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Hiking: Northern California

Gold Willing and the Creek Don't Rise

December 17, 1995|JOHN McKINNEY

If the name Whiskeytown evokes images for you of grizzled miners, your imagination is right on track. Not long after that famous gold strike at Sutter's Mill, Forty-Niners swarmed into this part of the state and discovered gold in the waters of Clear Creek.

As the story goes, Whiskeytown and nearby Brandy Creek were named for the miners' most popular beverages. Another colorful Gold Rush tale is of a mule slipping from the trail and spilling its eagerly anticipated cargo into what became known as Whiskey Creek.

More than a century later, Whiskeytown Dam was constructed and a great reservoir flooded Whiskey Creek and adjacent canyon bottoms. President John F. Kennedy dedicated the dam in 1963.

The resultant lake, an important link in the Central Valley Water Project, is one of the more attractive recreation areas in the chain of reservoirs.

Whiskeytown's waters are considerably more trafficked than its shoreline and hillside trails, which receive light use from hikers and mountain bikers. Although it cannot be said to be a hiker's park, the national recreation area does have a sampling of nature trails, historic pathways and scenic dirt roads. Two of my favorite trails are Mt. Shasta Mine Loop and Davis Gulch, both of which deliver excellent vistas of the lake.

Whiskeytown Lake, managed by the National Park Service, is one of three parts of the Whiskeytown-Shasta National Recreation Area; two other areas, Shasta Lake and Trinity Lake (Clair Engle Lake), are administered by the U.S. Forest Service.

Get oriented to Whiskeytown at the Visitor Information Center located just off California 299 about six miles west of Redding. Another source of information, when the center is closed, is park headquarters half a mile from the center on John F. Kennedy Memorial Drive.

The best introduction to Whiskeytown is the Tower House Historic District, which delivers both history and one of the more attractive natural areas around the lake. Step back into the Gold Rush era with a walk through the district and a visit to El Dorado Mine. Experience the wild side of the park with a hike along the lush canyon cut by Mill Creek.

Levi Tower and Charles Camden, two gold seekers turned entrepreneurs, owned much of the land and many of the buildings in these parts. Tower built his Tower House Hotel along Camden's profitable toll road, used by area farmers and miners.

It's an easy walk to the entrance of the El Dorado Mine. An old ore car rusting on its rails and a stamp mill stand nearby.

More ambitious hikers can continue past the mine on oak-, maple- and alder-lined Mill Creek Trail. Be warned, though, that the path crosses Mill Creek 19 times. At low water levels, you can hop across on rocks; at high levels, you will get your feet wet.

Directions to trail head: Tower House Historic District is off California 299, about eight miles west of the Visitor Information Center. Park in the lot and walk over the Clear Creek footbridge into the historic district.

The hike: After crossing the Clear Creek footbridge, turn left, then cross the Willow Creek footbridge. (If you wish, visit the Levi Tower grave site.) Join Camden Water Ditch Trail, then a dirt road leading a few hundred yards to the El Dorado Mine.

Past the mine, Mill Creek Trail passes through a lush creek-side environment where a couple of swimming holes beckon. After crossing and re-crossing the creek, the path ascends a steep ridge to meet Mill Creek Road.


Camden Water Ditch, Mill Creek Trails

WHERE: Whiskeytown-Shasta National Recreation Area.

DISTANCE: To El Dorado Mine is 1.4 miles round trip; to Mill Creek Road is 5 miles round trip with 700-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Lush Mill Creek.

HIGHLIGHTS: Tower House Historic District mining area.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Whiskeytown Unit, Whiskeytown-Shasta National Recreation Area, P.O. Box 188, Whiskeytown, CA 96095

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