This article about Dunsmuir Train Town was originally written in 2000 not long after we visited the area, and stayed there a month. I’ve added some recent videos to the end of this article.On November 11, 1999, my children and I packed all we owned into a U-Haul truck. It was expedient that we leave the Bay Area because of all the problems my kids were having where we lived in Pittsburg. I can’t go into details, but just will say that interpersonal relationships between kids are not always ideal… and in the city where there are so many kids and so many opportunities for trouble, it seemed worse. I decided it was time to move my darlings to the countryside, to give them a little room to run around without serious neighborhood repercussions.
We traveled north, leaving all our things in storage in Redding, where I attended college back in the seventies. Redding is a wonderful city at the far-north end of the Sacramento River Valley. Great place!… but I will write of that later. We got into our little Ford Escort and drove north toward Mt. Shasta in Siskiyou County. On the way, we passed through a little town called Dunsmuir that rests in a valley south of Mt. Shasta.
It had been years since I had actually SEEN Mt. Shasta because on our few vacation treks to the north country it had been cloudy. One year we went to Burney Falls, not far from there, and only the top half of the mountain was visible. We drove closer and then only the bottom half of the mountain was visible. We never did get to see the whole thing at one time that year. About twelve months later I drove right into the little town of Mt. Shasta City and it was so foggy you would not have even known that there was a mountain anywhere around were it not for just knowing Mt. Shasta City rests at the foot of the beautiful peak.
Anyhow, this time we drove north and the day was gloriously clear, and the mountain was visible in all its awesome majesty with one of those amazing lenticular clouds floating right off the top of it. That is the best way to view this amazing volcano. VOLCANO!??!! Yes, that’s right, it is dormant, but the most recent eruption was in about 1786 and it has been known to go off about once every 300 years or so during the last 3,500 years. The mountain is incredibly lovely, but all the time I was living in its shadow, I was thinking… “volcano, volcano, volcano”. I saw a recent issue of Discovery magazine with a volcano on the cover in the Dunsmuir library and checked it out to read the article out loud to the kids. We learned a lot about volcanos the month we were there.
That first day in Siskiyou County we continued north to the Klamath River turnoff just north of Yreka, and due to the late hour, pulled into the rest area there, and fell asleep in our car.
That was our routine more or less for about two weeks as we scouted out the area for potential homes. We had no money to spend on hotels… we had to save it all for housing and food. We stayed at highway rest areas mostly, of which there are several between Redding and the Oregon border. They’re at Lake Shasta, Weed and Klamath River. Without any luck in finding a home, we went back to the Bay Area for Thanksgiving with the family. On the way down, we passed through Dunsmuir again, and prodded by two anxious children, I stopped at the local playground (the one near the post office on Dunsmuir Avenue).
Dunsmuir Train Town Parks
My kids loved that little playground. It had some unique equipment like a merry-go-round sorta thing made of little bikes, and things you can stand and spin on. Also there was traditional equipment like swings and a basketball hoop.
As I sat there, along came a big jolly-looking guy who introduced himself as Bill. He asked me if I was new in town, and proceeded to tell me about the best shopping opportunities and how generally wonderful Dunsmuir train town is. He advised me to get a room in the Traveler’s Hotel while I was home hunting, and we had a nice conversation about that too. I decided that when I got back from Thanksgiving dinner, I would see about renting a room there.
There’s another, larger park in North Dunsmuir with a botanical garden and a lovely creekside playground for the children. See Dunsmuir Parks.
Dunsmuir’s Traveler’s Hotel
On December 3 I drove back into Dunsmuir train town and rented a small room at the hotel. Julie, the manager, was friendly, and originally offered me a lovely, newly remodeled room on the third floor. Bill followed us up the stairs and put up a fuss because he’d been asking for a room with a window for a long time. Due to his interference we didn’t get the nice room with a bathroom. Instead we got a terrible room and had to use a horrible bathroom down the hall. (Thanks, Bill!) Still, we were glad to have a bed after having slept so many nights in our car the month before.
My daughter was sick when we arrived, so nobody in the hotel realized how hyperactive she was right away. She was in bed for about three days…. a sickness we still blame on the water in Pittsburg, which she had imbibed at the Motel 6 there the day before. (Sorry Pittsburg, but we all know almost everyone there buys bottled water because Pittsburg water tastes terrible.)
The Traveler’s Hotel in Dunsmuir is quite a memorable place: three stories tall, two old buildings hitched together, carpets held together with duct tape, security cameras in every hallway, pipes showing on every ceiling… what a edifice to early 20th century design! Some people love it and live there for years and years, and others can’t wait to get out after only a few months. The one thing it has going for it is………..low rent… VERY low rent!! So we paid $95 to rent the pathetic room for a month, and were happy enough.
The people at the hotel were beyond interesting. I can honestly say all the people who work there are very nice, and so are most of the residents, however a few people seemed quite eccentric. After a few weeks it was obvious that some people were determined to distract me from my kids, and I was a mother who was dedicated to my children, and I didn’t like being called away to discuss other people’s problems. I eventually put a sign on my door: “No Visitors! Please do not knock!” That resolved the problem for me. My kids and I spent our time in Dunsmuir home-hunting, sight-seeing, and reading books. While there we read The Cat That Went To Heaven, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, and The Family Under the Bridge. It was a good month for books!
The Water in Dunsmuir
One of the most wonderful things about Dunsmuir is the water!! When we lived in Pittsburg, California, we had to buy bottled water because water there tasted so bad. My favorite brand was Castle Rock Spring Water. When I got to Dunsmuir, I was delighted to find that their bottling facility is right there at the north end of town. They get their water out of the Hedge Creek Falls area, and it is really wonderful, so clear, sweet, and clean.
