Last Updated on February 22, 2024 by Grant
Just like many National Recreation Areas, Whiskeytown Lake is the centerpiece of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. While we like the water, what we really enjoy is hiking. Thankfully, we found a nice variety of trails for hiking at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
Located just west of Redding, CA, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area preserves 42,000 acres and includes the lake, mountains and historic buildings. Unfortunately, roughly 97% of the park burned in the Carr Fire in 2018. Today, some areas of the park remain closed due to fire damage but there are still plenty of things to enjoy at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
Of course, if you want to get out on (or in) the water, there are plenty of options. Bring your boat, rent a kayak or simply enjoy the beach. While this was tempting for us, especially with temperatures above 100 degrees during our visit, my fair skin just doesn’t allow us to do a lot of water activities.
Instead, we got up early and hit the trail, enjoying several hikes at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in just a few hours.
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Note: Whiskeytown is just one unit of the larger Whiskeytown-Shasta-Trinity National Recreation Area. The Whiskeytown unit is managed by the National Park Service; the Shasta and Trinity units are managed by the US Forest Service. We only visited the Whiskeytown unit and all references to the park are specific to that unit.
Planning Your Visit to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
You should always visit the official park website for the most current conditions before visiting any national park. Since Whiskeytown is still experiencing closures due to the fire, that is especially important at this park.
Also, it is important to note that the visitor center is only open 9:00 am – 2:00 pm and is closed on several Federal Holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. We almost missed talking to a ranger on our first day because we were busy looking at the outside exhibits and didn’t realize the visitor center was about to close!
At the Visitor Center, pay the entrance fee, pick up a park map and talk to a ranger about trail conditions or anything else you may be interested in doing. Knowing what parts of the park are closed is extremely important. Additionally, if you plan on hiking at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, especially in the summer, it’s important to know whether you’ll have any shade. If you’re hiking in a burned area (which is much of the park), it’s likely you’ll have little to no shade along the trail.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area Hiking Trails
Since we were expecting temperatures of 105-110 degrees during our visit, we chose to get up early so we could be finished hiking by about lunchtime. That was absolutely the best decision we could have made! We are from Georgia and have both lived in the South our entire lives. Thus, we are no stranger to high temperatures. Still, what we experienced in Redding was almost unbearable.
Seriously, by about 11:00 even a short walk on a paved trail was almost too much to bear. Perhaps we are just getting weak in our old age. I like to think we are getting wiser, though!
In conditions such as these, it is extremely important to carry the 10 Essentials when hiking, especially plenty of water.
James K. Carr Trail to Whiskeytown Falls
Since we weren’t spending any time on the water, we figured we should at least do a waterfall hike while at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. As the tallest waterfall in the park, Whiskeytown Falls did not disappoint.
The park lists this hike as strenuous, but we have learned that is very relative to the landscape at each particular park. That said, it does have about 700 feet of elevation gain in about 1.5 miles, so it isn’t exactly easy. Still, after some of the hikes we did at Lassen Volcanic National Park, this really wasn’t all that bad.
Another plus for this trail is that it is mostly shaded! While I still wouldn’t want to do it on a hot summer afternoon, it did make the hike much more enjoyable.
From the parking lot, follow the well-marked trail about 1.4 miles until you reach the waterfall. The trail is mostly uphill with some steep sections. You’ll find a number of benches along the way if you need to rest. Thankfully, most of the benches seemed to be strategically placed at the top of the steepest sections!
Once you reach the waterfall, you’ll notice a set of rock steps on the left. Scramble up those to see even more of the waterfall.
The return trip is mostly downhill and took us about half the time as going up! Overall, we spent about 1.5 hours on the trail and my Apple Watch measured 2.9 miles with 800 total feet of elevation gain.
Initially, we were a bit skeptical of doing this hike, as we worried the uphill and heat would zap our energy. While the trail was moderately strenuous in places, overall, it wasn’t too bad and was definitely worth the effort.
Crystal Creek Falls
Located just up the road from Whiskeytown Falls, Crystal Creek Falls is much easier to reach and still a very nice waterfall. If you’re not up for any strenuous hiking at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, this is a great waterfall hike that we definitely recommend.
From the parking lot, follow the paved, ADA-accessible trail about 1/3-mile to the picnic area and waterfall. It really is just a 5-10 minute easy walk. You can easily carry a picnic lunch with you if you want. There is also a little room to get into the water and splash around or at least dip in your feet to cool off.
Honestly, this barely even felt like a hike since it was a paved trail. It’s definitely worth the little bit of effort to get to this waterfall.
Tower House Historic District
Whether you choose an actual hiking trail or you just explore the area, you should certainly stop at the Tower House Historic District when visiting Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.
As you wander around, check out the exhibits on Levi Tower and Charles Camden, who owned and operated an inn and several other business ventures here in the 1800s. You will also learn about the Wintu (Native American) people, who resided in this area for over 6,000 years. Sadly, the white settlers who rushed to the area during the California Gold Rush brought disease and even murdered the Wintu, ultimately pushing them out of their homeland.
Unfortunately, much of the historic district burned in the Carr Fire, including many of the 150-year old fruit trees. Thankfully, the park service was able to save many of the buildings, including the Camden House, and a few of the fruit trees.
We just wandered around the area but there are a few hiking trails here if you are looking to burn a few more calories.
