After 27,000 years of inactivity, Lassen Peak in northern California reasserted its presence as an active volcano in a series of eruptions between 1914 and 1917, including a massive explosion on May 22, 2015 that rained ash as far as Elko, Nevada, nearly 300 miles to the east. The outburst was the first volcanic eruption in the contiguous United States since the establishment of the United States in 1776 and one of only two volcanoes in the lower 48 states to have erupted since 1900. Although it has since returned to its somnolent state, Lassen Peak—at 10,457 feet—dominates the landscape east of Redding, California, rising well above the rest of the southern Cascades between the Klamath Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.
The volcano is now the centerpiece of Lassen Volcanic National Park, which spans more than 100,000 acres of lush forests, serene lakes, craggy peaks, and active hydrothermal areas. The Lassen Peak Trail, which takes off from the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway (roughly 7 miles from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center) leads to the summit that overlooks it all. This strenuous climb ascends nearly 2,000 feet in 2.5 miles, but the panoramic views and opportunity to peer into the caldera at the top make this one of the most popular hikes in the park. (Note: Expect Lassen Peak to be snow-covered through at least early June; after heavy-snow winters, the highway leading to the trailhead may be closed until late July or even August.)
The Lassen Peak Trailhead is situated just shy of the highest point on the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway at roughly 8,500 feet above sea level—a 7-mile drive from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center in the southwest of the park. The parking area is large but often crowded and has a pair of restrooms. The towering volcano is visible right from the start, and the obvious trail leading up the peak is immaculately crafted and easy to follow for the entire length of the hike.
The uphill begins right away as the wide Lassen Peak Trail bears north toward the massive mountain, then cuts right at the first of many switchbacks after 300 yards. The bowl off to the west may bear snow or water into mid-summer, making for a beautiful sight right at the start. The 9,222-foot peak in the distance is Eagle Peak, easily shrouded by its taller cousins.
As the trail approaches a second bend at ¼ mile, it weaves through a small grove of whitebark pines, the last real forest on the hike: load up on sunscreen, as the rest of the walk will be highly exposed with little shade. As the trail continues northward, it skirts the forest on the left, then bears right and climbs to a shelf with the hike’s first views southeast to Lake Almanor, a manmade reservoir and popular boating area outside the park. The lake sits at roughly the boundary between the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada, the two most prominent ranges in eastern California.
At 6/10 mile, the trail cuts left and rises to a spot that offers views of Helen Lake and Brokeoff Mountain (9,235’) to the southwest. Brokeoff is the second highest peak in the park and the most prominent remains of a stratovolcano called Mount Tehama that was partly eroded away by receding glaciers. After another pair of switchbacks, the broad Central Valley—with the California Coast Range beyond—comes into view to the west, and a small wayside (titled “Piercing the Rubble”) points out the talus slopes on Lassen Peak, formed during the latest eruptions in 1914-17. By now you have travelled about one mile and gained about 650 feet in elevation.
Each switchback brings better and better views: to the southwest, the entire range—from Lassen to Eagle Peak to Mount Diller (9,085’) and Brokeoff Mountain—comes into view, while vistas broaden to the south and east as well: the primary bulge below is Reading Peak (8,714’), which overlooks the still waters of Shadow Lake. One can also see as far east as the desolate ranges of western Nevada.
At 1.25 miles, the route ascends its first stone steps, then climbs to clear a set of volcanic crags on the left. At 1.8 miles, the trail skirts a rock cleft with a little archway on the left. By now hikers have gained around 1,400 feet from the trailhead.
The final stretch to the top is certain to be the most exposed to the sun and wind, and the seemingly endless switchbacks leave hikers huffing and puffing, happy to stop to let downhill hikers pass. At last, the trail levels off at 2.25 miles—though not the true summit, one can see northward to the volcanic caldera and beyond for the first time. Though lacking a steaming hole like one might see at, say, Hawaii’s Kilauea, the remains of past explosions are evident: deep clefts in the mountaintop, surrounded by volcanic black crags.
