The North state is crucial to understanding California. Start in Redding at the Sundial Bridge

Soar above the Sundial Bridge and Sacramento River in Redding

Watch drone footage from John Hannon over a classic location in the Sacramento Valley- the Sundial Bridge in Redding. The Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay crosses the Sacramento River.
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Watch drone footage from John Hannon over a classic location in the Sacramento Valley- the Sundial Bridge in Redding. The Sundial Bridge at Turtle Bay crosses the Sacramento River.

Here’s a suggestion for Californians who don’t know where to go for summer vacation: Head north!

Start in Redding. Sure, the city of 92,000 at the Sacramento Valley’s northern end might not be on your bucket list, but it’s cheaper and less crowded than the coast, and cooler than the deserts. And its region, the North state, is crucial to understanding California.

Is there really anything to do in Redding? Well, for one thing, you can visit California’s greatest 21st-century structure, the Sundial Bridge. The Golden Gate is more beautiful, but the 710-foot-long Sundial, which opened in 2004, combines a stunning look with technological magic. With its “goose-in-flight” design by Spaniard Santiago Calatrava, the 710-foot-long glass-decked bridge has a 217-foot-tall pylon that holds it up while casting a shadow that makes it a sundial.


Another dimension of its power comes from its setting: It spans California’s most important river, the Sacramento, at a spot 300 miles upriver from where its waters reach San Pablo Bay. Tight-fisted locals grumble over the $24 million price tag. But the span is already an icon, connecting Redding’s robust trail network and providing another amenity for Turtle Bay, the 300-acre education park.

The bridge has another virtue. It’s a short drive or bike ride to California’s most beautiful waterwork. While the Shasta Dam makes news over whether to raise it to store more water in Lake Shasta, California’s largest reservoir, the dam is also a place of unsurpassed beauty, especially at sunset.

Joe Mathews (1).JPG
Joe Mathews

One recent evening at the dam, I was greeted by the graduating class of University Preparatory School, a top Redding school. Students were flirting, reminiscing, and saying their goodbyes before beginning their adult lives. The dam, too, feels like a start, the front gate where California really begins.

Since Redding is very hot in summer, it’s best to head into the cooler mountains (provided there are no fires in your way), and visit the state’s most mystical peak, Mount Shasta. This 14,180-foot volcano is a true California emblem -- volatile, stunning and so large that it doesn’t quite seem to fit into the landscape.

“When I first caught sight of it (Mount Shasta) over the braided folds of the Sacramento Valley,” John Muir wrote in 1874, “I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine, and I have not been weary since.”

While it’s possible to put crampons on your hiking boots to visit Shasta’s glaciers, I prefer to commune with the mountain from Lake Siskiyou, where you can rent chalets from the Mount Shasta Resort. Its developer, John Fryer, also invented Whing Golf, in which you hit every shot with one patented club. A round of Whing Golf is $16, cart included.

“The power of the mountain is you can see it from everywhere,” Fryer says of Mount Shasta. “It’s spiritual.”

From there, head north, if you dare, into Yreka, population 7,600, capital of the quixotic decades-long effort to turn the North state into its own State of Jefferson. There, you’ll understand the interest in secession.

State government vehicles are common downtown. Many people work for state agencies, and know their failings all too well. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Breaking away would be fiscally disastrous for a poor region. But if North state people must secede, there must be three conditions.

First, don’t take all our water with you. Second, link your bid with Puerto Rico’s statehood campaign, to give the disaster-decimated island more power. And finally, make sure Californians can keep visiting as often as we like.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at