At the time of this writing, I believe the Shasta-Trinity National Forest is one of the most overlooked landscape photography destinations in all of the US.
This wild region was created by a common natural paradox, wherein the same volcanic eruption both ended and began life. In its wake, a new ecosystem of incredible beauty was formed.
The centerpiece of it all are the picturesque twin peaks of Mt Shasta. This towering volcano looms majestically above the forest and offers infinite opportunities for photographers and nature lovers.
In this guide, I will cover my favorite places to visit, hike, explore, and photograph the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Other Regional Guides
If you are visiting Northern California as part of a bigger road trip, you may find the following additional resources useful:
- Best Things to Do on a Northern California Road Trip
- The Ultimate Guide to Burney Falls in NorCal
- Southern Oregon Photography Locations
- Southern Oregon Coast Photography
- Waterfalls of Southern Oregon
As you may have noticed, I spend a lot of time exploring the landscapes between Southern Oregon and Northern California. As a native to the area, I am drawn to both the natural beauty and proximity to home.
Map of Shasta-Trinity National Forest
Technically, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest encompasses an extremely vast section of wilderness. For the sake of this guide, however, I have elected to focus on the most accessible and photogenic region.
The map below highlights the destinations included in this guide and a proposed route to explore the most photogenic areas. You can click on the image to open the directions in Google Maps in a new tab.
Shasta-Trinity National Forest Photography Destinations
It should be noted that this region is incredibly expansive and the possibilities for wilderness walks are somewhat endless. However, I will be focusing this guide on the most accessible and, in my opinion, impressive destinations with photographers primarily in mind.
Lake Shasta Caverns National Natural Landmark
This incredible cave system is the newest National Landmark in the west and houses intricate displays of stalagmites and stalactites.
You can only visit via tour, which lasts approximately 2 hours. It begins with a short, 10 minute boat ride across Lake Shasta, followed by another short bus ride to the cavern entrance.
Here are a couple quick things of note:
- There are a lot of stairs, so anyone with mobility issues (or small children) may have difficulty.
- You will be in a cave, so you may need a jacket! It tends to be about 70°F, which will feel cold if coming from the higher temperatures outside.
- Ticket prices are $30 for adults (16+), $18 for juniors (3-15), and free for toddlers.
- Hours vary all over the place seasonally. Be sure to check those while planning your visit.
If you are interested in experiencing the caverns, visit Lake Shasta Caverns to learn more, see hours, and purchase tickets.
If you are driving north along the I5 from the Redding area, you will be driving a stretch known as the Cascade Wonderland Highway.
As you near the town of Dunsmuir, you notice an incredible rock formation towering above you. These glacier-polished wonders are known as Castle Crags.
Castle Crags is a state park that offers some hikes and recreational opportunities.
Visitors have a few options for exploring the park, but most of the short walks are fairly underwhelming. However, there are some trails that lead into the crags themselves which feel like wandering through Mordor!
If you do not have time to undertake a longer trek, your best option will be to take a short jaunt to the Vista Point trail. This half-mile walk delivers you to a large clearing with an unobstructed view of the Castle Crags rock formation.
Castle Lake State Park
One of the most beautiful places to camp or spend a day is the mountainside Castle Lake. There is no hike required to reach the lake and restroom facilities are available.
While Castle Lake is beautiful in its own right, the views are inarguably better from above, looking over the lake and back toward Mt Shasta.
To find this hike, you will need to follow the trail going LEFT around Castle Lake. It will start to ascend fairly early on and is a steep trail all the way up.
Be warned that the signage is very poor and it is easy to go astray. I found it easiest to navigate by keeping Google Maps open so I always knew where the lake (and therefore, the parking lot) were in relation to where I was.
While countless trails exist throughout the Shasta National Forest, the best view for observing and photographing Mt Shasta comes from Heart Lake. In particular, it is noteworthy for sunrise or sunset.
Heart Lake is reached by parking in the Castle Lake parking area and hiking an obscure trail that seems to branch off constantly. My advice is to keep Google Maps up with a pin in heart lake and attempt to follow the trail in that direction.
The lake itself is quite small and otherwise not very noteworthy, but the composition it provides facing back toward Mt Shasta is tremendous.
A very popular shot is from surface level of the lake, which creates a perfect reflection of Mt Shasta most mornings. However, it is also possible to climb higher, looking own onto both Heart Lake and Castle Lake and capturing Shasta forest as well.
Hedge Creek Falls
This small waterfall is well worth a stop, though it will not rank among the most impressive waterfalls you will encounter in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
A very easy, 5-minute hike leads you to this quaint cascade. While it is usually fairly small and dry, some nice photos are available in the spring or fall when the volume of water increases enough to give the waterfall some body.
What most people love about Hedge Creek Falls is that you can actually walk behind and under the waterfall! While it is far from the most impressive waterfall I have photographed, it is such a short and easy walk that there is no reason to skip it.
As you near the city of Weed, a strange and eye-grabbing black mound is sure to steal your attention. This iconic lava cone is known as Black Butte.