From the “false summit,” one can also see the perennially snow-capped Mount Shasta (14,179’) to the north, perhaps an even more impressive volcano that also has remained dormant for thousands of years. Also to the northwest are the Trinity Alps, a beautiful range of often snow-topped peaks, as well as the northernmost reaches of the Central Valley.
The hike is not yet done, however: the true summit lies another 300 yards farther, requiring hikers to dip down into a brief notch before climbing again, this time up a steep and rocky traverse that requires some careful footing. Space at the true summit is relatively limited, but there are plenty of spaces to stop for a snack and rest just below the top.
From the summit, hikers finally complete the panorama with fine views to the northeast—to the Butte Lake area and Cinder Cone (6,907’), another volcanic feature of the park. In fact, from Lassen Peak, hikers can see one of each of the four types of volcanoes in the world: cinder cone (Cinder Cone), shield (Prospect Peak), composite (Brokeoff), and plug dome (Lassen Peak).
Backtracking from the summit, it is also common to spot visitors veering off to the north to explore the crater area: do so with caution, as the area is often snow-covered and has lots of loose gravel, and the climb to the western rim of the peak is surprisingly steep. Hikers are rewarded, however, with views of Manzanita Lake and Chaos Crags to the northwest, as well as unobstructed vistas of Mount Shasta and the Trinities.
From here it is a long and winding return back the way you came to the trailhead. Yet the wide-reaching vistas, blissful downhill, and satisfaction of having climbed a recently active volcano are likely to leave visitors cheery on the way down. All told, the out-and-back hike clocks in at just under five miles, a roughly 3- to 5-hour journey.
Lacking a dramatic backdrop or alpine allure, Drake Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park is perhaps a somewhat run-of-the-mill destination, but the real rewards of this roughly five-mile hike are the terrific views and spectacular mountain meadows along the way. Drake Lake sits atop a forested shelf south of remote Warner Valley, the start and end point for the moderately-difficult walk. The description below traces a 5.5-mile stem-and-loop that requires a wet stream crossing and can be combined with a detour to the hydrothermal Devil’s Kitchen area that adds two miles round-trip to the hike. (Note: To avoid the stream crossing—which is regularly ankle- to knee-high—you can simply drop the loop portion.)
Although just a few miles’ walk from the main highway through Lassen Volcanic National Park, the Warner Valley Trailhead is a full 1 ½ hour drive from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center in the southern reaches of the park. From the town of Chester, California, bear west of Feather River Drive and then left on Warner Valley Road, following it for 15.5 miles. (Note: The last three miles are unpaved but passable to 2WD vehicles.) Pull into the trailhead on the left—or, if you’re staying at the Warner Valley Campground or Drakesbad Guest Ranch, continue down the road.
At the trailhead, follow the route heading west, the main gateway to the area’s many trails, including the Devil’s Kitchen hike and trek up to Terminal Geyser, Little Willow Lake, and Boiling Springs Lake. Stay left at the first junction at 1/10 mile, where hikers join the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Continue on the PCT as it briefly traverses a verdant meadow blanketed with beautiful corn lilies and then veers left to the banks of Hot Springs Creek, the main waterway in the area. At 4/10 mile, cross a wooden bridge over the stream and climb to a modest shelf with views of the meadows below. At 6/10 mile, with Drakesbad Guest Ranch visible down to the right, the PCT passes a tributary creek on the left—tin-colored and exuding a mild steam, this “hot” stream is the only hydrothermal feature visible on the hike (although one can easily detour to nearby Boiling Springs Lake or Devil’s Kitchen).
After a gradual descent, the trail splits: head left to begin the loop portion of the hike (you will return to this point in a few hours). After a brief and mild climb on the impeccably-maintained path, hikers will reach another junction minutes later. This time take a right on the Drake Lake Trail, which immediately crosses a (usually dry) streambed, then enters a dense woodland of pines, firs, and cedars.
