Fun with Highways: Northern California along I-5

As summer winds down, we start to look back the many little road adventures that dotted the season. The largest and last of these trips, of course, was to Portland, which included a large stretch of northern California.

We begin on I-505, which heads north from I-80, bypassing Sacramento.


I-505 is a completely straight, flat, stretch of highway. This is pretty much true of the surrounding landscape as well, but the texture and details against this blank canvas can make for some interesting photos.


I-505 merges into I-5, which continues northward through more of the relatively flat landscape, repeatedly crossing the Sacramento River in the process. Eventually we come to the city of Redding at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley. On my return trip from Portland, I finally had a chance to stop in Redding and visit the Sundial Bridge. This modernist architectural gem spans a wooded section of the Sacramento River completely, a world apart from the town of Redding itself or the strip malls and shopping centers that line the highways. Here, clean modern lines contrast with the natural forms of trees and running water.



The Sundial Bridge turned out to be a great subject for abstract photography (you can see another shot in an earlier Wordless Wednesday). It was also quite crowded with families and groups, something to keep in mind should I ever want to use it as a setting for a more formal photo shoot.

North of Redding, I-5 climbs into the southern Cascades towards Mount Shasta. The highway here is quite scenic, but also narrow, winding, and treacherous. Eventually it opens up as one passes Mount Shasta and approaches Black Butte.


Black Butte is a satellite cone of Mount Shasta. It has a distinctive pointy shape and largely barren rocky texture, both of which make it quite prominent in the landscape. The highway curves around its edge, providing a close-up view.

Historic_US_99CA_265US_97_CAAfter passing Mount Shasta and Black Butte, I-5 descends into a wide valley, passing by the town of Weed, whose welcome sign is a popular backdrop for photographs. This is the start of US 97, which heads northeast towards Klamath Falls and central Oregon as I-5 continues due north through the Cascades towards Portland. The main street in Weed is also Historic US 99. The part of the historic route which returns to I-5 is now California Highway 265, one of the shortest in the system.



From here, the valley descends and opens further, and the landscape becomes surprisingly desert-like. We pass the town of Yreka, where I did not get a chance to stop, but might on a future trip because of some idiosyncratic road-geek things. Finally, the highway climbs upwards again towards Siskiyou Summit, just north of the Oregon-California border and the highest point on all of I-5 at 4,310 feet (1,310 meters).

Sacramento Valley and Mt. Shasta

This is the first of several articles on my recent “grand loop” through northern California in August. Starting from the Bay Area, north through the Sacramento Valley to the Cascades (including a side trip to Lassen Volcanic Park), and then west to the Mendocino coast and back south to San Francisco.

The segment of this trip is along I-80, crossing the Bay Bridge and north through Berkeley into the towns of the “North Bay” that always seemed remote even when I was lived in the area. I-80 crosses over the New Carquinez Bridge into Solano County, ultimate towards Sacramento.

In order to head north without having to get too close to our state's capital or Arnold, one takes the short-cut known as I-505 into the Sacramento Valley. This is a largely agricultural region of fields and orchards, and it is flat. As in “how much more flat could you be? None more flat.” (Apologies to Spinal Tap).

One of the interest sites along the side of the road was this flock of sheep, doing what sheep do best, except for that one looking straight at us:

Somehow, sheep are always instant humor. I am not sure why, but it's a fact, they're just funny even when they're not doing anything. We need to confer on them some sort of hip cult status befitting their character. Baaaa!

I-505 soon rejoins the main I-5 freeway coming north from Sacramento towards the Oregon border. Somehow, I-5 manages to appear even flatter than 505:

However, such images are a bit deceiving. While the Sacramento Valley is indeed very flat, it is quite visibly bounded by mountain ranges. To the west is the inner Coast Range, and far to the east are the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. There are also the Sutter Buttes, dubbed the “smallest mountain range in the world.”

(Click to enlarge)

Whether we are seeing haze or the infamous Central Valley pollution in this photo isn't clear (no pun intended). The Sutter Buttes are actually quite a distance away from I-5. One surprising characteristic of the Sacramento Valley, at least during this visit, was how humid the air felt, so it could easily just be haze.

