The plan: see as much of the park as possible without over-doing the hiking. This route meanders through grassy meadows, along creeks (and through them), past water falls, through pine forests, among steaming pits of molten sulfur, across volcanic lava beds and scree, over the top of a cinder cone, and past many lakes. In the United States there is really only one destination where this is possible within a 50 mile window – Lassen Volcanic National Park! This figure-8 loop covers all you could want to see. You won’t be alone out there… but the experience is worth putting up with a little traffic on the trails.
Destination: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Trail Head: King’s Creek Trailhead (elev ~7300 ft)
Distance: 48 mile loop, 7910 ft gained, 7910 ft lost (~330 ft/mi avg)
Remoteness: Crowds near trailheads and most landmarks, most hikers on the trails are day hikers.
Motivation: Experience all that the park has to offer including it’s lakes, meadows, and volcanic areas.
Notes: No dispersed camping in Warren Valley. Stay on trails in areas of geothermal activity!!
The Report from Our Trip :: Sep 01-05, 2011
We began at the Southwest Park entrance on a Thursday afternoon. We left the car at Kings Creek Meadow, where many day hikers embark to see King’s Creek Falls and further destinations such as Horseshoe and Twin Lakes. There are quite a few people around but after crossing the creek each step took us further from the masses, until finally… solitude. Our trail on the first day led down past Bench Lake, which is very small, yet beautiful. Continuing southeast we eventually joined up a beautiful section of the PCT which traverses a steep cliff to descend into Warner Valley. There may be an old use-trail which shortcuts down the cliff… but we couldn’t find it and if it’s there, it’ll be one steep scramble. Once down in the valley we back tracked north-west, past Drakesbad Guest Ranch (which looks awesome!) and through a large meadow toward Devil’s Kitchen.
The Devil’s Kitchen area is much like Bumpass Hell – but without the crowds. It’s not difficult to tell when you’re getting close to the volcanic stuff; the aroma of sulfur hits the nose like a bee sting! As we emerged from a short stretch of pine forest the view changed drastically to a barren and ominous wasteland with vapors rising up from cracks in the ground and bubbling mud. It’s important to stay on the path here!
We finally had enough of the sulfur and bailed. Doubling back into the valley we passed by Drakesbad Guest Ranch again, and then the car-campground which is one of the many reminders that you’re never that far “out there” at Lassen, which is also what makes this trip a great introductory backpacking trip for anyone looking to break into some multi-day exploration. Anyway, we had a late start to the day and decided to just hunker down at the campground. It’s important to note that there is no dispersed camping allowed in the valley… and for us it beat having to walk several more miles at dark into an unknown area, in search of a spot to camp.
Started with a short walk to the trail which climbs back out of the valley. We crept along the 2+ mile up the fairly steep trail as the views got better and better. It wasn’t hot yet so the going was pretty alright. At the top we plopped down for a snack then made our way down to Juniper Lake which is the largest lake in the park. The water was beautiful, clear, and cold! Good spot to have lunch and just enjoy it.
Moving on, now in a northward direction, the trail flattens out and walking is easy. We descend down gently towards Cameron Meadow and then… come to a halt. At this point we’re probably less than a half mile from our destination, Snag Lake, and the trail has vanished! The park was still soaking wet and the grasses in the meadow very high. There were several bushwhacks going out, into, and around it and they all dead ended. I got the map out and took a compass bearing but I wasn’t sure exactly where we were, so it was only of limited use, and all around the meadow is thick forest – very thick. After about 30 minutes of searching for the trail we sat down and talked it over… We could venture into the trees where zero evidence of use trail and zero visibility existed and hope my compass bearing was close, hope we could stay on that bearing (easier said than done when you’re weaving around trees constantly), and if we missed our mark it could turn into hours of walking in the woods. Or we could backtrack a mile, then catch an alternate trail that would lead to the lake and only add a few miles to our day. That sounded better so we set out for the spur trail and hoped it would be there!
The trail was there, right along Grassy Creek. It was a nice walk and eventually led us to the lake. We were tired, it had been a solid day especially with that climb early on. The lake bed was dark volcanic sand, a sign that the scenery would be changing again soon. We set up camp as the sun set and the deer wandered through and circled around. In the morning we saw that only one other couple camped at the lake and they decided to skinny dip, so we did too… the water was invigorating!
We set off toward “the” Cinder Cone, which is actually one of several in the park, but clearly the most prominent. Along the way we passed the Fantastic Lava Beds (love this name!) which butt right up against the north side of Snag Lake. The walking is tough because the ground gives way to loose volcanic sand. Think: walking along the beach, but uphill, while carrying a backpack. Even though it was not that hot yet, the volcanic rock and sand reflects the sun and radiates heat. It felt as if we were standing on a blacktop just baking there.
The trail up to the top of the Cinder Cone is somewhat steep and very, very loose. Without poles, there are sections where using your hands and bear crawling is the way to go. Eventually we got to the top and WOW. You can’t find a place like this just anywhere, much less stand on it. The cone was huge. Although it was possible to walk down in to the sunken middle we decided to just skirt the perimeter and enjoy the view. It was still somewhat early in the day and there were only several people up there with us, it is a very surreal place. For a chance to experience it alone, leave at dark and crest it as the sun rises over the Painted Dunes.
Going down is much easier than going up – think glissading in the snow! Lots of tourists were headed up as we descended past them. There is a trailhead a couple of miles away near the campground on that side of the park. We breezed right through and started circumnavigating Butte Lake. The lava beds are even neater from this side, forming islands along one side of the Butte Lake. Kayakers seemed to enjoy exploring the fingers of volcanic rock. We found a good place to camp back off the trail not too far from the lake, then went for a swim. Felt good to get all that red dust off.
Would take us back past Snag Lake (the opposite side) and into the last part of our figure-8 loop. Rainbow Lake would be our stopping point for lunch. Rainbow is smaller and very pretty. A few people were swimming there. It seemed like a good time for a photo and that’s when I realized that the camera had accidentally been left on and the batter was dead. Bummer! Oh well. We decided to move on, passing Lower Twin Lake and ending up back on the PCT heading toward Swan Lake. This was the spot for our last night out. Of course all of the lakes that we passed after the camera died were the most beautiful of the trip, surrounded by pines with clear pristine water. We camped next to Swan Lake and decided another swim/bath was in order. The water felt good and it was even better to have time to wash our hair (without soap, of course) and let it dry in the afternoon sun.
That night we had a great dinner of split pea soup, hard salami, and crackers. It was maybe the most tasty meal of the trip. It was our last night out and the perfect way to end the trip. Best camping spot, most beautiful lake, and the best meal in 5 days. After watching the sunset we called it a night and sacked out.
The way out is mostly uphill, steep at points but not terribly difficult. After getting over the hill we dropped back down toward King’s Creek. This time we had to cross it several times. The water was higher from the monster snowfall of 2011 and many bridges and crossings were washed out. We did one stream crossing about waist-deep and WHOA that water was cold! After that it was all about using log jams to cross while staying dry. We finally got to see King’s Falls as we neared the point from where we started. Sandra D used her iPhone to snap a few shots.
Finishing up with the waterfall was a nice touch. Lassen showed us many different sides of itself. Fifty miles later the trip had come full circle and now our thoughts were shifting back to things like the candy bars stashed in the car as we hauled it up the hill passing tourists one after another. Whatever Lassen lacks in solitude, it makes up for with its incredibly diverse and interesting topography! -JD