Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Lassen Volcanic National Park

On Wednesday, August 6, our route to Lassen took us through Redding, California, so we took advantage of being in a city to go out for pizza. We eat well while we’re camping, but there are some things, like pizza, that we just can’t make very well on our Coleman stove.

It was getting late by the time we left Redding, and we weren’t sure if there would be any campsites in Lassen, so we found a campground at MacCumber Reservoir, just outside the park. We set up camp in the dark and went to bed.

The next morning, we drove into Lassen. As it turns out, Lassen is a pretty remote, undeveloped park, even though much of the minimal development – the entire road, some campgrounds and picnic areas – seemed to be under construction this summer. We wanted to camp at Summit Lake, which is centrally located, so we headed out there. After driving around for a while, we finally found the E loop in the South Campground, which is for tents only. It was pretty full, and many of the unoccupied sites were pretty unappealing because they were so small and close to neighbors. But after searching for a while, we found a spacious site whose occupants were leaving soon, so we took that. When they left, we set up camp and hung out for a while, reading and playing two or three games of Scrabble.

Later in the afternoon, we set out on a scenic drive toward the southwest corner of the park. Lassen has some geothermal areas similar to Yellowstone’s, although generally on a smaller scale. Sulphur Works is the most accessible of these, right at the side of the road. It doesn’t photograph especially well, partly because a chain link fence separates visitors from the main thermal feature, this mud pot that makes an impressive whomping sound.

Something else nearby was smoking.

And there were some pretty forested areas, too, where Sarah saw deer. She kept trying to point them out to Brian, but every time Brian would look, they’d be gone. We still debate whether they were just a hallucination.

Next, we stopped at the park’s main visitors center, but like much else in the park, it was under construction and closed. So we headed back toward the campground, stopping at scenic pullouts along the way.

Here’s Lassen Peak.

And some other interesting volcanic rock formations.

We stopped at Emerald Lake.

A butterfly posed for us beside the lake.

Then we decided to hike to Bumpass Hell, considered the most spectacular of the park’s geothermal areas. As we hiked up, we got a nice view of Lassen Peak with Lake Helen in the foreground.

The trail took us up to a ridge top.

Then we descended into Bumpass Hell. Bumpass Hell, believe it or not is named after a person, Mr. Bumpass. Bumpass was a cowboy working in the Lassen area who discovered the thermal area that now bears his name. There were no park boardwalks or chain-link fences at that time to protect the visitors, so Bumpass walked right out into the thermal area, broke through the thin crust, and scalded his leg in a mud pot. He did it again on a later visit, and this time his leg had to be amputated. He had described the area as “hell” to his friends, so now it’s called Bumpass Hell.

The area has beautiful pools in blue and green…

Bubbling mud pots…

And steam everywhere…

Sulfurous and sulfuric acid have turned the rock yellow and orange.

After exploring Bumpass Hell, we retraced our steps back to the trailhead. Brian ran into a protruding tree branch on the way and got a nasty gash over his rib cage, but it was just a flesh wound.

The next day, we planned to hike to the top of Lassen Peak. It’s not an especially difficult hike – 2.5 miles each way, with 2000 feet of elevation gain. Still, it looked daunting from the bottom.

We reached the top without much difficulty, though, and enjoyed views of the crater.

There’s Mt. Shasta.

All the little specks in the picture are butterflies, similar to the one pictured earlier. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of butterflies flittering around the summit, which was all the more amazing given that the wind was about enough to blow us over – it didn’t seem especially hospitable for butterflies.

This odd Cold War-looking thing was also at the summit. We’re still not sure what it was.

It was early afternoon when we headed down and the wind had really picked up. On the hike down, it was sometimes all we could do to keep our balance. We took a few pictures on the way down, but mostly hustled to get out of the wind.

By now it was time to eat, so we drove a short distance to Lake Helen, where we cooked lunch at a picnic table on the lakeshore.

On Saturday, we just kind of lazed around camp. We listened to baseball on the satellite radio (go Cubs!), played some more Scrabble, and did a lot of reading. We had discovered back in Lava Beds that the fluid in Caroline’s coolant reservoir seemed to be low and that it seemed to be leaking out – green fluid under the hood and below the car is a pretty telltale sign. But it didn’t seem to be a fast leak, so we weren’t especially concerned. When we checked today, though, the reservoir was completely empty, and the coolant in the radiator itself seemed to be low, too. Uh oh.

