Celebrity-caliber destination names flash all over California's map. Everyone knows Los Angeles, San Francisco, Yosemite, the Napa Valley and so on, and everyone wants to go there. But move your eye to the upper right corner of the state and suddenly you're in off-the-beaten-path territory.
This is a California few people get to: one of snow-topped volcanic cones, alpine lakes and lava tube caves that feel far away and dramatically different from the rest of the state. For now at least, this region is an unknown star waiting to be discovered – so here are our top tips for enjoying the best this forgotten corner has to offer.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Magnificent, glacier-clad Mount Lassen stands in one of the country’s least-visited National Parks which with an area of 106,000 acres surrounded by another 1.2 million acres of national forest, makes it perfect for wilderness enthusiasts.
The mountain, rising 10,463ft, is the world's largest plug domed volcano (a cone-shaped volcano with a roof of solid lava) and its slopes hold pristine lakes, numerous hiking trails and bubbling sulfur pools. You can drive a fair way up the mountain in summer months for views over the park, but better is heading off on foot along relatively easy routes to spots like the steep and rocky Mill Creek Falls, or to the otherworldly-colored, geothermal landscape of aptly-named Bumpass Hell.
The park is only 50 miles off Hwy 5 from Redding but development is limited. Go here to camp or stay in rustic cabins. Slightly more high-end choices are at ranches like the long-time-local favorite, but mostly electricity-free, Drakesbad Guest Ranch (www.drakesbad.com; cabins and lodge rooms from $169).
Lake Almanor is one of California’s many reservoirs formed by hydro-electric dams in the early 20th century. What makes Almanor special is the variety of landscapes around it, from empty, rugged stretches of undeveloped pine-clad shores at its southwest end (parts with gorgeous views of Mt Lassen) to a Los Angeles-like luxury housing community at the northeast, complete with a golf course. Summers are all about boating and family vacations but there are far fewer people here than you’ll find farther west at places like Shasta Lake, and the atmosphere feels much further away from civilization.
There are lots of sleeping options from stays in chain motels in the bland main town of Chester, to heaps of vacation rentals, lodges like old-West charmer St Bernard Lodge (www.stbernardlodge.com; rooms from $99) and camping on the lake shore.
Visible as far away as the Oregon border, the stunning white-capped volcano of Mt Shasta is a place of deep spiritual significance for many (including Native Americans who saw it as the center of creation), and also the busiest of all the areas in this part of California, with the greatest number of things to do.
Mt Shasta City is a lovely place to base yourself, with the mountain looming close in, plenty of comfy sleeping options, friendly coffee shops and galleries, and an unpretentious old-time-feeling downtown area. From here you can drive high up Mt Shasta (14,180ft) in summer for views to other nearby peaks including Mt Lassen. Multiple hiking trails await and Mt Shasta Board & Ski Park opens when there’s enough snow. Surrounding the mountain is a slew of truly gorgeous alpine lakes including Lake Siskiyou (which has great camping options) and Lake Shastina.
Head a few miles south to eat in Dunsmuir, a small historic railway town, which has become the culinary capital of the area. Find fine California cuisine at Café Maddalena (www.cafemaddalena.com), microbrews and burgers at Dunsmuir Brewery Works (www.dunsmuirbreweryworks.com) and one of the world’s biggest foils to dieters, giant sticky bun French toast, at YAKS (www.yakscoffee.com).
To get further into the Wild West drive 12 miles east to the historic mill town of McCloud, a woodsy get-away with upscale heritage hotels, lots of nearby hiking trails and McCloud Dance Country (www.mcclouddancecountry.com) where you can learn to square dance or show off your dosey doe at evening sessions.
Grab a flashlight for some DIY spelunking at this dramatic high desert landscape with a vast underworld network of lava tubes. These caves range from the easy, such as the lighted Mushpot Cave with a high ceiling and boardwalk, to the Catacombs, one of the longest lava tubes in the US, with dark chambers and narrow passageways that require that you squeeze through them like a worm. Most people try exploring several caves of varying difficulty, and they are all close enough together that you can tackle a handful in a day. Each cave is special: some have unusual coloration or areas where rays of light shine through, while others harbor ancient Native American petroglyphs or seasonal underground lakes.
The above-ground terrain and sights are also spectacular. Landscape lovers should climb the mile up black, pumice-strewn Schonchin Butte for a view over the harsh, sage-brush and lava landscape. While anyone with an interest in history will love Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a natural lava fortress where around 50 Medoc Indians were able to stave off US soldiers for a year in the 1870s.
The Lava Beds National Monument is way off the beaten path but is most definitely worth the drive. The nearest towns with a decent selection of food and lodging are Alturas, a rather desolate settlement 65 miles to the south, or busier but charmless Klamath Falls, Oregon, 46 miles to the north. A motel, camping and RV area and a small B&B are located just outside the monument but nearby eating options are few and are closed on Sundays so it’s best to bring your own supplies.