Mount Lassen, Pt. 1

I’ve been planning this backpacking trip with my girls for a long time. Well, I’ve been planning to take them backpacking since they were BORN. But this particular trip has been a long time in the works as well. There were a lot of logistics to get into place, not to mention a lot of gear to locate or purchase. (Another time I’ll do a separate post about our evolving gear list. Especially for kids, who are doing stuff like growing out of shoes before we can get home from the store (hyperbole! but barely), it’s a challenge locating gear that is sufficiently sturdy but also doesn’t destroy our budget).

After a whole lot of research (ie reading hiking blogs and generally daydreaming), I decided on Mount Lassen National Park. There are some great loop trails, the geology of the area is historically interesting (boring, Mom!) and visually exciting (yay!). It’s only about 4 hours from Sacramento, but it turns out that Lassen is one of the least visited national parks in the country. Everyone heads to Yosemite or other desitinations in the High Sierra, but we were headed north to volcano country! Bonus, a tiny portion of the trail we are to hike intersects with the PCT. Not gonna lie, that had a lot to do with my decision. I wanted my feet on the trail, even for a mile and a half.

Our group was myself, my girlfriend Sal, my daughters Isabel (10) and Yolanda (9), with a bonus last minute addition of my super kick-ass parents. Let me tell you about my parents: They are both 65 this year and they are basically the most amazing ever. They hike, they mountain bike, they ski, they water-ski, they ill-advisedly ride razor scooters with the grandkids, they go to the gym 6 days a week and they are generally so amazing that I can’t even. My mom has said that as soon as we started making her grandkids she was determined that they wouldn’t be ol sittin-on-the-porch grandparents. (This is probably a separate post, but my parents have NEVER been sittin’-around type folks. My engagement with the outdoors is a direct result of a childhood spent not just out-of-doors, but being immersed in ALL THE NATURE. Thanks, parents!)

Ready to set out L-R Sal, Yolanda, myself, Isabel, Mom and Dad (kneeling with his pack from 1969)

Our plan was to arrive at Summit Lake  Friday night and base camp there the first night. Then hike out  Saturday morning, past Echo Lake  and camp at Lower Twin Lake. The following morning we were going to head for the Cluster Lakes, camping probably at Silver Lake. Then Monday morning hike out around Hat Mountain and back to Summit Lake trailhead. Total trip: about 12 miles. This seemed totally doable but things didn’t go quite as planned.

First: Getting There

I am never reminded so strongly of the fact that we live in a valley as when I head north. As the central valley narrows, it becomes increasingly easy to see the mountains marching parallel lines down either side of this vast level plain. A favorite fantasy, going back to my childhood making sumer trips to Sacramento to visit my grandparents, is imagining myself one of the first white settlers coming over the Sierras and getting the first glimpses of this enormous valley and these massive rivers flowing through it. It must have seemed a paradise (ripe for exploitation! But this isn’t about that and my childhood dream was blessedly free of colonizing overtones). My small family drives north on Hwy 99, through endless fruit and nut orchards (undoubtedly the ancestor trees from those first colonists), tiny towns with names like Gridley and Live Oak causing the highway to stop and start. We catch glimpses of the Feather River winding through the bottomlands. We see signs for the resurgence of the State of Jefferson. Passing the Sierra Buttes, the girls and I discuss this tiniest of mountain ranges and make a plan to return and hike them. Also, we make a lot of See-Our-Butts jokes. Because butts.

When we reach Chico we hang a hard right. And yes, it feels exactly like that. Now the low hills that have been marching alongside us leap to the front. The road almost immediately begins to rise. First through rolling hills and then, abruptly, the landscape changes. There is a hard peppley look to the ground. Sharp black rocks jut from the roadside. The land drops away to one side to reveal amazingly sheer mesas topped with scraggly brush across steep ravines. This is volcano country, folks!

Then into the mountains. The road winds and curves in that way of mountain roads that I love so much. These roads feel like home; they remind me of the roads on which I learned to drive. We follow Deer Creek, finally coming to the entrance of Lassen National Park that vaults you even more suddenly into the high country. The big trees drop away and we are winding between crumbly banks of red dirt and lava plugs that poke black fingers skyward. After entering the park we made a quick stop at Bumpass Hell to the use the potties, but we don’t linger or hike down to the hot springs. We’re anxious to get to camp and there is a crazy cold wind up on the peak. We got to experience the very unique sensation of a brisk breeze blowing UP AND OUT of the pit toilets. WHOA!!!! (insert more butt jokes here. It’s pretty much what we do).

Got to our camp at Summit Lake North campground and set up camp. A lovely evening of enjoying the campfire, playing cards and rearranging our packs. Camping like this feels comforting and safe. I think we’re ready for some real adventure though!!

Bumpass Hell–just barely below the clouds at 8000 ft.
Isabel in camp. She was super bummed that she couldn’t fit her book in her pack.

I woke up Saturday morning much early than the rest of the family (of course). After a trip to the bathroom, I wandered down towards Summit lake. The mist was rising off the lake in big dramatic swirls and Lassen Peak itself was lit up in the alpenglow. I sat on a log while enormous black ants scurried around my feet, soaking in all the magical-ness. The early morning cool air, the movement of the mist on the water, the brightening sky and long fingers of snow snaking down the flanks of the peak. The tiny wildflowers and the impossibly clear lake running it’s sandy bottom right up to the edge of the grass.

There are times when you are in just exactly the right spot and you have the good luck to realize it while it’s happening. Everything was aligned and exquisite and just-so for that moment of beauty. When that happens nothing else matters. Except it benefits you to try to remember to remember to keep your internal eyes opened for that alignment when it comes. Because that is something not to be missed.

Next: Adventuring Begins (includes bonus whining)

sandy bottom, grassy verge
Lassen Peak being kind of a show-off

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