfall in the park. It’s also ADA-accessible—making it a pleasant option for hikers of all abilities. The falls, part of the Central Valley Project in the 1920s, can be accessed with a flat and easy two-thirds-mile, round-trip hike.

The Shasta Divide Nature Trail - This trail is one of nearly a dozen other trails, ranging from easy, family-friendly outings to more rugged treks, that remain open around the park. The easy, 0.4-mile Shasta Divide Nature Trail loop was unaffected by the Carr Fire and takes hikers to the shores of Whiskeytown Lake.

The Oak Bottom Water Ditch Trail - This 2.3-mile trail follows the path of an old canal that predated Whiskeytown Lake. The route is ideal for viewing wildlife, including bald eagles and western pond turtles, and spying wildflowers in spring, including the red tubular Indian Warrior and the Hairy Cat’s Ear, with white petals and dark purple hairs.

Picnic Fun - Dozens of perfect picnic spots sit near Brandy Creek Beach, Oak Bottom Beach, and at the Whiskey Creek boat launch area. The spots include tables, fire grills, and restrooms, and many picnic areas offer easy beach access.

Nature Programs - If you’re with your family, ranger-led programs offer insight and education all summer long. Some of the park’s more popular programs include free kayak tours (including moonlight outings), stand-up paddleboard tours, evening astronomy programs, and junior firefighter activities. Best of all: Those water-based outings cater to newbies and are open to all experience levels. The park’s astronomy programs include a 30-minute presentation and the chance to peer into powerful telescopes with the Shasta Astronomy Club. Note: To protect visitors and staff from the COVID-19 pandemic, all interpretive programs and curriculum-based education programs are currently unavailable.  

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How to Get on the Water

Far and away, the main draw at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is the lake for which it is named. Whiskeytown Lake provides 36 miles of shoreline and more than 3,000 surface acres for recreation. You can swim, scuba dive, water ski, and kayak to name a few popular activities. Even sailing has a presence; the lake has hosted the Whiskeytown Memorial Regatta for the past five decades. There are six species of fish, including trout, kokanee salmon, and catfish so you can enjoy time casting a line from a boat or a quiet spot along the shore.

The park has an on-site marina that offers summertime boat rentals, a snack bar, hot showers, and a store where you can grab most anything you need to make the most of your time on the water.

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Birds and Wildlife

Whiskeytown is located at a geologic crossroads where elements of the Klamath Mountains, Cascade Range, Coast Mountain Range, and Sacramento Valley collide. As a result, it supports a wide variety of wildlife, flora, and fauna. It’s home to more than 750 native plant species, 62 mammal species, 33 reptile and amphibian species, and eight native fish species. At least 160 bird species also call the park home, so it’s no surprise that birdwatching is among the most popular land-based activities here. Keep an eye out for waterfowl on Whiskeytown Lake or migrating birds along the park’s hiking trails.

It’s also worth mentioning the importance of practicing wildlife safety when you are hiking around. Mountain lions, black bears, and rattlesnakes call Whiskeytown home, so remain alert at all times—especially on less-trafficked trails that don’t have such a strong human presence.

Whether you want to soak in the beauty from a boat or a picnic blanket, this vast wilderness playground makes it easy to enjoy many different aspects of nature. The next time you are in or around Redding, make sure to stop and experience everything this national recreation area has to offer.

Written by Matt Wastradowski for Matcha in partnership with Redding CVB.

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