How a peaceful Northern California lake and a tricked-out rental converted a skeptic into a believer.
By Amy Jordan Jones
Full disclosure: Houseboating was 73rd on my bucket list of family vacations.
My husband always tried to convince me to book a lake trip but it never sounded very enjoyable. I put it in the same bucket as camping: Cramped quarters, dirty kids, lots of “housework”… Not really the kind of trip I look forward to.
And we’ve been lucky to take some pretty amazing trips over the past couple of summers, including vacations in Cancun, Hawaii, and our annual tradition of a week on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe. This year we had planned to take our three kids to Maui – then COVID-19 hit. And after months of going nowhere, anywhere was sounding pretty darn good.
So when the 72 vacations ahead of “houseboating” were rendered impossible because of the pandemic, my husband finally won: We booked a week on a Shasta Lake houseboat with another family in our quarantine “bubble.”
And, I have to admit, we had a blast.
About a half-hour from Redding in far Northern California, Shasta Lake is actually a reservoir formed by the Shasta Dam’s completion in 1944. It looks a bit like a squashed “X” with four main arms that hold back the waters of the McCloud, Sacramento, and Pit rivers, as well as Squaw Creek.
And Shasta Lake is big, trailing only the Salton Sea and Lake Tahoe as the largest bodies of water in California. To us, its size meant being able to explore the lake and the rivers that fed it without running into traffic from other boats. And since it sits at about 1,000 feet of elevation and is surrounded by forest, it was more scenic and had better weather than the Southern California lakes in the desert that offer houseboating.
In the end, yes, the water was still a bit cold in June. And yes, we had to drive nine hours through California’s mask-averse interior to get to the harbor from our LA home. And yes, our boys emerged unscathed when a tree fell on their fishing boat near shore.
But overall, a houseboat on Shasta Lake made for a wonderful family vacation. The boat was very nice and spacious: We had plenty of room to lay in the sun and hang out inside at night. There was a hot tub on top, a slide to squeal down, and a lake with plenty of empty inlets in which to anchor, fish, swim, and social distance ourselves from other boaters.
So I was wrong about houseboating. I guess there’s a first time for everything 😉
Tips for Renting a Houseboat on Shasta Lake
Go for a week. Rentals run 3, 4 and 7 nights. While I was pushing for fewer days, I was glad we got a week; it gave us a bit more time to relax before re-entering society. I do think four nights might work if you’re short on time but three nights feels like it would be too short to enjoy, given all the prep, packing, and travel time.
You’re gonna need a bigger boat. We had 10 people in our party but chose a boat that slept up to 15. It wasn’t that much more expensive and it gave us a little extra space. We also chose the boat based on which one had the biggest “common” area – kitchen/dining/living room – since that’s where we would all be hanging out at night.
Consider pre-July 4th trips. June rentals were about half as much as July rentals. Our 15-person “loaded” boat ran $4,000 total. The water is cooler than it would be in July and August, but so is the air. The week after we left, the air temp moved into the 90s and moved up from there with each passing week. And despite bracing ourselves for some chilly water, we didn’t find it too cold at all.
Budget for gas. While $2,000 a week isn’t bad for an “all-inclusive” vacation of housing, transport, and activities, don’t forget to save for fuel. Admittedly, we motored all around the four arms of Shasta Lake to check out all the different areas; Traveling uses a lot more gas than just picking a cove, dropping anchor, and having a campfire on the beach.
Get another boat. We opted to rent a small boat as well, to tow along for fishing excursions. Renting the little boat was fun and it allowed people go off for a bit if they needed some space.
Bring walkie talkies. Though the small boat was nice, when our two eldest boys headed across the cove to fish, a reasonably large tree on the bank fell atop them in the boat! Luckily they escaped with only frazzled nerves. But we barely noticed them jumping up and down trying to get our attention from the shore so I would recommend bringing walkie talkies to be able to communicate with any other boats in your party.
Pack all your food & drink. The marina stores will have some staples (milk, ice, beer, etc.) but your options are limited. Plus, given the epidemic, we wanted to avoid having to come into contact with a lot of people. We planned all of our dinners and made as much food as possible at home in advance and froze it. Oh, and bring biodegradable dish soap to make the slide slippery-er 😉
Invite friends. We went with another family, which worked out great. Both kids and adults had friends to hang out with (aside from their own family members like it had been for the past 1 million days of quarantine) and I think having friends along limited sibling squabbles. It was also nice to have four teenage boys to help with the “work,” like staking the boat each night.
Fishing is only okay. We didn’t catch much considering how many times we cast into the lake. But by the end of the week, all the kids could bait their hooks and handle their fishing game on their own. But if you’re not into fishing – or learning to fish – don’t feel like you need to bring the gear.
Plan to be offline. There is almost no cell reception or Wifi to be found after you leave the marina. Best to let work/friends know that in advance.
Pack lightly. You will literally go swimsuit to loungewear/PJs and repeat. It’s fabulous.
Amy Jordan Jones – August 2020
This L.A. wife, mom, and elementary school teacher keeps the full crazy at bay by keeping her work and home life perfectly organized, saving her extra energy for planning fun family trips.
© ROAM Family Travel 2020 – All rights reserved
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