Dunsmuir was originally named Pusher, as this was the place on the railroad line when extra engines were required to push the trains over the exceptionally steep grade. Today, you will still see Union Pacific adding extra motive power in the middle or ends of freight trains ascending the fearsome grade at Cantara Loop.
Some PCT folks may wish to batter us about the head and shoulders with a Leki trekking pole for pointing this out, but ... Dunsmuir is grossly overrated by the thru-hiker crowd. Granted these folks haven't seen a full-service grocery store since Truckee (unless they stopped in Quincy, which we strongly recommend). But they can do better than this. Our take on Dunsmuir includes four stops with no memorable food, plus lodging that ranges from top-notch to disastrous.
If you want to sleep close to the PCT (and it's not a bad idea to get an early morning jump on the long, hot climb out of Castle Crags), your only option (other than the PCT-designated Site 25 at the Castle Crags State Park campground) is the Railroad Park Resort (100 Railroad Park Rd., 530 235-4440), which occupies its own off-ramp from Interstate 5. This place is not cheap -- about $20 to $30 above the going rate for a motel room, but it's a fair value. The cabins and refurbished cabooses are the cleanest accomodations we've found near the trail to date. Someone who really gives a damn restored the interiors and sweated every little detail. The cabins are cool, but the cabooses ... the cabooses are retrofitted like little jewel boxes. Waking up inside one of these was like waking up inside a Faberge egg.
On the downside, the Railroad Park is distinct and separate from downtown Dunsmuir. This presents a practical problem for someone operating on foot. There may be a frontage-road bypass connecting the two, but we never found it. Like the resort itself, the Railroad Park's restaurant operation (530 235-4611) is unapologetically priced on the high side, a white-tablecloth dinner house in two vintage rail cars. The food itself is standard surf-and-turf. We recommend the cabooses but would probably choose to drive to Mount Shasta City for better dining values.
In Dunsmuir proper, the TraveLodge (5400 Dunsmuir Ave., 530 235-4395) three blocks north of downtown and the Dunsmuir Inn B&B (5423 Dunsmuir Ave., 916 235-4543) in the Victorian house across from it both remain popular with the thru-hiker crowd. We have tried neither.
Our spotty motel experiences in Dunsmuir have been in the north section, which is separated from the amenities of the main town by a non-trivial half-mile roadwalk and six lanes of interstate freeway. Avoid the Cave Springs Resort (the worst-maintained cabins we've encountered). The consensus pick of the six motels on this stretch is the Cedar Lodge (4201 Dunsmuir Ave., 530 235-4331), which is priced significantly below the TraveLodge and some of its northside competitors. We have not stayed there.
On the extreme south end of the main drag, there's the very attractive, older Dunsmuir Lodge (6604 Dunsmuir Ave., 877 235-4884), your closest-to-the-trailhead option. These may be the nicest motel rooms in Dunsmuir, if you don't count the Railroad Park cabooses. Unfortunately, they're a full mile south of downtown.
If you're taking care of business on foot, you really want to shoot for the TraveLodge or the B&B, otherwise you could be spending a lot of time walking between your motel and downtown.
On the food front, we've had terrible luck in Dunsmuir. Burger Barn (5942 Dunsmuir Ave., 530 235-2902) at the south end of the main drag is the only place we can recommend. Southbounders who are still kicking themselves for wimping out on the Seiad pancake challenge may wish to note the "Buddy Burger" -- one-pound burger with double fries and two drinks. About enough for a single PCT hiker, no? If you finish it, it'll still run you about $13. No free lunch and no glory here. Cafe Maddalena, (5801 Sacramento Ave., 530 235-2725) is an arty Italian place with some Spanish and North African dishes, just down the hill near the rail yard. For all we know, it may be the only nice restaurant in town. We've never been tempted to try it. (If you do end up on the north side of the freeway, there is the full-service Alpine Gourmet Market for weekend barbecue takeout,)
Dunsmuir, like every town since Lone Pine, sports a Pizza Factory (5804 Dunsmuir Ave., 530 235 4849). For the indiscriminate late-night eater there's also the River Cafe (5824 Dunsmuir Ave., 530 235-5702) a 24-hour diner on the main drag which the locals consistently describe as iffy. The vegetarian and organic brown rice crowd will want to take note of Sengthong's (5855 Dunsmuir Ave., 530 235-4770), a Thai/Pacific Rim fusion restraurant at the south end of downtown. We found the menu -- mostly Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai -- to be intriguing, but we were never able to make it in before the 8 p.m. close. Cornerstone Bakery and Cafe (5759 Dunsmuir Ave. 530 235-4677) has standard diner chow, breakfast through dinner, plus a veggie omelet, tofu scramble, veggie burger and other sundry departures from the norm. Micki's Better Burger (4905 Dunsmuir Ave., 530 235-5004) sadly didn't live up to its name. This one-woman operation on the north side of the interstate was thoroughly mediocre and not cheap. The true "better" burger is at the other end of town.