Redding, California: It’s close to a lot of other, better places to visit.

Lake Shasta, CA

Having read that a famous architect had designed an interesting bridge in Reading, I suggested to my wife that we drive there for our anniversary. Now, my wife generally loves to travel, but the thought of spending five hours traversing the “picturesque” scenery along I-505 to visit some bridge struck her as the romantic equivalent of a vacuum cleaner. Luckily, her expectations of me were even more modest, so she took what she could get.

Did you mean to read about Reading, England?

We loaded up our car with podcasts and hit the road. Our first stop was the small town of Winters, California (population 7,000). Winters is one of those quintessential California towns that makes you think, “Why the hell are there good restaurants in a podunk, one-horse town like this?”

About an hour North East of San Francisco and comprised of only a few streets in total, Winters’ has a downtown (aka “an intersection”) that is chock-a-block with good places to eat. None of your road-side fast food stuff here. Not only do they have the original sit-down version of the Buckhorn Grill, the Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse, they have a couple of really nice gourmet cafes and pizza places, too. Definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area.

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The Sundial Bridge

Having never driven the 505, was pleased to learn that it was straight, flat and practically car-free by California standards. In no time, we were pulling into the Greater Redding area. After settling into our hotel room and getting some much needed sleep juice (wine), we passed out hoping to get an early start the next day.

Morning brought with it the realization that we were now what is considered “inland.” Unlike the coasts of California which get cooling breezes and, in San Francisco, freezing fog, the center of California just gets sunshine. Hot, angry painful, squinty sunshine.

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The Sundial Bridge

Not surprisingly, it was over 100-degrees Fahrenheit as we drove the ten minutes to downtown Redding where the famous Sundial foot-bridge arched across the Sacramento River. Designed by the now-famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the Sundial Bridge is the first steel, inclined pylon, cable-stayed bridge in the United States. At 720-feet long and 23-feet high with 2,245 glass panels, the bridge took eleven years to complete and cost $24 million dollars.

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Fly fishing in the Sacramento River

We spent 15 minutes marveling at its impressive construction and innovative design. Then we became bored and I wondered how we would be able to kill the next 72 hours without my getting killed by my wife.

Indeed, Redding lacked the kind of intrinsic charm and stuff-to-do we had hoped it would have. But we were missing the entire point of Redding. Instead of being a place where interesting things ever happened, Redding was a staging area for excitement. Fun doesn’t happen in Redding any more than eating happens in the kitchen.

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Lake Shasta Dam

No, Redding is where you can find a hotel and a meal before you go off to Whiskeytown Lake or Lake Shasta, drink too much on a party boat and fall overboard to your death. Or you drink too much on a party boat, get on a jet-ski and drown yourself. Its location is its appeal. And that’s where Redding really shines.

Ten miles north of Redding, Lake Shasta was formed when they built the Shasta Dam across the Sacramento River in 1945, backing up 30,000 acres of water into the country’s third largest body of water. It has a maximum depth over 500-feet.

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Whiskeytown Waterfall

Eight miles west of Redding, Whiskeytown Lake was formed when they dammed up Clear Creek in 1963 (finally completing their master plan to choke off all free-flowing water in the region). Prior to being a lake, Whiskeytown was an actual town populated until 1963, when a lake moved in and settled in the area.

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One of the buildings that made it out before the flood.

Now, as much as I detest messing with Mother Nature, the resulting lakes are indisputably beautiful. For swimmers, boaters, water-skiers and fishermen, this part of California is as close to Nirvana as they’re likely to get considering how close they are to constant, drunken death. Not that we saw many of them.

Visiting in September, we got to see the lakes nearly devoid of the shirtless frat-boys who no doubt populate this place during the high season (pun intended). Without them doing keg-dives off the back of a houseboat, the area had a placid yet eerie calm about it. A tentative and quiet ‘calm before the storm’ sort of vibe. As if waiting for the silence to be utterly shattered by the shrill mating call of a far-off Sorority girl announcing, “I am sooooo druuunk, y’all!”

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One seriously still lake.

Over the next two days, we drove around and explored the old Gold Rush areas, panned for gold, hiked its treacherous waterfalls, and just took in all its natural beauty.

We’ve talked about coming back and probably should. But next time, we’re doing it right: We’re renting a house-boat, a jet-ski and bringing a keg.