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Mounts Lassen and Shasta

Autumn is prime time for trekking the diverse slopes of mounts Lassen and Shasta.

northeast side of Lassen Peak, image
Photo caption
The northeast side of Lassen Peak shows the area devastated by mudflows and a lateral blast in 1915.

They're part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire," but you'd have to take that on faith on a typically clear, cool autumn day in California's Cascades. These mountains are the southernmost in a string of snow-capped volcanoes stretching from Northern California to British Columbia, where major eruptions have taken place within living memory—the most recent in 1980 at Mt. St. Helens.

Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta anchor the California Cascades. For now the volcanoes are quiet. They are blessed with a wealth of pathways exploring a varied landscape-naked fields of basalt lava, cinder cones, boiling mudpots, meadows lush with wildflowers, serene lakes, and energetic waterfalls.

September and October are excellent months to explore the trails around California's two most prominent volcanoes. You may not have the place to yourself, but the crowds have gone and the weather is often at its best. Here are some favorite late-summer and early-autumn walks in the region. Best AAA map for guidance: Northern California Section.

Lassen Peak
Mount Lassen Lassen Volcanic National Park's most tempting trail tops 10,457-foot Lassen Peak. The highest mountain in northeastern California after Mount Shasta, Lassen is a youthful volcano, about 25,000 years old. It erupted several times from 1914 to 1921, rocketing an ash cloud 25,000 feet straight up and sending thick lava surging down its steep west and northeast flanks. Once on the summit, you can circle the rim of the lava-filled crater and examine the ample evidence.

The hike takes a modest effort for those in good shape, a more serious one for those who aren't. You'll gain 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles. The thin air will give your lungs a workout. But it's a steady grade with superb views of the park and much of northeastern California, with Mount Shasta, the Sacramento Valley, and the mountains of northwestern California as a bonus prize for completing the climb.

Some advice: Wear strong sunblock and a wide-brimmed hat; bring food, water, and also warm clothes for the brisk winds that often rake the summit; and check out the clouds-don't go if there's even the slightest chance of a thunderstorm.

Find the trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park, on Highway 89 about 12 miles north of the Highways 36/89 junction and 22 miles southeast of the Highways 44/89 junction.

Bumpass Hell
Near Lake Helen, a mile south and west of the Lassen Peak mudpots, fumaroles, and bubbling pools at Mount Lassen trailhead, a much easier and more popular path leads 1.5 miles to the geothermal carnival of Bumpass Hell. A huge mass of underground magma heats water to steam, which presses to the surface to create burping mudpots, hissing fumaroles, and bubbling pools which bathe you in odoriferous hot vapor. A network of wooden walkways allows intimate looks at these phenomena and prevents you from sharing the fate of discoverer Kendall Vanhook Bumpass. He accidentally stepped in one of the thermal pools and lost a leg as a result.

Terrace, Shadow, and Cliff Lakes
If you'd like an even tamer hike, visit Terrace, Shadow, and Cliff Lakes. The two-mile trail descends through the sublime serenity of a mature pine-fir forest to Terrace Lake. Its grassy beach makes it easy to enter the chilly waters for a bracing dip.

The way continues downward to contour a few feet above Shadow Lake, where you'll be treated to a view of Lassen Peak towering above the azure surface. Farther along, an unmarked track runs quickly right and south to reach Cliff Lake, the most beautiful of the three and where you should picnic and spend most of your time. The namesake cliffs fall 1,300 feet from the summit of Reading Peak, which looms large over the lake and its tiny tree-studded island.

Begin at road post 27, 14 miles northeast of the Highways 36/89 junction and 20 miles southeast of the Highways 44/89 junction.

Kings Creek Falls
For another easy ramble, descend a lazy mile to Kings Creek Falls. The trail plays hide-and-seek, weaving between verdant meadow and forest shade as it follows Kings Creek downhill.

Soon you'll hear and feel the interaction of water, rock, and gravity, a magnet that pulls you to the bluff overlooking Kings Creek Falls. The sparkling water, split at the top by a large buttress, drops down a series of ledges to merge into a small pool.

Start at road post 32, 17 miles northeast of the Highways 36/89 junction and 17 miles southeast of the Highways 44/89 junction.

Cinder Cone and Snag Lake
For an extended backpacking trek deep into the pristine wilderness of the park, you can do no better than a fourteen-mile circumnavigation of Snag Lake. Start at the Butte Lake Campground (closed to camping indefinitely) and border the Fantastic Lava Beds, a thick sheet of inhospitable black basalt covering several square miles.

You're soon offered a side-trip that climbs three miles to the summit and vistas of Prospect Peak (a maybe); then you reach the path that stretches straight up the side of Cinder Cone (a must). After the invigorating and heart expanding climb, you can circle the rim and look at all the major park landmarks, including Lassen Peak.

A series of violent eruptions beginning about 425 years ago and ending 265 years ago created this baby volcano. Some of its lava formed the Fantastic Lava Beds; it's also responsible for the psychedelic orange and rust hues splattered across the Painted Dunes just to the south.

The main path soon reaches expansive Snag Lake, home to a generous number of campsites and deep waters for swimming. The lake loop visits small meadows on the south side, a large aspen grove on the east side, then more pine-fir forest on the way back to the starting point at Butte Lake.