From here the Drake Lake Trail bears southward under a thick canopy of conifers. This section is considerably less-travelled than other routes in Warner Valley and often thins to a narrow strip that is sometimes difficult to discern from its surroundings. After turning westward, the path crosses a series of streambeds, some of which bear trickles of water. At 1.7 miles, the trail forks: continue left toward Drake Lake.
For the next 300 yards or so, the trail remains relatively level, but after rounding a left-hand bend, the path begins a tough and steep climb, gaining more than 500 feet in a half-mile. Fortunately, this is also one of the most scenic stretches of the hike: as the path switchbacks up a manzanita-dotted slope, views of Warner Valley, Mount Harkness (8,045’), and eventually Lassen Peak (10,457’) open up to the north.
Just after the hulking mass of Lassen Peak comes into the picture, the trail levels off, a welcome respite for hikers—and a sign that the lake is near. From here it is a roughly ¼ mile walk, along a well-defined path, to Drake Lake. This quiet backwater lacks a dramatic backdrop, aside from the endless sea of towering conifers. Yet the lake is certainly still a peaceful spot, even more so if one continues down the faint trail that hugs the western shores for roughly ¼ mile (Note: The route continues for another mile to the park boundary.)
After a short break (and perhaps a dip in the lake?), most will turn around here, returning down the sharp slope to the trail junction. Hikers can either head right to complete the out-and-back, or you can continue left to complete a slightly longer—but more scenic—loop option. From the fork, the onward trail heading north descends gradually toward the sound of water. After spotting Hot Springs Creek off to the left, one is confronted with it head-on. Lacking a bridge, hikers are faced with a choice between a sketchy log traverse or—more safely—a wet slog through the flowing stream. (Note: As of June 2020, the creek was between ankle- and knee-high.) Despite its name, Hot Springs Creek is pleasantly cool.
After the wet crossing, the trail drops to another, smaller stream—this one easily crossed with a short hop. At 4.0 miles, the route merges with the Devil’s Kitchen Trail, heading east-west. Adding the 2-mile out-and-back to the sulfuric hell of boiling pools and fumaroles at Devil’s Kitchen is well worth the detour, but those wanting to head back to the trailhead should continue right.
Follow the wide path as it skirts the Drakesbad meadows on the right and then traverses a wooden boardwalk across the open plain. After a brief return to the woods, the route breaks out into the open again, crossing through the heart of the meadow as Mount Harkness dominates the skyline to the east. Eventually the path crosses a small bridge and returns to the coniferous forest, reaching a junction at 4.6 miles. Bear right, crossing a bridge over Hot Springs Creek.
Just past the bridge, hikers are greeted with another junction—skip the spur trail heading right to Dream Meadow (a somewhat drab destination)—instead bearing left. From here the trail skirts a jumble of rocks and climbs mildly back to the start of the loop section at the base of a massive cedar tree. Head left at this junction and follow the PCT for 6/10 mile back to Warner Valley Trailhead.
The Drake Lake Trail is certainly not by itself worth the lengthy trip out to Lassen’s Warner Valley—but if combined with a visit to nearby Devil’s Kitchen or Boiling Springs Lake, it’s a pleasant and relatively rarely-visited destination. All told, the 5.5-mile stem-and-loop described here should take 3-4 hours.
Devil’s Kitchen, the second-largest hydrothermal area in California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, is a quieter—but no less smelly—alternative to the popular Bumpass Hell. The area owes its relative solitude to its location in remote Warner Valley: despite being a few miles from the main highway through the park, the trailhead is a full 1 ½ hour drive from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. Yet the hike itself is reasonably short and easy, with a modest 450-foot elevation gain the course of over two miles. The acidic fumaroles at Devil’s Kitchen may smell like rotten eggs, but they are an awesome peek into the volcanic underbelly of Lassen Peak, one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous US to blow its top since 1900. The route to Devil’s Kitchen follows part of the Pacific Crest Trail and traverses splendid meadows and thick coniferous forest before reaching the hydrothermal site. (Note: Visitors can add a detour to nearby Drake Lake for a roughly 7-mile stem-and-loop, or trek over to Boiling Springs Lake and Terminal Geyser on the south side of the valley.)
