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Ski This Mountain and You'll Be a Believer

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 2, 2007

"Mount Shasta rises in solitary grandeur from a lightly sculpted lava plain. . . . Go where you will within a radius of 50 to 100 miles, and there stands the colossal cone of Shasta, clad in perpetual snow, the one grand landmark that never sets."

With those words, famed naturalist John Muir described Northern California's Mount Shasta to Harper's magazine readers in 1877. His words remain true today, as the mountain remains unspoiled by housing developments and other man-made intrusions.

In fact, the Mount Shasta Ski Park is nearly the only mark of man on the mountain, and the park -- for now, at least -- treads lightly: some lifts, trails and a building for renting skis, warming up and having lunch or drinks. Overnight visitors go down the mountain and into one of several small towns to sleep -- a drive of 10 minutes or so that is well worth making to preserve the mountain's natural state. Getting to the area requires a bigger commitment: Mount Shasta is 245 miles north of Sacramento and 295 miles from San Francisco.

A volcanic mountain that is part of the Cascades range, Mount Shasta suddenly rises 14,179 feet from a flat area, just a mite shorter than Mount Rainier, in the same range. With a base nearly 70 miles in circumference, it dominates the landscape, its lower section covered by pine and cedar, its upper regions with pearly white snow that in a certain light shines with a silvery glow or takes on a purple hue.

Five Native American tribes still live scattered within view of the mountain they consider sacred, home of the Creator, and they still hold rituals in the mountain's meadows and on its peaks.

"It is so pristine and quiet. It's a healing place because of its peacefulness," says Michelle Berditchevsky, environmental coordinator for the Pit River tribe. "It has not been overshadowed by human things. Nature is still the most powerful force, and you feel it palpably."

That feeling of spirituality and power has drawn New Age followers to settle in the shadow of Mount Shasta. "I Am" believers -- who say that a figure they call Saint Germain descended from heaven to Mount Shasta to tell Guy W. Ballard the true way in the 1930s -- consider Mount Shasta home. Others drawn to settle here believe that the inside of the mountain is populated by the Lemurians, an advanced civilization of tall, bearded people who escaped to Mount Shasta when their homeland was destroyed, Atlantis-like. Believers say that this was between 75,000 and 20,000 B.C. and that Easter Island was once part of Lemuria.

But you don't have to buy into the mountain's magical power to sense that it is special; even nonbelievers feel the mountain's power, says Lowell Robertson, who was volunteering at the Saint Germain Foundation's "I Am" Reading Room in the town of Mount Shasta. Robertson moved here from Texas to be near what he calls the "mountain's drawing effect. It's hard to explain, but it's a feeling this mountain gives -- a spiritual magnetism."

THE SKIING: Mount Shasta Ski Park uses three triple lifts to carry skiers to 32 groomed trails -- 20 percent of them for beginners, 55 percent intermediate and 25 percent advanced. The highest vertical drop is 1,390 feet; the longest run is 1.75 miles. Really advanced skiers can supplement the runs with guided backcountry skiing with Shasta Mountain Guides (530-926-3117, http://www.shastaguides.com).

Feeling rusty and somewhat intimidated by the mountain, I started on beginner trails. After two runs, I graduated to intermediate. Fresh powder made the skiing easy: no slick layers of compacted snow or ice of the kind that makes a recreational skier feel about to careen out of control. With an average of 275 inches of snow each season, Mount Shasta is rarely out of powder, and its snow is often compared to the best of Colorado powder.

By noon on a day in early March, I was feeling ready for the advanced runs, and it was warm enough in the bright sun to dump my jacket. I schussed down the mountain trails in shirtsleeves between stands of snow-covered pines. Sunburn, says marketing manager Jason Young, is the most frequent injury on the slopes.

Truly experienced advanced skiers -- those who head straight to black diamond trails even at the beginning of a season -- might find after a day or so that they need something more challenging. No problem: Magazines and Web sites routinely describe Mount Shasta's backcountry skiing as some of the best in the world.

THE AMBIANCE: In an age when most resorts are corporate-owned entities, Mount Shasta Ski Park is a rare throwback to another age: a family-owned operation. Jason Young's grandfather, Chuck Young, built the park 22 years ago. Jason's dad is general manager, his mom and an aunt run the gift shop, his uncle is company president, his sister is season pass manager and her husband manages the maintenance crew.

"We have 250 winter employees, mostly locals, and that ends up being family, too," Jason Young says. "There's a lot of mothers, daughters, fathers and sons; a big-family atmosphere. And everyone does dirty work. My dad runs the cats." Last winter, he said, a snowstorm dumped 24 inches in less than 24 hours, "and the owners were working with the lift crew to get things back up and running."