To begin, head eleven miles east of Highway 89 on Highway 44, and then turn right for the six-mile dirt-road drive to the Butte Lake Campground. If you're over-nighting, you'll need a wilderness permit. Obtain it at the park's office in Mineral, at the Loomis Museum near the park's northwest entrance station, or at the Almanor Ranger District in Chester.

For more information on all the above trails, contact Lassen Volcanic National Park, (916) 595-4444 or visit their Web site. Note that the first three walks are for day-hikers only.

Subway Cave and Hat Creek
From the national park's northeast entrance, Highway 89 runs 13 miles north to the junction with Highway 44, and another 500 yards north to the subterranean and surreal realm of Subway Cave.

A relic of basalt lava flows that inundated the Hat Creek Valley about 30,000 years ago, this spacious lava tube snakes underground for 1,300 feet. Find an isolated spot in the cool recesses, turn off the flashlights, and let light deprivation and the still air give you new definitions for "dark" and "alone." Your flashlights and illuminated informational signs guide you through Stubtoe Hall (watch your step!), Lucifer's Cul-de-Sac, and other oddly named quarters of the cave. Bring two flashlights and one sweater per person.

For a walk in the sun, head across the road to Cave Campground and catch the Hat Creek Trail. A favorite with fisher-folk, it hugs the west bank of the swift-flowing stream. It also provides views of Lassen Peak, Mount Shasta, and other Cascade volcanoes. The path runs north four miles to Bridge Campground.

For more information: Hat Creek Ranger District, Lassen National Forest, (916) 336-5521.

Lower and Middle Falls of the McCloud River
Near the southeastern flanks of Mount Shasta, Highway 89 leads to the Lower and Middle Falls of the McCloud River. A one-mile trail connects the two. It begins just downstream of the Lower Falls, a ten-foot plunge which punishes a deep pool.

Skirt the edge of Fowlers Camp Campground and follow the McCloud upstream through the shaded canyon carved out of basalt. As you near the trail's end, you'll hear the thunder of the Middle Falls, even as the cool mist soothes your skin. Scramble atop the basalt boulders near the base of the falls and let the steady surge and roar of the 70-foot-wide and 35-foot-high cataract mesmerize you. Only brave and very skilled swimmers would dare to take a dip in the wide, frigid pool.

To find the path's beginning, follow Highway 89 five miles east of McCloud and turn south on the road signed for river access and wildlife viewing. Go straight and then right at two successive road forks encountered after a half-mile, and continue another three-quarters mile past Fowlers Camp Campground to the McCloud River picnic area.

For more information: McCloud Ranger District, Shasta-Trinity National Forest, (916) 964-2184.

Mount Shasta's Summit
Soaring to the dizzying height of 14,162 feet and possessing an enormous girth, Mount Shasta holds title as the undisputed mountain monarch of Northern California. No trail reaches all the way to the summit, but that doesn't prevent 30,000 people a year from trying to bag the peak.

If you want to make the attempt, or even be one of the select 3,500 who actually succeed, you must be in excellent physical condition and have the proper equipment and supplies. To find out exactly what you need (such as ice ax and crampons), and to obtain an overnight wilderness permit if you'll be spending the night on the mountain, drop by or call the Mount Shasta Ranger District (916) 926-4511). They're open Monday through Saturday from 8 to 4:30 and Sundays 8 to 11 until the end of September, Monday through Friday 8 to 4:30 thereafter.

The most popular route starts from Bunny Flat (where you'll find self-issue single-day wilderness permits). A bona fide trail leads two miles up to Horse Camp, an excellent destination with stupendous views of Shasta for those not willing or able to brave the entire journey to the top.

The path soon ends, leaving you to scramble through loose rock until you reach snow and surer footing aided by crampons. You'll lumber by Lake Helen, press up Avalanche Gulch, pass through or beside Red Banks, moan up Misery Hill, then reach the lofty summit. If you're blessed with winning weather, the diverse topography of Northern California and Southern Oregon will dazzle you with a display of peak and valley, forest and desert that stretches to far haze in the distance.

To find Bunny Flat, take the Central Mount Shasta exit off I-5, head east on Lake Street through town, curve left onto Everitt Memorial Highway, and drive eleven miles.

Panther Meadows and Gray Butte
Two relatively easy day-hikes start 2.5 miles past Bunny Flat at Panther Meadows Campground. They allow intimacy with the power of Mount Shasta without a demanding, body-stiffening climb.

The first travels uphill through the fragile and calming beauty of Panther Meadows (stay on the established trail). Halfway through its one-mile length it brings you to Panther Spring, a spiritual spot for Native Americans and one of the sources for Panther Creek, which waters the meadows.

The second, two miles one-way, crosses Panther Meadows and rises through forest to a trail fork. A right brings more forest and elevation, then an easy ridge scramble to the top of Gray Butte. From this 8,119-foot vantage point, you'll have an extensive vista that rivals that of Shasta's summit, except to the north-that view is blocked by the immense mountain itself.

For more information: Mount Shasta Ranger District, Shasta-Trinity National Forest, 204 West Alma, Mount Shasta; (916) 926-4511.

Photography courtesy of USGS

This article was first published in September 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.