To reach the Warner Valley Trailhead, head west on Feather River Drive in the town of Chester, California, then stay left on Warner Valley Road and follow it for 15.5 miles. The last three miles are dirt/gravel but usually passable to 2WD vehicles. Pull into the trailhead on the left—or, if you’re staying at the Warner Valley Campground or Drakesbad Guest Ranch, continue down the road.
From the trailhead, look for the sign marking the route to Boiling Springs Lake. This is the main gateway for a series of trails in Warner Valley. After 150 yards, the route joins with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which comes in from the right. Now on the PCT, the trail descends gradually to a broad meadow chock-full of corn lilies. After a brief boardwalk section, the path bears left and works its way to the banks of Hot Springs Creek, a perennial waterway that is fed in part by Devil’s Kitchen up-stream.
At 4/10 mile, the trail crosses a sturdy bridge over the stream and begins a mild climb. Now bearing westward, the PCT skirts an open hillside at 6/10 mile with views down the valley to Drakesbad Guest Ranch. Notice the tributary stream just off to the right: while at first glance it appears normal, a closer look reveals a tin-colored sheen and rising steam. This is no ordinary creek—the water is fed by an underground hot spring, one of several in the area.
Moving on from this initial geothermal feature, the trail drops to a junction at the base of a giant incense cedar tree. Bear right here, following the sign for Drakesbad and Devil’s Kitchen, leaving the PCT. (Note: The routes to Drake Lake and Boiling Springs Lake/Terminal Geyser continue left.) From here the path sheds the initial elevation that it gained, dropping amid a small boulder field to a subsequent fork at 8/10 mile. A spur trail leads left to the remains of Dream Lake (now a boggy meadow), which—after a dam breach in 2011—is today a relatively underwhelming sight. (Note: Head up the short trail to Dream Lake Meadow if you wish, but then return to the junction.) At the junction, head north across a bridge over Hot Springs Creek. Within seconds, the trail reaches a T-junction again. This time bear left.
The next section is a highlight of the hike: after briefly skirting the stream, the trail crosses a minor tributary at about the one-mile mark. Beyond is an expansive meadow with fantastic views. Ahead one can see the western reaches of Warner Valley, with Sifford Mountain (7,409’) and an unnamed mountain (7,139’) on the left. Looking back eastward, hikers can spot Drakesbad and Mount Harkness (8,046’), the highest point in the park’s southeast. The meadow itself is often teeming with wildflowers, and tall grasses rustle gracefully in the wind.
Part boardwalk, part dirt, the trail cuts through the middle of the meadow, briefly traverses a wooded section, then soaks up the sun one more time before a long stretch in the woods. At 1.3 miles, the Devil’s Kitchen Trail enters a dense forest of pines, firs, and cedars.
The onward path traverses mildly uphill for 2/10 mile to another trail junction, as the Drake Lake route comes in from the left. (Note: This route has an unavoidable creek crossing, so be prepared to get your feet wet if you go that way. There are no obstacles on the main route (right) to Devil’s Kitchen, however.) Staying right at the fork, the Devil’s Kitchen Trail gradually begins to climb at a steadier incline. At about the 2-mile mark, the trail overtakes a ridgeline then descends to a grassy gulch. After crossing a minor stream, the path ascends more steeply, cresting a higher ridge at 2.3 miles. For horse-riders, there is a hitchrail on the right. Only human traffic is allowed beyond this point.
The warning signs begin right away: you are entering an active geothermal area. Don’t even think about going off trail unless you want some serious burns—or worse. (Note: The soil around geothermal areas is notoriously unstable.) The path drops sharply down a set of bends, emerging out into the sun again, and crosses another bridge over Hot Springs Creek. Steam rising from the chalky hillside off to the left gives off a not-so-subtle, sulfuric scent.
