If you've driven Interstate 5 just north of Redding, you no doubt have marveled at the beauty of Shasta Lake, with its miles and miles of scenic shoreline — all with the backdrop of Mt. Shasta, one of California's most recognizable landmarks. And you've probably noticed the clusters of houseboats as you cross the bridge over Shasta Lake.
We've driven that route many times, and each time crossing that bridge, we were reminded that someday we wanted to rent a houseboat on Shasta. Well, we finally did. And what a great family adventure it turned out to be.
We reserved our 56-foot houseboat with Seven Crown Resorts, which has a fleet of them docked right there at the Bridge Bay Resort, where I-5 crosses the lake, about 10 miles north of Redding. We chose spring break, even though the weather usually is not as warm as it is during the summer, and the water temperatures are in the high 50's and not especially good for swimming. The big advantage is that the houseboat companies and marinas are just awakening from their winter slumbers and the chances are, you'll be almost by yourself on the lake.
For us, the added bonus was we actually did get summer weather — well, almost — with temps reaching the high 70's and lots of sunshine.
They say you can sleep 15 people on a 56-foot houseboat and we pretty much put that to the test. Our extended family included four adults and eight kids ages ranging from two to 15 years of age. If you've been around boats, 56 feet sounds like a big boat, but it can seem a bit small with that many people aboard. Fortunately, the boat's layout includes a penthouse upstairs, where the smaller kids can go play and take some of the noise with them. But a houseboat trip is also about being in the great outdoors, so the reality is that much of our four days was spent hiking, exploring, playing on the beach and sitting around the campfire and doing other things off the boat.
If you've never rented a houseboat, you should know that the Seven Crowns boats are about as easy as houseboats come. They're powered by a couple of outboard motors (generally about 70 horsepower each) and have enough power that, unless you get a lot of wind, they are easy to maneuver. You probably won't be doing a lot of docking — most times you'll simply be beaching your houseboat, a very simple procedure in which you drive your boat's pontoons at a very slow speed right onto the beach and then tie up to a couple of stakes to hold the boat in position. Shasta Lake has beaches and protected coves almost everywhere you go, so it seemed to us that even in the busiest season, you wouldn't have any problem finding an easy and secure place to tie up for the night.
The ability to easily beach, and then quickly pull up stakes when you want to leave, is a big plus for Shasta Lake because that's one of the most appealing aspects of houseboating. It satisfies a kind of wanderlust when you can cruise an hour or so, pull in to explore a beach and nearby trails, and then move onto the next destination whenever you want. You may just want to spend most of your time parked on a shore far away from other boats and any sign of civilization. Or, if you don't mind spending the money on fuel, you may want to spend a lot of time cruising the many nooks and crannies you find in this very expansive lake.
Shasta Lake is the largest lake in California, with more than 365 miles of shoreline. The 35-mile-long lake was formed by the convergence of four rivers — the Sacramento, McCloud, Pit and Squaw, and the water is contained by the 602-foot-high Shasta Dam. Altogether, the lake covers 30,000 acres, which allows a lot of boats to be on the lake without it seeming crowded.
During the California drought, the water level of the lake was down substantially, but it's now back up near the high-water line and was only down a bit during our stay because the dam's operators were purposely lowering the level to accommodate more expected spring runoff.
So what's a vacation like on a houseboat? Our typical day started with an early-morning wake-up call — not the kind you get on the phone, but the kind you get from little kids anxious to get on with their family vacations. We typically were beached in a very remote cove with magnificent mountain and lake scenery in every direction. We would begin the day with a good hot breakfast — the houseboat has a full kitchen and two refrigerators to keep everything cold and fresh. Then it was clean the dishes, pull up stakes and head down-lake in search of more beaches and trails to explore.
We'd stop several times a day at different locations, sometimes forging our own trails, like the Discovery Channel's English adventurer, Bear Grylls. Sometimes there would be a road or trail to follow, such as when we followed a road up to the old Bully Hill copper smelter, a huge operation back in the late 1800's that today is completely shut down. Going there is not unlike visiting a ghost town, with the smelter's old stone buildings and almost bombed-out, end-of-the-world feeling. Or we might be walking along the shoreline and encounter deer drinking from the lake.
Late afternoon we'd begin searching for a suitable overnight beach, usually a cove protected on three sides with wind blowing offshore to minimize potential strain on the tie-ups. Wind, in fact, was not an issue for us our entire trip except for the last night, which we spent at the dock in order to get an early start driving home the next day. We got docked okay, but not precisely where we had intended because of the brisk winds that seemed to come up fairly suddenly. Since houseboaters generally tie up in protected coves, wind is not usually a problem.
Once we were tied up for the night, we would fix dinner and build a fire on the beach where we could sit around after dark and tell the kids ghost stories or roast marshmallows. We'd also play games with the kids, or lay back and read a good book before falling asleep in the very quiet, star-filled night.
There are three general sleeping areas on the boat, so we were able to put the two couples each in a private area, with the kids in the upstairs penthouse. There are two restrooms on board, which seemed adequate for our large group.
Visitors to Shasta Lake also sometimes visit the Shasta Caverns, a network of caves that date back at least 200 million years. The caverns are almost entirely limestone. Visitors can see stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flowstone and columns. The cavern system was discovered by James A. Richardson back in 1878 and you can still see where he wrote on one of the walls the day he discovered the caverns.
If you're starving for civilization, it's fairly easy to dock back at the Bridge Bay Marina, hop into your car and drive the short distance to Redding, where you'll find lots of restaurants, movie theaters and stores like Costco, Wal-Mart and Target to replenish supplies.
Shasta Lake is a wondrous place that with its mountain backdrop, has to be one of the most beautiful places in California. Enjoying it on a houseboat makes it just that much better.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Shasta Lake is in Northern California, approximately 10 miles north of Redding. It can be reached directly on Interstate 5.
WHAT: Shasta Lake is heaven for boaters who find its 365 miles of shoreline ideal for exploring and getting away from their everyday lives.
WHEN: Best time for swimming and water sports would be summer, when the water temperatures are higher. But we found that spring had its own advantages — a wide-open lake and daytime temps in the high 70's. There is lots of mountain scenery, but the elevation of the lake itself is less than 1,000 feet.
WHY: Mountain scenery and easy access to remote beaches and trails.
HOW: For more information on renting a houseboat from Seven Crown Resorts, call (800) 752-9669 or visit www.sevencrown.com.