Lassen Volcanic National Park: On the Pacific Crest

On Sunday, September 15, we spent a classic National Park day in the wild heart of Lassen Volcanic National Park. I love a day when we can rise from our tent and go see some amazingly lovely sights propelled by nothing but our own legs. On the docket for our big hike day in Lassen was an 11.6 mile loop over creeks, around lakes, and into the Park’s designated wilderness.

Saturday night into Sunday I slept much better than I had the night before. The previous night I’d been fretting about my future. But this night whenever my mind crept toward anxious thoughts, I turned it instead toward designing a plush Banana Slug. If no one made a toy Banana Slug for us to have as the souvenir animal for Redwood National Park, then dammit I’d make one myself. By morning I had it mostly worked out in my head. But I kept my plan to myself.

While I sipped my coffee and waited for Sean to emerge from our tent, I hung our hammocks. I knew that we’d relish relaxing in them in the late afternoon after a long hike. Once they were up and secure, I dropped them so that deer wouldn’t get accidentally tangled up in them. But the hammocks were waiting for us for later.

Our neighbors in the adjacent campsite were packing up to leave. We noticed a wooden cutout of Papa Smurf propped against their picnic table. Without our asking about it they somewhat sheepishly explained that it was something of a mascot for them. These same neighbors later drove their car well into their campsite, causing a patrolling ranger to reprimand them that they were to only have a vehicle in the site’s parking area.

We prepared our breakfast skillets and watched a Ground Squirrel digging a burrow nearby.

Ground Squirrel burrow

Later when I was walking over to the pit toilet, I remarked to a ranger about how incredibly clean the campground was. “Cleanest we’ve ever seen.” He remarked that it was easy to keep a campground clean when it’s only open barely three months a year.

Oh yeah. It was a reminder of how short the Lassen Volcanic season really is. And in mid-September we were fast approaching its end.

Wolf Lichen

Mule Deer

As we were prepping our day packs for our hike, a Mule Deer doe and two fawns browsed in the skunk cabbage between our site and another loop. Unfortunately, a stupid woman walking with her dog off leash in our campsite (the fuck?) spooked the deer. Mama ran one direction and the twins tore off in the opposite direction away from the hysterical dog. Hopefully they were able to locate each other without too much trouble.

Leash your dogs, people.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch in Wolf Lichen

The campground was palpably emptying as we shouldered our packs and headed toward the trailhead at the southern end of the campground. Tonight it appeared it would be much quieter in camp, not that it hadn’t been quiet to begin with.

Instead of doing a classic Lassen Volcanic hike that strings together many small lakes, we opted instead to do an alternate since the other loop route was extensively damaged by the 2012 Reading Fire. Our route would end with part of that other route and several of the lakes right at the edge of the burn area.

East of the Park Road, using Summit Lake Campground as a focal point, many trails fan out across the comparatively untrammeled eastern half of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Our route was comprised of three sections. First was a 2.8-mile descent from the campground at 6,700 feet to Corral Meadow and Kings Creek at 6,000 feet. From there we’d head north/northeast on the Pacific Crest Trail for 4.8 miles, slowly gaining 500 feet of elevation until we reached Lower Twin Lake. From there we’d leave the Pacific Crest Trail and head west another four miles to Summit Lake, rising another 600 feet to top out at 7,100 feet on a ridge east of the lake before descending another 400 feet to the campground and trailhead.

We headed out at just about a quarter to eleven. The sun was high and it was warm, but there was a lovely soft breeze.

Rydberg’s Penstemon

Greenleaf Manzanita

I realized shortly after we’d started that I hadn’t connected my water tube to my pouch, but happily I’d stowed the tube and didn’t have to go back to camp to get it. While I fussed with my hydration system Sean swung my hiking poles around like a samurai.

The trail traversed a relatively open Western woodland on a gradual, yet steady descent.

Lassen Volcanic strikes me as a very wet Park, both because of the persistent snowpack here and there, but also because of the many lakes and innumerable small creeks and brooks.

Zerene Fritillary on Mountain Coyote Mint

Soon downslope to our right we heard and then saw one of the Park’s unnamed creeks, making its way down along with us to Kings Creek.

Our path led right down to its banks.

Video: Brandon Hayes/Sean M. Santos

A bit of trash in the creek, unfortunately out of our reach.

Here it was wetter and the little creek caused a thicket of shrubbery to grow up in the forest understory.

Columbian Monkshood

Here too were lovely and delicate wildflowers.

Douglas Fir

Crimson Columbine

Kings Creek

Before we knew it, we’d arrived at Kings Creek and our little feeder ended its journey in this more robust waterway downstream from its waterfall.

Kings Creek

Kings Creek

KIngs Creek

Kings Creek

Just after we crossed Kings Creek, the trail ascended and traversed a fairly steep slope above Kings Creek, maybe seventy-five feet below us on our left.

Kings Creek

Kings Creek

Shortly we descended again as we dropped into Corral Meadow.