Guardian Rock Trail
Located south of the visitor center, the Guardian Rock Trail offers an easy-to-reach viewpoint with just a short walk or a longer hike for those who are up for it. Since temperatures were already around 90 degrees and only continuing to climb, we opted to just do the short hike to the overlook.
From the parking area at Horse Camp, follow the paved trail for about 5 minutes. You can’t miss the nice vista point, with a bench. From here, you can easily take in Clear Creek, which is, indeed, very clear!
If you want, you can continue along the trail for about a mile, dropping down to a gravel bar along the creek. We chose to just return to the truck and our air conditioning!
Other Things to Do at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Since we mostly enjoy hiking and scenic drives, we sometimes feel as though we don’t fully get to appreciate national recreation areas. Thankfully, Whiskeytown offered a good variety of activities, even if the lake is the main attraction.
South Shore Drive
In addition to hiking at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Grant was most looking forward to driving some of the primitive roads. Unfortunately, many of them are still closed due to the fire.
We did, however, have the opportunity to drive the unpaved South Shore Drive as we returned from the west side of the park to the Visitor Center. While the road is unpaved, it is in fairly good condition, though it does have several steep sections.
What we enjoyed most were the amazing views of the lake below. The road climbs high above the lake, several hundred feet at least, offering scenic views of the water and surrounding mountains.
The road isn’t all that long but is a nice drive that you can do in the comfort of your air-conditioning! A few of the drop-offs are fairly steep, so be sure to keep your eyes on the road.
Brandy Creek Beach
If you are looking to get into the water, Brandy Creek Beach is a great place to do just that. You’ll find plenty of picnic tables in the shade, a large, sandy beach and easy access to the water.
You can easily put in a kayak or paddleboard here or just play in the water to cool off. Arrive early, though, as it was reasonably full when we were there around 10:30 am on a Friday morning.
Whiskeytown Lake was formed when Whiskeytown Dam was built as part of the Central Valley Project. This 500-mile-long water diversion system provides much-needed water to the agricultural area of central California.
President John F. Kennedy visited the dam for the dedication on September 28, 1963, less than two months before his assassination. The park’s connection to Kennedy remains strong and the memorial at the dam preserves the momentous occasion.
The dam itself is not all that impressive, it’s a 282-foot high earth and rock dam, but it is extremely important to the state. The Glory Hole spillway, which protects again flooding, is pretty neat and is where you will find the Kennedy Memorial.
Where to Stay and Eat When Visiting Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
Since Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is located just west of Redding, you’ll find a wide variety of hotels, campgrounds, restaurants and shopping nearby.
We chose to stay at the Redding Premier RV Resort, as there are no hookups at the campgrounds in the park. Wow, are we glad we made this decision! With temperatures well over 100 degrees during our stay, having electricity was crucial for us. Unfortunately, we learned that our camper’s air conditioner does have its limits and it really couldn’t effectively do its job once the temperatures got above about 105 degrees. Still, having the AC was better than not, even if it didn’t work the entire time.
The Redding Premier RV Resort is a little pricey but is a very nice campground. Most of the campsites have shade and are well-spaced apart, which we always appreciate. The bathrooms were some of the nicest we’ve seen. And, there was a nice laundry area and a pool.
Towards the end of our stay, we did find out that the electric pedestal at some of the campsites had not been updated. This was part of the problem at our particular site. You might want to ask about the status of that, especially if you are visiting in the summer.
To offset the expense of the RV park, we ate most of our meals at our camper. But we did venture out for a beer to escape the afternoon heat one day.
Woody’s Brewing Company
Woody’s Brewing Company offered just what we needed on a hot summer afternoon: tasty beer, great food, good service and air conditioning! We tried a few of their seasonal offerings (a wheat beer and an IPA), along with the Swheat Dreams. Everything we sipped was full-flavored but light and refreshing.
For a snack, we chose an order of their tots, topped with Kielbasa, sauerkraut and beer cheese. Generally, neither of us are big fans of sauerkraut but in this dish, it was absolutely perfect! Honestly, this will probably go down as one of our favorite appetizers. There were plenty more great options on the menu and it all looked good.
Whether you are looking for a drink, a snack or a meal we would certainly go back to Woody’s if we were in the area again! We just hope that next time it’s a bit cooler.
Final Thoughts on Whiskeytown National Recreation Areas
When we first started visiting national park sites we struggled with whether or not we should include recreation areas. Often, they are focused on water sports and that’s just not our thing. Sure, we enjoy a canoe or kayak paddle every now and then. And when there’s a good boat tour, we’ll gladly take it. But we don’t own a boat and, generally, we just prefer to hike.
Over the years, though, we realized that all the various park sites are important in their own way. And, sometimes, we find unexpected things to do and you enjoy a park more than you thought you would. So, we visit National Recreation Areas (and all the other types of parks) and look for ways to enjoy each park.
We may have only spent a few hours hiking at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area but we still enjoyed our visit. Of course, we really would have preferred to visit before 97% of the park was burned but it is what it is. Seeing the devastation caused by the fire really helps to understand the full impact of fire danger around the country.
Mostly, we enjoy seeing people recreate in their local parks. Due to its location, we aren’t likely to visit Whiskeytown National Recreation Area again. But, we love seeing so many people who are able to enjoy it as part of their everyday lives. That’s really kind of what national parks and public land protection is all about. Every visit to every park helps us to understand that a bit better.
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