What produces this peculiar occurrence? Rain and snowmelt in the Lassen area seeps deep into the ground, feeding into a boiling reservoir of hot water before returning through fractures in the earth back to the surface as condensed steam. This steam in turn heats water near the surface level, generating mud pots and steam vents. The steam bears hydrochloric acid and sulfur, producing the acidic—and smelly—nature of the fumaroles.
After crossing the stream, the well-worn route climbs a chalky-white knoll and then splits. This is the start (and end) of a short loop section around Devil’s Kitchen. Heading left first, the narrow path traverses a wooden bridge over a milky froth – stream water combined with the acidic output of the fumaroles – then climbs to a crest with steaming springs on the left and gurgling vents on the right.
The distinct smell of rotten eggs combines with the overbearing heat of the steam to make the descent from the crest one of the more unpleasant—but wild—stretches of the hike. Beyond, the geothermal area opens up into a largely flat wonderland of boiling pools, milky stream, and odorous fumes. In the distance to the east, one can hear (but cannot see) the thundering cascades of Devil’s Kitchen Falls—tempting but thoroughly off-limits due to its location well off trail.
As the route bears northward, skirting the hellish basin on the left, there is a brief spur to a viewpoint at about 2.6 miles. The spur ends abruptly at a fenced cul-de-sac; turn around here and head back to the main route. Bearing left, follow the trail as it flanks juniper bushes interspersed with mud pots, then carefully cross a tiny wooden plank over a milky stream. (Note: Clearly the water must not be too warm here or the park service would not allow one to get so close. In any case, don’t push your luck.) From here the path returns to the initial start of the loop.
Having completed the circuit, head back the way you came, toward Drakesbad and Warner Valley Trailhead. After the initial ascent back to the horse hitchrail, the rest of the way is larger downhill; stop in the meadow area for a snack/picnic, then make your way back to the trailhead to complete this entertaining half-day hike. All told, the out-and-back (plus the short loop at Devil’s Kitchen) clocks in at about five miles.
Outside of Yellowstone, there are relatively few spots on the US mainland to see active volcanic features, such as bubbling mudpots, boiling lakes, and smelly fumaroles. Yet Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California boasts all of the above—reminders of the subterranean hydrothermal system linked to Lassen Peak, one of only two volcanoes in the contiguous United States that have erupted since 1900. (Note: The other one, of course, is much better-known.) There are eight hydrothermal areas in the park, three of which are located in the remote Warner Valley, a quieter and lesser-visited alternative to the popular Bumpass Hell area in the main section of the park.
The narrative below describes a stem-and-loop hike—on the Pacific Crest Trail and neighboring tracks—to two of the three hydrothermal areas in Warner Valley: Terminal Geyser and Boiling Springs Lake. It is also includes an out-and-back to nearby Little Willow Lake, an extension that adds about two miles to the trip but can be skipped if short on time or energy. There are some limited views of Saddle Mountain, Reading Peak, and Lassen Peak, in addition to a wonderful traverse of verdant meadows in a remote corner of the national park.
While most visitors to Lassen Volcanic National Park stick to the main highway in the park’s western reaches, the Warner Valley Road enters from the southeast and is accessed by way of the town of Chester, California. (Note: Chester is the gateway to Lake Almanor, a popular boating destination, and situated roughly at the junction of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades Range.) From Chester, follow Feather River Drive west out of town, then bear left on Warner Valley Road and follow it for 15.5 miles. The final three miles are unpaved but should be passable to two-wheel drive vehicles. (Note: There is one steep hill that could be tough on an RV.) Pull into the Warner Valley Trailhead on the left. (Note: Across the street to the north is the Warner Valley Campground, a quiet and relatively pleasant spot with 16 sites.)
Warner Valley Trailhead to Terminal Geyser (3.0 mi.)