At five minutes past noon we reached the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail. From here we’d turn and head north/northeast on the PCT 4.8 miles to Lower Twin Lake.

Kings Creek

But first we had to figure out where to cross Kings Creek, here much wider than it was even the short distance upstream where we’d just crossed it.

Kings Creek

Kings Creek

We’d probably have just waded across if it had been clearer where on the other side we were aiming. But all along the other shore appeared to be shoreline shrubs and grasses. Thinking about it now, it was probably much easier to see the trail on our side since it appeared to be a relatively well-traveled hub of multiple trails (and likely a popular overnight camping spot in Corral Meadow).

Hydaspe Fritillary. Video: Sean M. Santos

While I tried to figure out where to cross, Sean shot some video of a butterfly enjoying hydration near the creek’s edge.

Yes, this was clearly a popular rest/camp spot, since someone forgot their contact lens wrapper. I slipped it into my pack to carry out. It was funny seeing signs of life since on the whole way down from Summit Lake we’d seen no other hikers.

Purple Monkey-Flower

Kings Creek

After some ten minutes, we crossed Kings Creek just slightly (a few dozen feet) downstream from the trail on a “bridge”made from logs.

After slipping through the shrubs at the creek’s bank, we easily spotted the trail again. Then we saw two fellows hiking down the trail toward us. The bearded one of the two greeted us. They had set out from Summit Lake Campground early in the morning doing our loop the opposite direction. The bearded fellow asked us, “Is it all up hill from here?” We confirmed that it was. He turned to his olive-skinned companion, “I guess you were right.” His companion smiled wryly. The two shouldered their packs and after a “good hike” all around, we set off in our opposite directions.

The trail ascended quickly out of the gentle valley formed by Kings Creek. Near the top of the slope, we were greeted by a woman solo hiker headed toward us. She greeted us and asked if we were through hikers. Perhaps she was just being polite, since there was no way we looked like Pacific Crest Trail through hikers. Regardless, we chatted for a bit. She wanted to know how far it was to Kings Creek. We confirmed for her that it was a few hundred yards, if that. She was on a through hike of the PCT and she shared her nervousness about the coming bad weather with thunderstorms forecast for the next day. We’d not heard about that, but then again we’d not checked the weather. She resolved that even though she was loathe to take a zero-mile day, she might look for lodging in Warner Valley at the southern edge of the Park. “I don’t want to get trapped camping in a lightning storm. I’ve already done that once.” We agreed that that getting a room sounded like a good idea. Then we chatted about cameras for a few more minutes before wishing each other luck. And again we headed off in opposite directions.

Video: Sean M. Santos

We continued along the “grassy swale” indicated on the Trails Illustrated map. It was indeed that, an open, almost wetland within the forested ridges.

As we hiked along, we chatted about our friends’ pets, Sean’s “Brown Dolphin” persona, and the continuation of Sean’s plans to redo our camping closet, which had also been the topic during our big day hike at Redwood National Park.

Wolf Lichen on Lodgepole Pine

Up out of the grassy swale area, the trees grew taller and we spotted a cool, barkless snag suspended on its fellows.

At a few minutes after one, after crossing another unnamed creek (the one that supplied the grassy swale with its water), we stopped in a pleasant creekside clearing for a snack.

Pacific Tree Frog

We had just gotten back on the trail when we spied a tiny frog. It was a Pacific Tree Frog, and it would end up being the animal we’d use to represent Lassen Volcanic National Park in our menagerie. (Because they make plush toy Pacific Tree Frogs but not Banana Slugs?)

It was pleasant walking, almost imperceptibly uphill, as we passed in and out of the woods and the grassy swale.

Claw marks (Black Bear)

We encountered a towheaded young through hiker, again headed south opposite us. He said hello and continued past. Sean later said that he got the impression that he’d wanted to chat more but was shy.



Although we didn’t doubt the possibility of thunderstorms the next day, for us, the afternoon was glorious for September hiking.

Scarlet Paintbrush

Western Mountain Aster

After trending northeast since the Kings Creek crossing, the trail turned north and ascended more steeply toward a table.

This was mature, open Pacific forest, scrappy from fighting fire and snow and ice, but protected for over a century and designated as wilderness for decades. It was wonderful.

Greenleaf Manzanita

Crater Butte

Up on the table, we could see Crater Butte near at hand to the northeast.

Lodgepole Pine

Swan Lake

We crossed the table and got our first glimpse of a lake, diminutive Swan Lake just east of the trail.

Wolf Lichen

Swan Lake

Tree Hair Lichen

This clump of lichen looks like an abandoned hair extension. Sean went through a period in his life when he would randomly encounter weaves separated from their owners. Both of us thought this was a weave at first.

Swan Lake

Upper Twin Lake

A bit beyond Swan Lake, we spied Upper Twin Lake off to the west and below us.

Lower Twin Lake

The table ended above Lower Twin Lake. We stopped for a moment to breathe in the sunlight and loveliness before heading down the trail to the lakeshore.