Pretty much things continue this way along I-5 until one reaches Redding, the largest city in California north of Sacramento, and the gateway to the Cascades. Very quickly, the highway begins to climb into the foothills, winding its way along the sides of hills and over high valleys (one of which was flooded to create Lake Shasta). No sign of Mt. Shasta. The directions to get there includes those famous words “You can't miss it”, but a first time traveller might begin to doubt that aminst the endless steep green hills and valleys. But then, there it is. And yes, you can't miss it.

Oh, and here it is again:

Shasta is a volcanic peak, one of the tallest in the Cascades, and is distinct for being very disconnected from any other other tall peaks. About the closest I could find nearby was this peak which I simply dubbed “pointy mountain:”

“Pointy Mountain” turns about to be Black Butte, a nearby lava dome (not to be confused with Black Butte in Oregon). It is clearly visible from the town of Mt. Shasta on the other side of I-5 (town on the east, peak on the west).

It is from the town of Mt. Shasta that we take this final shot of the mountain, a little before sunset time:

(Click to enlarge)

One thing to note is the lack of snow on the mountain. Granted it is August, but I was here in August 1998 and remember seeing a lot more snow, This is probably a product of our drought in California, including relatively little rain/show this past winter. Whether or not the trend continues, and mountains like Shasta become less “snow-capped”, remains to be seen…

Berkeley, Part 2

The mini-conference that brought me to Berkeley on Monday and Tuesday ended fairly early, and I took the opportunity to wander the streets up into the Berkeley hills. This is something I used to do all the time, but haven't in years.

I started out by heading out of the campus on Piedmont Ave., passing by the Greek Theatre, which I hereby dub the “scene of the crime” from end of my time here.

At the northeast corner of the campus, Piedmont becomes La Loma and heads up into the residential neighborhoods of the Berkeley hills, an area that is apparently called La Loma Park. I always enjoyed wandering through these streets, which start out very much like city residential blocks and get more and more sparse and wooded, yet somehow remaining “part of the city.” Again, that is a bit different from Santa Cruz, which feels like a town squeezed between the ocean and the mountains and redwoods. I do walk downtown and along the shore a lot, but the hills here just haven't seemed as interesting to explore. As I write this article, however, I will note that the sunsets here in Santa Cruz are better than they were in Berkeley apartment.

Beyond Cedar Street, the city-block feel ends and La Loma continues up a steep hillside with retaining walls on one side and rails to another.

It is a view I remember quite well. The first time I wandered up this way, I was simply curious to see where this ended up – indeed, I never really “planned” out these walks and simply relied on my strong sense of direction to get me home again. Around the corner, the road comes to the top of the steep canyon cut by the Codornices Creek, with spectular views of the bay.

]It is hard to get a sense of the canyon from a photograph, unless you place it in context, such as the houses built along the steep grades. What looks like a flat ranch from the top of the canyon turns out to be a five-story monster built into the hillside:

This view is from the street below, Shasta Road. Shasta and LaLoma aren't actually connected, but one can make use of the numerous public staircases throughout Berkeley. In this case, I took stairs descending from La Loma to Rose Street, which then connects to Shasta. At the bottom of the stairs, one can see the supports that hold up La Loma on the side of the hill:

Upon seeing the support structure, I was immediately reminded of the architecture of Gaudì at the Parc Gruel, which I visited in 2005.

Longtime readers have already seen some images of Gaudì's residential architecture, in the context of parabolas (indeed, both “parabola” and “Gaudì” are among the most popular search terms by which people reach this site). The connection to Gaudì is not one I would have made while I was still living in Berkeley, having not yet visited the Parc Gruel or Barcelona in person.

I eventually made my way back to campus via Euclide Ave and Scenic Ave. “Scenic” is a very bold name for a street, and more the most part it doesn't live up to its name, except for a couple of blocks near the Pacific School of Religion, whose main walkway I crossed often.

Driving out of Berkeley on Telegraph Ave. towards highway 24, one cannot help but notice the incredible contrasts between the neighborhoods in the hills and those in South Berkeley and northern Oakland. I still think that it all fits together, somehow.