We’d be heading to Reno the next day, so we could get Caroline an appointment with a mechanic, but now we were concerned that we might not even make it that far without the engine overheating. So we read the owner’s manual, which told us to only use genuine Honda coolant, but in a pinch, a mixture of half antifreeze and half water will work, too, so long as the antifreeze is high-quality, made for aluminum engines. We had no idea where we’d get antifreeze in the middle of Lassen Volcanic National Park, but surely we couldn’t be the first ones to have had this problem, so we went to the campground host’s campsite. When we asked where we might find coolant, she said sternly, “Well, no one’s going to go out and get coolant for you.” That wasn’t what we asked – we asked where we’d get coolant. She didn’t seem to want to help us with that, though – she said that if an aluminum engine overheats, it’s fried, so all she could do was call AAA to tow us to Redding. Well, that was in the opposite direction from Reno, and we hadn’t had any problems with the engine temperature, so we thought we’d take our chances. Later we found out from Sarah’s dad that using plain water is fine, as long as it’s not going to have a chance to freeze.

So the next morning, we filled up all of our water bottles, crossed our fingers, and headed toward Reno. Our plan was to hike near Lake Tahoe and then check into a casino hotel for a few days.

Mt. Shasta Area

We continued driving toward Mt. Shasta on Tuesday, August 5, stopping at a roadside pullout east of the mountain that afforded a great view.

We stopped in at the ranger station in McCloud to inquire about hiking and camping. The ranger told us that climbing Shasta is really difficult in August due to crumbly rock – May and June are better because you can hike on snow. There are a lot of different routes up the mountain, varying in difficulty, but the easiest routes on the southwest side of the mountain probably wouldn’t require ice axes or crampons, although a helmet to protect us from falling rock could be useful. It’s also an extremely strenuous hike – it’s a 7000’ climb from the trailhead to the summit. We decided to pass.

Instead, we decided hiked up Black Butte, a little volcanic butte to the west of Lassen. We drove through Mt. Shasta on the way, a cute little touristy town with amazing views, and then made our way to the trailhead. We were glad we’d stopped at the ranger station – we’d never have found our way to the trailhead without the one-page hike description that the ranger had given us. We arrived to find that we were the only ones there. We loaded up our backpacks and set out.

Before too long, we got a really nice view of Shasta, and Shastina, just to the left of the main mountain. The mountain looked totally different from this side, with almost no snow clinging to it.

The hike was only about 2.5 miles one-way, so before we knew it, we were at the summit. We carefully hopped across some rocks at the top to reach a square stone shelter that protected us from the howling wind while we snacked and enjoyed the views.

Then we headed back down.

As we hiked down, we were walking along this huge mound of volcanic rock.

Back at the trailhead, we headed to Castle Crags State Park, where we camped for the evening. The campground was right next to I-5 and therefore extremely noisy. But it did have coin-operated showers ($0.50 for five minutes), so we gratefully washed off the sweat and dirt before heading to bed.

The next day, we hiked some of the trails in the park. We started by hiking out on the Flume Trail, meeting a large lizard along the way.

Then we joined up with the Pacific Crest Trail and left Castle Crags State Park for the Castle Crags Wilderness. We started to get some views of the granite formations that the area is known for.

The PCT took us back near the trailhead, but rather than ending our hike, we decided to hike out on the Crags Trail. We’d seen very few people on the Flume Trail or the PCT, but now we started to see quite a few – apparently, this trail was more popular. As we neared the Indian Spring, the views of the Crags started to open up.

The area was full of manzanita, this neat shrub where new red bark grows right over the gray dead bark.

Then we reached the spring. The only water source around, it really looks like water is pouring straight out from cracks in the rock.

The spring seemed to be a natural place to turn around, but we met a kind of crazy-seeming hiker who said he had been camping out in the wilderness for a week and his ride had ditched him and he needed a ride back to some town we’d never heard of in Oregon. We told him we weren’t headed that way, and he accepted that. But he did say that we had to hike up the trail to Castle Dome, another 1.5 miles up. You can climb up on top of the dome, he said, without any special equipment, and the 360-degree views are incredible. But don’t do it if it’s wet – that would be pretty crazy.

So we took his advice and continued hiking. As we gained elevation, we would have gotten good views of Shasta, except for the clouds that dominated the sky in that direction.

After a bit more climbing, we got our first good view of the dome.

It looked awfully steep to climb without ropes, but we wouldn’t be able to tell for sure until we got closer. We switchbacked up through some vegetation right up to the base of the dome, where we got more good craggy views.

Brian saw a route that switchbacked up cracks in the granite to about halfway up the dome, to a knob adjacent to the main dome. It turned out to be a bit sketchy in places, but the rough granite made for good traction, and he made it safely up to the knob, which afforded even better views of the Crags.

After taking a few photos, Brian searched for a route to go the rest of the way to the top of the dome. But the dome turned out to be comprised of these sheer fins that didn’t seem at all safe to climb, so he headed back down. Maybe the crazed hiker had meant 270-degree views, rather than 360 – the views from the knob were still pretty great.

On the way back down the trail, we passed these two impressive side-by-side granite monoliths.

The clouds cleared up a bit and Mt. Shasta almost came out for us, but she kept a cluster of clouds gathered around her summit.

We took one last look back at Castle Dome before heading back down.

Next we would head to Lassen Volcanic National Park!