Lower Twin Lake

We left the Pacific Crest Trail and sat down on a log near the lake for a second snack. It was ten minutes to three, but the shadows were already lengthening.

Lower Twin Lake

As we ate, a group of young hiker/campers passed us on the trail. We weren’t sure if they even noticed us.

Lower Twin Lake

Across the lake, we could see a touch of the fire damage from the Reading Fire. Here was the southern extent of its reach.

After our snack, we continued on our way. We had left the PCT, and now we were on the trail that would take us the four miles back to Summit Lake and our campsite.

Lower Twin Lake

The trail skirted the southern shore of Lower Twin Lake at a quiet cove.

Lower Twin Lake

Lower Twin Lake

It was lovely.

Lower Twin Lake

Lower Twin Lake

Wolf Lichen

Bufflehead on Lower Twin Lake

Lower Twin Lake

Upper Twin Lake

The trail left Lower Twin Lake and continued west to Upper Twin Lake. On its eastern shore, the group of youth had stopped to rest. We passed them, and then the trail traversed the lake’s northern shore.

Upper Twin Lake

Upper Twin Lake

It, too, was lovely. And it reminded me quite a bit actually of hiking in Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Upper Twin Lake

Upper Twin Lake

Upper Twin Lake

Upper Twin Lake

After Upper Twin Lake, the trail ascended in some gentle switchbacks up a ridge. We were now beginning our mild ascent to the highest point on our day’s hike.

The trail leveled out at a crescent-shaped lake too small for an official name. I wanted to call it Lake Elsa, but Sean did not like that idea.

As we hiked along, we were overtaken by two hikers, one of whom didn’t know where he was. As in, he didn’t know he was in the Cascades. His companion was only somewhat more certain that yes, they were in the Cascades.

We passed another tiny, unnamed lake. Really, it was little more than a lovely pond at the bottom of a bit of scree.

Echo Lake

We reached Echo Lake, the final in our lovely string of six.

Echo Lake

Echo Lake

We passed a couple sitting on its shore enjoying the breeze and the sunshine.

Echo Lake

Echo Lake

From Echo Lake we made our final ascent of the day, about 300 feet up a ridge that would top out at 7,100 feet, our highest elevation of the day.

Pinemat Manzanita

Western Sagebrush Lizard

The top of the ridge was a truly glorious landscape.

Here well-spaced conifers soared over a low understory of Pinemat Manzanita.

The carpet of Manzanita betrayed the harshness of the winters when on this exposed ridge it would likely be buried under dozens of feet of snow. But on this warm late summer afternoon, it was fragrant and glorious.

Sean stopped to take it in and declared that this was his favorite spot in this most beautiful National Park.

Pinemat Manzanita

Up ahead as the trail began to lead us down the western side of the ridge we got a stupendous view of Lassen Peak.

Lassen Peak

I want to someday return to Summit Lake Campground so that I can slip out of the tent pre-dawn and come up to this ridge for the sunrise view and early morning light on Lassen Peak amid all this loveliness.

Hat Mountain

The trail dropped us swiftly down the ridge toward Summit Lake, and we passed some couples and solo hikers heading both up and down the trail.

Summit Lake

At the bottom, Summit Lake shimmered for us.

At the trail junction, we encountered a large family that seemed to have just arrived at camp and were looking around. The kids among them advocated for walking to the waterfall (an 8.6 mile round trip). Mom responded, “Let’s just walk around the lake.” Likely a wise decision because many of them were in flip-flops.

Summit Lake and Lassen Peak

Summit Lake

Summit Lake

We strolled along the path around Summit Lake toward our campsite.

Summit Lake

Summit Lake

We arrived back in camp at 5:30pm.

In all, it was a glorious 11.6-mile hike that took us about six hours and forty-five minutes.

We pulled off our boots and plopped into our hammocks. I dozed off and on in between chapters of Rebecca Solnit.

Longleaf Aster and Skunk Cabbage

I wandered up to the campground station to check the posted weather forecast and came back to give Sean the bad news: a 40% chance of showers after 11pm with thunderstorms rolling in after 11am. Oh well. It looked like a morning visit to Bumpass Hell wouldn’t be in the cards after all. We decided to prepare for a morning departure to continue on to Crater Lake.

Sean started a campfire, and we prepped our supper of brats on the end of our sourdough rounds. Our biodegradable cooler which kept our perishables warm was definitely done. We’d have to get something else for our coming three nights of camping at Crater Lake.

After supper, we enjoyed the fire while sipping gins and tonic and writing notes and doing species IDs.

Mule Deer

We heard something in our campsite. It was a Mule Deer doe, quite close. Alarmingly close, actually. She had come for salt, and apparently didn’t care that we were there. She remained throughout the evening.

Eventually, we used up the remainder of our firewood, doused the coals, and went to bed. Sean reported that when he got up to pee in the middle of the night, she was still there.

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