REDDING -- This Northern California town is probably familiar, even if you haven't actually been here. It's the dot on the map 160 miles north of Sacramento that you blast past on Interstate 5 en route to the cool, piney promises of Oregon.
Want a cool summer travel tip? Next time you're headed this way, hit the brakes. There's something new to see here, and it's definitely worth a detour.
Worth a special trip, in fact.
The Turtle Bay Museum, the latest component of an ever-expanding, 300-acre park on the banks of the Sacramento River, opened June 8, taking its place as a regional attraction of more than passing significance -- and more than passing surprises.
Who would expect, for example, to find a fabulous collection of Ansel Adams photographs and an iconic bridge designed by one of the world's hottest architects in such an unlikely location?
OK, the $19 million Sundial Bridge by Santiago Calatrava is still under construction and won't be ready for pedestrians and cyclists until 2004. But the Ansel Adams Masterworks collection is on view through Oct. 6, and it's a stunner.
Part of Turtle Bay's permanent collection, the exhibit includes 50 of the 75 images that Adams, near the end of his life, selected as representative of his best work. Among them are seldom-seen portraits such as a soul-searching 1933 close-up of Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco and a haunting 1944 image of trailer camp children in Richmond.
The stirring nature images for which Adams is best known are here, too, of course. Among them are numerous scenes of Northern California that tie into the museum's focus on the Sacramento River watershed, its natural inhabitants, regional culture and human history.
"Human creativity and sustainability of the environment and culture are Turtle Bay's unifying themes," says Judy Lalouche, the museum's president and chief executive officer.
But don't let that academic talk scare you: The $15 million complex is extremely user-friendly.
"We want to engage the senses and immerse you in experience," Lalouche says. "Too many museums are hands-off, minds-on. We want to be hands-on, minds-on, hearts-on."
The 35,000-square-foot museum is part of the larger, $64 million Turtle Bay Exploration Park. One admission ($11 for adults, $6 for children) includes entrance to three venues, with more on the way. It's a place where history, art, science and nature converge to delight the eye and challenge the intellect.
Lalouche calls it an "interdisciplinary cultural experience."
The delights begin with the Turtle Bay Exploration Park Visitor Center, which introduces the concept and holds a gift shop featuring high-quality works from local artisans. Out the back door is a long, tree-shaded boardwalk leading over a seasonal wetlands to the new museum on the south bank of the Sacramento River.
The museum building, which utilizes many recycled and other "green" materials in its construction, is low-key, unassuming and so dappled and veiled by foliage as to be hardly visible. Floor-to-ceiling windows at the rear exploit forest and river views.
The museum's overriding themes -- "human" and "nature" -- are dramatically stated just inside the doors. Visitors first encounter a multipaneled glass "water wall" etched with Indian petrogylphs. Beside the cascade rises an elaborate, leafless replica of an oak tree, its roots extending beneath a see-through glass floor. Just beyond is a full-size bark house built in the style of the Wintu Indians who once inhabited the region. (Push a button, and you can listen to recordings of several of their traditional legends.)
From the central lobby, visitors can peel off to the Ansel Adams exhibit on the right, or turn left into the "Visible River" area, entered through a faux limestone cave resembling the environment at nearby Shasta Caverns. The cave opens onto a 22,000-gallon aquarium crafted to resemble a riverbank seen from beneath the surface. Swimming inside are specimens of all 15 species of fish native to the Sacramento River.
Open to the sky and designed to make viewers feel like they're standing on the river bottom, the realistic display includes a fallen cottonwood tree extending right through the window and into the building. Illustrated plastic cards that viewers can hold in their hands help in identifying the various species swimming by.
But pay no attention to those almost-invisible guy wires extending over the water: They're there to keep the birds from easy pickings.
"One day," said Lalouche, "we came in and there was a hawk sitting on a rock with one of our trout in its mouth."
The Sacramento River, visitors learn, is 375 miles long, and less than 3 percent of its length has been left undisturbed. Its waters -- fought over since the Gold Rush days -- are diverted for many uses today.