An added bonus of the Warner Valley area is its location on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail(PCT). In fact, Drakesbad Guest Ranch (situated another a mile down the road) is a prominent stop—roughly the halfway point—on the PCT.
From the trailhead, the route to Terminal Geyser, Little Willow Lake, and Boiling Springs Lake follows the southbound PCT as it cuts westward between the road on the right and Hot Springs Creek down to the left. As a set of rushing cascades appear down in the drainage below, the trail reaches a fork; stay left on the PCT, which proceeds to drop down through the woody ravine to a sunny boardwalk that traverses a grassy meadow. Attractive corn lilies are the most prominent plant of interest; these perennials can grow to six feet and are commonly found at areas above 5,000 feet in California.
After a short open section, the trail hugs the southern flank of the meadow and returns streamside at about ¼ mile. Minutes later, the PCT bears south and crosses a wooden bridge over Hot Springs Creek. The trail beyond begins to climb a wooded hillside. At 6/10 mile, the trail skirts a minor stream with open views down to Drakesbad Guest Ranch. At first glance, it appears to be a normal creek; but with a closer look, one begins to notice the bronze sheen of the water and—in certain lights—hot steam rising from the water. This is no normal stream after all; rather, it is a hydrothermal spring emerging out of the earth below.
Beyond the hot spring, the narrow path descends mildly to the trunk of a massive incense cedar and the hike’s second trail junction. Stay left, following the signs for the PCT and Terminal Geyser. The trail beyond climbs mildly to a third fork at 7/10 mile; bear left again as the route to Drake Lake bears right over a relatively freshly-cut wooden bridge.
By now, one of the most notable features of the mixed conifer forest is the smattering of fallen branches and trees that litter the ground. While some conifers in the area have been burned or killed in some other way, much of the debris is owed to cladoptosis, the regular shedding of branches to conserve the trees’ resources and build drought resistance.
The PCT bears uphill at a mild incline and reaches another junction at 9/10 mile. Here hikers can bear right toward Boiling Springs Lake, but the route described here stays left on the PCT, saving the boiling lake for the return journey. Another ¼ mile up the trail, there is a second right-hand turn heading to the geothermal lake, which is now partly visible through the forest cover. Stay left again, continuing on the PCT as it gradually climbs a woody ridgeline.
Manzanita bushes become more ubiquitous as the trail ascends a rocky hillock. By mile two, hikers start to gain broad views of Warner Valley, with Flatiron Ridge, Pilot Mountain, and Saddle Mountain beyond. A couple of spurs on the left offer a nice spot to rest and soak in the vistas. At the right angle, one can also make out Lassen Peak (10,457’), the mainstay of the park, off to the northwest.
At 2.25 miles, the PCT begins to descend, crossing eventually into a splendid, remote meadow dotted with (what I think are) arnica flowers. A window through the trees to the southeast provides views of Lake Almanor in the distance. The wooded summit of Kelly Mountain also comes into sight, and the trail begins to descend down a steeper slope as the sea of flowers continues on the left. At 2.65 miles, the trail forks again at a double junction: stay straight at the first, then bear left at the second: this is the 1/3-mile spur to Terminal Geyser.
This spur trail is the steepest section of the hike. While the steam of Terminal Geyser comes into view to the left, it is inaccessible from this level; the trail first drops precipitously to a lower shelf and then sharply bends to the left, wrapping around to the western flanks of the Willow Creek drainage. At 3.0 miles, the spur ends at a small notch in the hillside, where the bubbling hot vents of Terminal Geyser spew a concoction of earthly odors and blistering steam. Despite its name, it’s not technically a geyser – rather, it’s a steam vent – but one can hear and see the bubbling waters spilling out from underground.
Terminal Geyser to Little Willow Lake (1.5 mi.)
Terminal Geyser is a worthy turn-around point on its own, so hikers can return to the trailhead from here for a respectable 6-mile round-trip. But the determined can continue onward down the PCT to the southern park boundary and Little Willow Lake, an even more remote destination.
