From Shasta County on up, central northern California was made for adventure sports. This fact hasn't escaped national notice. One of the few highlights of the past otherwise depressingly hot summer was Redding being named to Sports Events magazine's “Top 12 Outdoor Adventure Sports Spots.” The trade magazine conducted a Facebook poll of white water kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing and other extreme outdoor sports enthusiasts and Redding placed a solid sixth in the nation. It's nice to be on someone's good list for a change.
Adventure sports were at least partly on my mind two Sundays ago when my girlfriend and I climbed on the BMW and blasted off toward the Mt. Shasta Ski Park, where they've been running the chairlifts for mountain bikers, hikers and sight-seers since July. I'm no mountain biker—too much pedaling, for one thing—so I'm not likely to be barreling down the side of Mt. Shasta anytime soon. But the idea of watching someone else do it? That sounds highly entertaining, like maybe something Red Bull would sponsor.
At any rate, “adventure sports” can be a fairly wide term that encompasses various forms of motorsports, including motorcycling, and our region has some of the best motorcycling roads on the planet. We planned our journey to Mt. Shasta Ski Park as a 200-mile circle, beginning and ending in Whitmore, near where we live in eastern Shasta County. It turned out to be the perfect loop. It doesn't matter where you start your own loop. Just pick a spot and keep driving till you get back to where you began.
In splendid weather, we wound our way northeast on Fern Road toward Oak Run, then east on Buzzard's Roost Road toward State Highway 299, passing large estates, rickety ranchettes and swaths of Sierra Pacific timberland on winding county roads that have recently been repaved in large sections. We grunted our way up the hill to Burney, stopped at the McDonald's for late breakfast, then proceeded east on 299 to four corners, where we turned north toward Mt. Shasta on State Route 89, which along this stretch is part of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.
The byway isn't as challenging as eastern Shasta County's country roads when it comes to cornering, but its undulating hills are as mesmerizing as a roller coaster. Even though it's just 50 miles or so away from home, it always feels like a completely different region to me. The parallel tracks of asphalt cut straight through the rolling timberland, up one hill and down the other side, mile after mile, like someone forgot to put the turns in. It makes a road that might otherwise be unbearably straight tolerable, even pleasant, and in no time at all we were winging past McCloud and making the final climb to the Mt. Shasta Ski Park.
I've been to the ski park before, more than a decade ago, when I thought I was going to take up skiing, and the first thing that struck me upon my return was just how naked the place looks without the snow. Even Mt. Shasta, which just a few months ago was covered from peak to base, was more or less bereft of the stuff, and the grass on the ski runs was burnt dirty blond. What a wicked summer that was!
There were maybe a dozen cars in the parking lot, and I guessed from the bumpers stickers that about half the people there were hikers and sight-seers such as ourselves and the other half were hardcore mountain bikers. One skittered down the mountain and into the parking lot as we arrived, jammed on his front brake, pirouetted on his front wheel, and slammed sideways into back of his parked Subaru hatchback, just like he planned it. Things were looking up already.
I don't want to sound too wimpy, but to me, a chairlift ride is an adventure in and of itself and well worth the $15 ticket (two lifts are running, the lift ticket lasts all day). Having been caught out getting on the chairlift more than once while I was allegedly learning to ski, I've developed what I'd call a healthy fear of the contraptions, and nothing breeds adventure like good old fashioned terror. For those with similar concerns, it may be inspiring to know the Black Diamond Deck is at the top of the lift, where you may purchase the adult beverage of your choice once you've taken the ride up.
The reality of course is that it's much easier getting on a chairlift when you're not wearing skies and standing on ice. It also helped that the park wasn't too busy, and no one rushed us to get on board. We stood on the dots, our designated chair came around, the operator slowed it down ever so slightly, we sat down and pulled the safety bar down (it's optional), the cable took our weight and cranked us up the mountainside.
Our five-minute ride paused briefly in the middle when someone else got on, and we swung in the breeze for a few moments, stuck on the ferris wheel, feet dangling 20 feet above the precipitous slope. Then our gradual ascent continued in silence. We passed a lady with a baby who were on the way down, the kid was obviously delighted with the ride. They rode up and down the chairlift several times that afternoon.
What you do when you get to the top 6500 feet up is up to you. There are a multitude of hiking and mountain biking trails to choose from. The views of Mt. Shasta and the north end of the valley are spectacular; I'd say you can see for miles but on the day we were there the north end of the valley was still filled with smoke from the summer's wildfires. Even at altitude, we were still in the smoke. It turned the whole scene into a blue/grey impressionist landscape, where valley, mountain and sky were but vague suggestions.
The Black Diamond Deck is not a bad place to take all this in, jutting out as it does over the mountainside, with clear views of the valley, the mountain and the mountain bikers as they begin their descent down one of the more treacherous, high-speed trails. The trail begins right next to the Black Diamond, where there's also a cornhole court set up. People were actually cornholing while we were there. Don't mock, it's a popular and growing sport.
I'm no mountain biker, but there's a part of me that thinks maybe I could get into it, if there wasn't so much pedaling involved. Which makes this whole bringing your mountain bike up on the chairlift behind you all the more interesting. I saw some older gentlemen riding fat-tired mountain bikes on one of the gentler courses and it looked totally doable. I could just go slow and ride the brakes all the way down.
But these hardcore guys barreling down the mountain? They're not letting gravity do all the work. They're pedaling every chance they can get, right from the very start, wearing helmets and full crash protection gear because wiping out is par for the course. They're actually trying to go faster. You can only see them from the deck for two or three turns before they disappear, but many of them have GoPro cameras attached to the side of their helmets, and you can view their terrifying, high-speed descents over jumps and other obstacles on YouTube here and here.
The Sports Events magazine poll is correct. Redding is a totally legitimate adventure sports hotspot. Even the mayor is a mountain biking fanatic. Design a diabolical downhill course on the face of Mt. Shasta, and people will pay good money to stand on the mountainside and cheer their favorite world-ranked mountain biking champion on. They'll pay even more for the TV and internet broadcasting rights.
It's not just a pipe dream. Major corporate sponsorship is a definite possibility when it comes to adventure sports, because you need a car or a mountain bike or a soft drink to get you where the adventure is. That's one reason why Redding Subaru (their all-wheel drive vehicles are extremely popular with adventure sports fanatics) is sponsoring the first annual SubaBrew at Mt. Shasta Ski Park Sept. 30.
There will be food, wine, beer and live music, all from the vantage point of the Black Diamond Deck. It's the last chance you'll have to ride the chairlift before the winter season begins in December, so don't miss it. There's a raffle for a $500 mountain bike and you can ride it down the hill if you win.
Speaking of going downhill, the ride home on our perfect loop was down the aptly named Cascade Wonderland Highway, easily the best stretch of the I-5 freeway, which spans the western U.S. from the Canadian to the Mexican border. From Dunsmuir on, I-5, the world's most boring freeway, turns into a serpentine monster, a death tunnel filled with slow-moving trucks and fast-moving cars plunging downhill through an endless series of sweeping turns that coil progressively tighter as you near the bridge that crosses Shasta Lake.
The billboard-sized warning signs positioned in the corners flashing, “You're going too damned fast!” may have been helpful to the truckers who were melting down their brakes in the slow lane, but they were quite distracting to the weary motorcyclist and girlfriend on their way home, trying to commit to the fast lane while being tailgated by a Jaguar pushing 80 mph.
After that kind of pressure, I was almost grateful when the road straightened out after we crossed the lake. We gassed up in the city of Shasta Lake and took the backroads home, perfect adventure loop completed.