What that means for visitors is hard to describe, but it adds the kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle differences you feel in a family-owned restaurant, as opposed to a chain. Homey, you might say.

SURROUNDING AREA: Three towns lie in the shadow of the mountain, all in Siskiyou County (population 48,000). Mount Shasta, population 3,621 in the last census, is the largest of the three towns. It has a sophisticated-yet-friendly vibe, with attractive clothing and gift shops, several bookstores, lots of New Age-type crystals for sale and interesting places to stay and eat. You might also want to visit Shasta Abbey (530-926-4208, http://www.shastaabbey.org), a Zen Buddhist monastery. Call ahead for a tour or to attend ceremonies. Lodging on the 16-acre property is available only to those on retreats; price is what you can afford to pay.

McCloud and Dunsmuir were once railroading towns; Dunsmuir in particular has a working-class feel, but both offer attractive places to lodge and dine.

Redding, about 60 miles away, is worth a stop to see the Sundial Bridge, designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, within the Turtle Bay Exploration Park (800-887-8532, http://www.turtlebay.org).

OTHER WINTER ACTIVITIES: The nonprofit Nordic Center (530-926-2142, http://www.mtshastanordic.org) maintains 15 1/2 miles of groomed trails for cross-country skiing, asking only a donation to use them. They also offer backcountry touring over vast territories. The town of Mount Shasta has a large outdoor ice rink, and you can rent snowshoes in various shops in town.

NIGHT LIFE: That's not the reason to come here, remember? But you can settle back for drinks with the locals at the Billy Goats Tavern (107 Chestnut St., Mount Shasta, 530-926-0209), which also serves good sandwiches and finger food. The Wayside (2217 S. Mount Shasta Blvd., 530-918-9234) has live music on weekends. Otherwise, look at the stars.

WHERE TO STAY: Within a 10- to 20-minute drive of the slopes you can find cabins, cottages, houses, B&Bs, inns, hotels and motels, with budget properties beginning as low as $39 a night. Our picks:

* The McCloud Hotel (408 Main St., McCloud, 800-964-2823, http://www.mccloudhotel.com) is a historic landmark rating four AAA diamonds. Doubles range from $100 to $235 a night. During Christmas season it's decorated with lights and 20 or more Christmas trees.

* At the Victorian-style McCloud River Inn (325 Lawndale Ct., McCloud, http://www.riverinn.com, 800-261-7831), doubles range from $96 to $165 a night in winter, with 25 percent off for skiers Sunday through Thursday.

* Also in McCloud, the McCloud River Mercantile (241 Main St., 530-964-2602) has newly renovated rooms above its Victorian-style gift shop. Doubles range from $120 to $195 a night.

* Stay in one of the cabooses spiffed up inside for visitors at Railroad Park Resort (100 Railroad Park Rd., Dunsmuir, 530-235-4440, http://www.rrpark.com). Doubles range from $95 to $110 a night.

* A night at ShasTao Philosophical Hermitage (3609 N. Old Stage Rd., Mount Shasta, 530-926-4154, http://www.shastao.com), a B&B snuggled in the woods, includes a vegetarian or vegan breakfast and, in the evening, dessert and a philosophical discussion with other guests and the owners, both of whom are philosophy professors. The hermitage caters to "conscientious travelers with artistic, spiritual or philosophical interests." Facilities include a spiritual library and an art studio with supplies. Doubles are $145 a night.

WHERE TO EAT: In Mount Shasta, Lily's (1013 S. Mount Shasta Blvd., 530-926-3372, http://www.lilysrestaurant.com) is especially good for breakfast, for under $10. Dinners range from $16 to $23. For a more upscale atmosphere and gourmet fare, try the Trinity Cafe (622 N. Mount Shasta Blvd., 530-926-6200, http://www.trinitycafe.com), where dinner entrees range from $17 to $33.

In Dunsmuir, the Cornerstone Bakery Cafe (5759 Dunsmuir Ave., 530-235-4677) has excellent breakfast, sandwiches and salads for lunch, and a full dinner menu with steaks, pasta and seafood. Dinner entrees are $16 to $24. Cafe Maddalena (5801 Sacramento Ave., 530-235-2725, http://www.cafemaddalena.com) has upscale Mediterranean cuisine. Dinner entrees range from $19 to $27.

Romantic dining is featured in beautifully restored railroad cars aboard the Shasta Sunset Dinner Train (328 Main St., McCloud, 800-733-2141, http://www.shastasunset.com). A four-course meal includes a three-hour train ride. You must reserve and select your entrees in advance.

Mount Shasta Ski Park, 800-754-7427, http://www.skipark.com. All-day ski passes for adults are $39 on weekends, $25 Monday through Thursday. Kids 8 to 12 pay $20, and kids 7 and younger pay $5.

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