From the geyser, retrace your steps—up the steep hillside—back to the trail junction, then bear left this time as the PCT treads westward across a woody gully and then climbs mildly to another low crest. The hike reaches its highest point—about 6,250’—at about mile 4, then the southbound track descends a pine-studded ridge. At 4.25 miles, what appears as a vast, verdant meadow appears on the right—but upon closer look, one begins to spot water: the ubiquitous grasses cloak Little Willow Lake below.
Like many lakes in Lassen, Little Willow lacks a dramatic backdrop (unlike, say, here), yet it is a pleasant enough sight. The predominant peak to the west, though entirely forested, is Sifford Mountain (7,409’). (Note: Beware mosquitoes and other buggy pests in the summertime.) At 4.3 miles, the trail crosses narrow Willow Creek and immediately forks, with the PCT continuing left. Bear right on the Little Willow Lake Trail, which traces another ¼ mile to the park boundary.
After a couple minutes, the trail leaves the lakeside and bears sharply left up a small ridge to a crest at 4.5 miles. Beyond, the path ends at a spot just outside the park, where a remote forest road comes to its terminus in Lassen National Forest. Wander up the slope on the right for modest views to the southwest, toward the Domingo Springs area and Willow Creek drainage, with the northern Sierras on the horizon.
Little Willow Lake to Boiling Springs Lake (2.6 mi.)
Turn around at this point and head back to the lake, then retrace your steps on the PCT up and over the short ridge back to the junction with the spur to Terminal Geyser. Bear left at this first junction, then left again at the second: instead of following the PCT back toward Boiling Springs Lake and Warner Valley, take the Terminal Geyser Trail. This long and narrow track is impeccably maintained (like the others) and gradually climbs to crest a ridge at 6.3 miles.
There is another partial view of Lassen Peak as the Terminal Geyser Trail descends toward Boiling Springs Lake, eventually dropping down a set of wooden steps at about mile 7. Turn left at the junction at 7.1 miles, bearing onto the Boiling Springs Lake Loop. This short trail drops to clear a wood-choked ravine and then ascends to a high rim overlooking Boiling Springs Lake below.
This hidden tarn is not your usual lake: an underground heat source produces hydrochloric acid and sulfurous fumes that combine with water to form a milky froth—and uninviting but beautiful sight. Along the shores there are a series of mud pots: boiling pools that ooze smelly hydrogen sulfide gases.
Boiling Springs Lake to Warner Valley Trailhead (1.3 mi.)
From here the trail skirts the western rim of the lake, never getting too close. Signs strongly discourage—even prohibit—going down to the lake proper…unless you have a potential death wish. The soil around hydrothermal sites is notoriously unstable, so please stay on the main path, demarcated with worn tread and neatly-placed rocks.
As the path approaches the northern end of the lake, it crosses a pinkish-white chalky hilltop then leads down a set of steps away from the lake and across a dry gulch. Follow the winding path for another 1/10 mile to its junction back with the PCT—a familiar sight encountered many miles (and hours) ago.
From here it is less than a mile back to the trailhead, across a wooded area of cedars, pines, and firs. The PCT descends gradually to the junction with the Drake Lake Trail and fork at the foot of the giant cedar. Bear right at both points, then traverse the meadow and Hot Springs Creek back to the start. Pulling into the trailhead, hikers will clock in just under 8.5 miles, a good half-day hike in Warner Valley.
At 7,056 feet, Snow Mountain is, as the crow flies, the closest peak above 7,000 feet to the San Francisco Bay Area and one of the tallest in California’s Mendocino Range. Relative proximity to northern California’s major population centers, however, has hardly spoiled this peaceful wilderness, still unknown to many despite its recent inclusion in the Bureau of Land Management’s Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. What has partly spoiled the area are wildfires: in 2018, the Ranch Fire ripped through the Mendocino Range, devastating much of the 60,000-acre Snow Mountain Wilderness. (Note: As of mid-2020, many trailheads, recreation sites, and campgrounds in the area remain closed because of fire damage.) While some stretches of forests were burned, many pockets of life remain, and the burned areas are gradually healing as wildflowers blanket the ground and new growth begins to emerge.
