From the north side of Lake Tahoe at Kings Beach , take State 267 (North Shore Road) out of the Tahoe Basin—don’t miss turnouts for fantastic photo ops of the lake and ring-around mountains.
About 12 miles above the lake, turn left at Northstar-at-Tahoe to check out the expanded village at year-round mountain resort (new ultra-luxe Ritz-Carlton with fine-dining and spa services opens in December 2009).
Drive through Truckee to head northwest on State 89 into shaded forests and low-key mountain villages. If you love trains, take a short detour north to Portola (Portola-McLears Rd.) to tour the Western Pacific Railroad Museum (530/832-4131; call ahead for tours off-season; closed in winter).
Continue northwest on State 89 to the twin communities of Blairsden-Graeagle , big on golf courses and spectacular hikes into the Sierra Buttes. Hikers who explore sapphire-blue Sardine Lake often compare it to a mini-Tahoe.
State 89 meanders northeast to Quincy , with historic buildings including the 1921 courthouse with marble pillars, then wraps around the western shores of Lake Almanor, a boating and fishing hotspot.
That dramatic cone you’ll start seeing is iconic, 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, an active volcano that last erupted in 1915. Except in winter when the road closes, State 89 twists north through Lassen Volcanic National Park , accessing trails to places like Bumpass Hell with bubbling mud pots and steaming vents.
At Manzanita Lake (excellent swimming in warm months), State 89 joins State 44, then splits northwest to Hat Creek (a fly-fishing mecca). If you’re short on time, head due west on State 44 to Redding to check out Turtle Bay Exploration Park’s soaring Sundial Bridge—an elegant, pedestrian-only span crossing the Sacramento River. (The California Welcome Center just south on I-5 in Anderson can suggest more places to explore in the Shasta-Cascade region.)
If you continue on State 89 you’ll take a big sweeping turn west towards California’s other signature (but now extinct) volcano, 14,162-foot Mount Shasta, a snow-capped beast that dominates the horizon for miles around. Take the turnoff to tiny McCloud for the Sugar Pine Candy Company (233 Main Street) —you won’t regret it (though your dentist might).
Just ahead State 89 meets I-5. If you’re hungry, it’s worth heading about five miles south on I-5 to Dunsmuir to try Sengthong’s for outstanding Asian fusion dishes and Café Maddalena for sophisticated bistro food in a log-cabin setting. Now head back north on the freeway to cruise funky-friendly Mount Shasta City, great for everything from mountain-climbing gear to prayer flags and tie-dye.
Continue north on I-5 towards the California-Oregon border. At sprawling Yreka, home to excellent Gold Rush era architecture, take a final, 8-mile detour east to Shasta Valley Wildlife Area . Pull out the binoculars to spy dozens of species of migratory waterfowl, cranes, hawks, eagles, and others.