"Water is California's gold, and we need to educate people about it," Lalouche says. "We see the museum as a way to discuss contemporary environmental issues."
Just past the aquarium, a hands-on stream table demonstrates, in just a minute and a half, how 10,000 years of erosion can transform the land. Continuing clockwise around the museum's perimeter, visitors come next to an area showing how regional resources, from fish to gold, have been utilized over the years. A favorite with kids is the strokeable collection of furry pelts of raccoon, fisher, muskrat, beaver and other native animals.
Even Redding resident Merle Haggard gets a plug here: Visitors can climb into the cab of a black 1957 Chevy pickup truck and listen to Merle croon a tune while country roads roll past in the rear-view mirror.
There's more, including a Creativity Lab where guests can pedal a "zap bike" and learn about the solar-powered Stirling engine invented in 1816, among other things. The "Passing Through" area, meanwhile, is devoted to the region's human history. In one novel exhibit here, historic photos displayed on a video monitor appear, through technological wizardry, to come alive with talking characters.
The museum's many hands-on areas are supervised by a staff of 50 docents and 120 teenagers. The young people undergo extensive training and commit to serving for a year.
But some parts of the museum are just for looking -- including the magnificent collection of American Indian baskets on display outside the museum's keystone exhibit. "Journey to Justice" tells the long, sad tale of the region's original inhabitants, the Wintu, and the cultural demise that followed Western contact and destruction of the salmon fishery on which the native people depended.
Highlighting the exhibit are 64 Wintu artifacts collected in the 1870s and stored ever since at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C.
Ten years in the making, "Journey to Justice" will be on view until October 2003 (see accompanying story).
On the back terrace of the new museum, a casual cafe serves an innovative menu focused on regional foods and offers views of the Sundial Bridge, now under construction and sure to become a California icon when it opens in about 1 ½ years.
The 700-foot bridge, with a frosted-glass floor that will be lighted at night, will link the museum with a 16-mile-long bike trail and 200-acre arboretum on the other side of the river.
Turtle Bay is the result of a merger of four organizations -- Carter House Natural Science Museum, Redding Arboretum by the River, the Forest Museum and the Redding Museum of Art and History. Its largest donor is the Redding-based, philanthropic McConnell Foundation.
Already in place at Turtle Bay Exploration Park are Paul Bunyan's Forest Camp, with a children's playground and exhibit areas; and "Butterflies!" an enclosed habitat housing more than a dozen species of winged wonders that flit about as visitors walk through. The butterfly exhibit alone drew more than 50,000 visitors last year.
Turtle Bay draws from local residents and the 6 million tourists that pass by Redding each year on I-5. Town leaders hope the new museum and park will serve to lure many of them into the community. Museum officials expect most visitors to spend 2½ to four hours exploring the museum and park.
Next Week: More about things to do, places to go in and around Redding.
Travel wise: Turtle Bay
Getting there: The park is at 800 Auditorium Drive in Redding, about 160 miles north of Sacramento. Take Interstate 5 to the Central Redding (Highway 299) exit. Take 299 West to Auditorium Drive. Turn right into Turtle Bay Exploration Park. The parking lot is near the Visitor Center.
Admission: $11 general, $9 seniors, $6 children ages 4-16, free for kids 3 and younger. Guided group tours are $14.50 per person. Special rates are offered for school groups.
Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through September. Closed Mondays from Oct. 1 through mid-May.
Where to start: Begin at the Visitor Center for an overview of the park and to access the museum, Paul Bunyan's Forest Camp, amphitheater and "Butterflies!" exhibit. Allow two to four hours.
Turtle Bay information: Call (800) 887-8532. On the Web: www.turtlebay.org
Where to stay: For a listing of hotels, motels, bed-and-breakfasts and campgrounds, call the Redding Convention & Visitors Bureau at (800) 874-7562 or go to www.visitredding.org