What’s even more exciting about Dunsmuir water is that it is available all over town for free. There are two fountains in the historic downtown area that never shut off… the water flows freely, forever. Also in the north part of town there’s a fountain in front of the city park, right next to an old steam locomotive. There are other fountains in town without shut-off valves.. like the one at Hedge Creek Falls. If you visit, perhaps you will find more.
One place we visited a lot while we were staying in Dunsmuir was Mt. Shasta City Park, in Mt. Shasta, about five miles north of Dunsmuir. The big draw (besides a nice playground for the kids and hiking trails) was… the Headwaters of the Sacramento River. This is an amazing thing to see, especially for anyone who knows this mighty river that dominates the Northern California landscape from Redding to Sacramento to the Delta where it merges with the San Joaquin River and empties out into the San Pablo Bay. Maybe it held special meaning to us since we had just come from living in Pittsburg, which is a city on the south side of the Sacramento just before it ends, and the river is extremely wide and deep at that point. Well, at Mt. Shasta’s City Park we saw the beginning — where it gushes out of a few crevices in the mountain and fills a lovely, clean, clear pond, just before slipping down the hillside in a lively, pretty creek. Hundreds of people go there to collect drinking water every month. By the time the creek reaches Dunsmuir, about 10 miles downhill, the Sacramento is a wider stream where fishing opportunities attract visitors. Several bridges in that town cross the Sacramento. Fifty miles further downhill, in Redding, it has become wide and wild enough to be called a river, and I personally would not try to swim across it at that point, but I may be too timid about stuff like that. If you go to Redding and want to swim it, you can ask the locals if it is safe.
There are two waterfalls in Dunsmuir. The first one we saw is Hedge Creek Falls at the north end of town, right behind the Castle Rock Spring Water warehouse. There’s a picnic area and gazebo, and then a path down the hillside to a beautiful little waterfall that drops off over a hollowed out sheltered area. It is a wonderful place to be. While the kids were playing, I could sit on the bench and enjoy the peace and beauty of the area.
My son and I visited Dunsmuir’s Hedge Creek Falls in 2011. This is the video he made of our adventures that day.
The other waterfall is harder to get to. To find it, go north on Dunsmuir Avenue from the center of town, and take the road where the old Shasta Retreat archway is, through a residential area, to the railroad track. Park there, then trek along the track, north a mile or so. If a train comes, it is important to MOVE to the side of the track quickly!! This makes for an exciting hike. We encountered two trains while trekking on the track, and there wasn’t much advance notice. However many people love to take this hike and the big reward is the gorgeous, absolutely beautiful waterfalls at the end – off to the right side, down a little hill. If you get to the train bridge, you went ever-too-slightly too far! Turn around, and go down the hill to find the falls. Anyhow, if you don’t mind dealing with trains, hiking along a rocky rail bed, and the distance, the beautiful Mossbrae Falls are worth going to see.
Other nearby falls include McCloud Falls and Burney Falls, both on Hwy. 80. I looked for the McCloud Falls (there are three) and could not find them but we have visited Burney Falls twice and love the area there.
The primary distinguishing feature of Dunsmuir: TRAINS. Ask Aaron, my train-loving son. He would tell you. My daughter might say WATER instead, she loves that so much. But Aaron has always loved trains so he was thrilled to be living in a town with deep railroad history and a working turntable and a train enthusiast hobby shop in the lobby of our hotel. Whenever I lost track of Aaron, he was easily found in Dave’s train hobby store. Dave’s wife, Paula, laughed about that. They were kind and understanding.
The town was founded as a train stop called Pusher. The reason for the original name was that when the old steam trains went north, they would have to stop in that location to add “pusher engines” to help get over the mountains ahead. There was a camp for the workers called Cedar Flat near what is now the southern boundary of Dunsmuir train town.
Then along came Alexander Dunsmuir. He was very impressed by this little town in a wooded river canyon. Apparently he was there for only a few hours or a few days (nobody seems to really know) but while in town he offered to send the town a beautiful brass fountain as a gift if they would agree to name the town Dunsmuir, after him. The agreement was made, the fountain was sent, and Alexander Dunsmuir never went back again, according to local legend. You can still see the fountain. It was moved years ago from its original place near the Union Pacific tracks to the north part of the city, right next to City Park. Check it out, if you’re in the area. It is at the end of the parking lot, behind the steam train.
We loved the railroad flavor of Dunsmuir train town as much as we loved the harvest muffins at the Cornerstone Bakery there. Stop signs were placed on old railroad switches, and other cool antique railroad things are there on display.. take a look. This is really a nice town to visit. There are several bed and breakfast places in town, and just south of there is Railroad Park, an amazing place that has converted numerous cabooses into motel rooms. Railroad Park is worth looking at even if you’re only going to drive by and view it, like we did a few times.
The most fun for Aaron was the Tuesday night Dunsmuir Train Club… which happened every week at about 7 pm in the room right under the local sheriff sub-station there on Dunsmuir Avenue. The room was at one time the police station. While we were there it was filled with an attractive train lay-out built by fellow model-train enthusiasts. They were mostly old men, a few young, and occasionally another child, like Aaron. He went every week while we were there, and loved being able to run his own engines on the tracks there. The club members were very tolerant of Aaron, and at Christmas time gave him some used train cars and an old electric engine. That meant so much to him! He somehow thinks that Christmas=Trains.
Enough said. If you love trains, waterfalls, and living fresh water, you’ll love Dunsmuir!!
A few updates:
The Castle Rock Spring Water business shut down about twelve years ago. Now I’m buying Crystal Geyser, bottled near Mt. Shasta.
The Traveler’s Hotel shut down after the roof collapsed one winter. I don’t know if it ever re-opened.
The City of Dunsmuir is building an official and safer trail to Mossbrae Falls, but people may be prevented from going there during 2012.