If you're looking for a beautiful California lake surrounded by mountains where you can enjoy nature and avoid the crowds, go to Lake Shasta. The Northern California lake is second in size only to Lake Tahoe, with 370 miles of shoreline. It holds enough water when full to provide about 5,000 gallons to every person in the United States.
And that's not its only superlative. Shasta's 30,000-acre surface area (12,000 hectares) make it California's largest reservoir, held back by the massive Shasta Dam, the second-largest dam in the United States after Grand Coulee.
But enough of the big numbers. What makes Lake Shasta special is its geography, formed by the Sacramento, McCloud, Squaw and Pit Rivers. The three rivers flowing into the lake create three "arms," each named for the river that forms it.
Even better, you can explore all that territory without feeling overwhelmed by crowds.
McCloud Arm: The gray rocks that tower above this part of the lake were formed from ocean sediments. While you're in that area, stop at the Holiday Harbor Marina to take a tour of Shasta Caverns.
Sacramento Arm: The busiest and most developed part of the lake, the Sacramento Arm ends at Riverview, an old resort site with the lake's only sandy beach. You can get great views of Mount Lassen as you cruise upstream from there. Let your imagination loose for a minute and think about the historic route of the Oregon Trail and the Central Pacific Railroad that lie submerged below the surface,
Pit Arm: The lake's longest arm stretches almost 30 miles. It gets its name from the pits the Achumawi Indians dug along it to trap animals that came to drink water at the river. Standing snags of dead trees make the upper Pit hazardous for boating, but it's an excellent place to go fly fishing.
Things to Do On or Around Lake Shasta
Lake Shasta is very popular for all kinds of water sports. It's also a good place for a quiet getaway.
Rent a Houseboat: There's no better way to see the lake than to putter around on it all day in a houseboat. It's an excellent way to spend a relaxing vacation and when the sun sets, all you have to do is tie your floating home up on the shore and let the waves rock you to sleep.
Visit Shasta Dam: You'll have to get off the lake to take the daily guided tours that go through and under the country's second-largest concrete dam. A maximum of 40 people are allowed on each tour. Get there early and you can get in with less waiting. No phones, cameras or bags of any kind are allowed on the tour.
Explore Lake Shasta Caverns: You'll take a catamaran ride and a bus trip up the mountain before visiting this bit of underground geology. Take I-5 exit 395, or if you're boating, go up the McCloud Arm of the lake to Holiday Harbor Marina.
Go On a Lake Shasta Dinner Cruise: Dinner cruises on the lake depart from the gift shop at Lake Shasta Caverns and run on Saturdays from Memorial Day1 through Labor Day. 2 Meals are served buffet style. They don't sell alcoholic beverages, but you can bring your own at no extra cost.
Lake Shasta Water Sports
Boating: The most popular activity on the lake, boating is the best way to get around the lake and enjoy the scenery. You can bring your own or rent a boat at many of the lakeside marinas. Use a map to find out where they are.
Swimming: There are no developed swimming areas at Lake Shasta, but you can swim from the shore or your boat.
Water skiing: Water skiing is popular everywhere on the lake, especially on the Sacramento Arm and in the Jones Valley area. Avoid the Pit River where submerged debris creates hazards.
Fishing: Anglers can snag trophy-sized bass and three- to ten-pound trout on Lake Shasta, along with bluegills, salmon, bass, crappie, catfish, and sturgeon. You need a fishing license which you can buy at most of the lakeside resorts, and some of them also rent fishing boats and fishing tackle.
1 Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday of May.
2 Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September.