While incredibly engaging and certainly worthy of a momentary gawk, photography opportunities for Black Butte are limited. It is possible to hike to the top, though there are better vantage points available in the area; in particular, the aforementioned Heart Lake.
It should be noted that Mossbrae Falls is technically closed. However, it is still a very popular destination and the closure has never been enforced. You are walking beside active train tracks, so be extremely mindful of this if you decide to visit.
Mossbrae Falls is one of the most beautiful and popular waterfalls in the area… for those who know about it! Technically it is on private railway property so finding it can be tricky as signage is limited, but it will come up on Google Maps.
The hike in is about one mile along train tracks through gravel. First, you need to find parking along Dunsmuir Ave, then navigate your way from there. Fortunately, Google Maps has it listed and can guide you there. You will also likely encounter plenty of locals who use the trail for dog walking and exercise.
You may think you are in the wrong place as you walk the train tracks into the woods, but this is the correct way.
As you venture toward McCloud Falls, you will begin circling the south side of Mt Shasta. While I personally prefer the views from the north, it may be worth doing an entire loop around the mountain to explore the different shapes and compositions.
Now, as for the waterfall – there are actually three falls you will discover on the McCloud Waterfalls trail, with the most popular and photogenic being Middle Falls.
The entire hike is a total of just 4 miles.
Many people do choose to swim in the falls, especially on hot summer days. If you think this might be something you are keen on doing, be sure to pack some swim wear!
What makes Lake Shastina particularly lovely is the way Mt Shasta fills the horizon above the blue waters of the lake. This viewing angle also provides a more interesting look at the twin-cone peaks of the mountain.
A community has been built up around the lake so you need to be highly respectful of where you park and set up, but as long as you are not disturbing things in any way, the locals likely won’t mind you being there to enjoy the view and snap some photos.
I stayed out all night to shoot the Milky Way at Lake Shastina and really liked the image, though the light pollution from the community was a bit distracting.
Photographing Mt Shasta in Shasta-Trinity National Forest
As has been evidenced throughout, most of my favorite photography locations in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest are those that include Mt Shasta. I just find its isolated, snow capped peaks to be too interesting a subject not to include!
In this section, I wanted to discuss all considerations for photographing the mountain specifically. Many of my favorite shots were from the roadside, but offered an interesting view and/or gorgeous light to bring in some magic.
Best Angle for Photographing Mt Shasta
It is possible to drive a complete circle around the mountain along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. While there are many photogenic views, I find the most interesting to be from the North of the mountain looking south.
There are two major reasons for this. The first is that you are able to see and capture what is known as the satellite cone of Shastina. While sharp, craggy peaks are typical, the inclusion of Shastina makes for a far more interesting photo.
To capture something like the photo above, simply drive the Volcanic Legacy byway around the north of Mount Shasta keeping your eyes peeled for the numerous available pullouts.
The second reason I find south-facing views appealing is that the fading, colored light of sunrise and sunset will come in from the sides, providing gorgeous light and shadow play on the mountain peaks.
Best Time of Day to Photograph Mt Shasta
For the most part, as with most places, the best time of day to photograph in the Shasta-Trinity region will be golden hours, sunrise, and sunset. The angular light on the mountain makes for a far more captivating photo, especially as it when it receives red light known as alpine glow.
What is lesser-known, however, is that Northern California is one of the better places for night photography as it has some distance from any major city.
If you want to photograph the Milky Way, you will need to find a good view that looks onto Mt Shasta in the direction of SW during the summer season and shoulder months.
Because of the size of the mountain, there are endless options for compositions. The best thing to do is to scout during the day and decide what would make for a good foreground so that you already know the scene you want to capture when the Milky Way comes out at night!
Best Time of Year to Photograph Shasta-Trinity National Forest
I find a lot more magic in a snow-capped mountain, and the good news is that Mt Shasta tends to have snow even when the rest of Shasta-Trinity National Forest is bare.
In my opinion, the best time for a visit with photography in mind is in the late spring. You will have plenty of snow on the mountain peak still, but will not have to battle much of it on the ground. You also tend to get better sunrises and sunsets with those spring clouds than you will in other seasons. The snowmelt also helps fuel the waterfalls, creating a much more impressive display than other times of year.
Last, and for me, most important, is that the late spring is our first chance to start capturing the Milky Way! As previously mentioned, Northern California is a great place for astrophotography!
Final Thoughts on Visiting Shasta-Trinity National Forest
As you can probably tell, I hold the Shasta-Trinity National Forest region in the highest esteem. While I love how seldom-visited this region is, I am also acutely aware of the desire to discover local getaways as foreign travels remain a possibility only of the distant future.
I truly hope you have found this travel guide useful, inspiring, and informative. As always, we sure do appreciate your feedback if there is something we have missed or if you find any inaccuracies.
Below you will find some more links that might be relevant to your vacation or road trip:
- Best Things to Do on a Northern California Road Trip.
- The Ultimate Guide to Burney Falls in NorCal.
- Southern Oregon Photography Locations.
- Southern Oregon Coast Photography Guide.
- Waterfalls of Southern Oregon
For those interested in photography, you may find our Learning Photography guides helpful too. We cover lots of different topics, from basics to advanced!
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