While visitors can bag the summit of Snow Mountain in one long, very strenuous day hike, the ascent is much more enjoyable as a 2- to 3-day backpack. Below I describe such a trip, starting and ending at Deafy Glade Trailhead in Mendocino National Forest, which forms an 18-mile lasso-loop that traverses forest, streams, spring-fed meadows, and high slopes with panoramic vistas of one of California’s forgotten landscapes. Unlike existingdescriptions on the web, this post includes a loop option that continues past the summit to Milk Ranch Meadow and the Bear Creek area, an extension that sports expansive views and hidden glades that are well worth a few additional miles. (Note: Snow Mountain technically has two summits—a west and east peak. This description hits the east (taller) peak, but the west is easily accessible.)
The entire trek gains nearly 4,000 feet in elevation, most of it in the first six miles, making this no easy walk in the park. The loop portion is far milder in terms of elevation gain; experience with reading topo maps and route-finding, however, is a must. (Note: Do print out and bring this excellent map from the Snow Mountain Hiking Association!)
(A few notes: (1) No wilderness permits are required for overnight trips in Snow Mountain Wildnerness. (2) This is bear country! Bear canisters are suggested though not required. (3) One challenge for overnighters can be finding a reliable water supply along the way—unless it is very late in the season (e.g., September-October), however, there should be several places to treat/filter water; I have marked several options, with varying flows, on an interactive map here. See also the helpful topo map here, which includes marked water sources. (4) Finally, it is not called Snow Mountain without reason, but the white, fluffy stuff is generally clear by late spring/early summer. Check the USFS site for latest conditions.)
Deafy Glade Trailhead is a mere two-hour drive from Sacramento and three hours from the East Bay, although it certainly feels longer. For all but the heartiest dirt road drivers (who may approach from the west), visitors will enter Mendocino National Forest from the east. From Interstate 5 in the Central Valley, take Exit 586 for Maxwell, then continue for 31 miles westward to Stonyford, a small town nestled in a minor valley at the foot of the Mendocino Range, a section of the broader Coast Range.
Just north of town, take a left on Route M10/Fouts Springs Road and follow the slow and winding track for 13 miles to the trailhead. Passing numerous pull-offs and campgrounds primarily used for off-road vehicles, the road eventually enters thick forest along the north flank of Potato Hill. At 13 miles, the pavement abruptly ends, turning to dirt. This is your cue; park along the small pull-on the right. Although not signed (there is a wooden information board that is blank), this is Deafy Glade Trailhead. (Note: On weekends, expect there to be a handful of cars at the trailhead; on weekdays, it is not unlikely to have the place to yourself.)
(Note: It is possible also to continue further, onto the dirt track, to start the hike at Summit Springs Trailhead. Starting here cuts about 3.5 miles each way off the stem-and-loop. However, as of mid-2020, the Summit Springs parking area was closed, and, even in good times, the route is not recommended for standard, two-wheel drive vehicles.)
From the trailhead, one can see the hulking mass of the Snow Mountain complex, although the summit is out of view. The high outcrop visible from the trailhead is High Rock (6,329’), a prominent waypoint on the hike—but a full 700 feet lower than the actual summit.
Deafy Glade Trail to Summit Springs Junction (4.3 mi.)
At the trailhead, be sure to sign at the trail register, and pack plenty of water and supplies for the hike, which enters remote wilderness quite quickly. The hike begins with relatively little fanfare, gradually descending an old logging track, contouring westward. The valley below was carved by the South Fork of Stony Creek, a perennial waterway that you will encounter soon. This area appears to have been partly spared by the recent fires—a variety of conifers grow tall and deep. About 250 yards from the start, follow a short single-track around a stony ravine, then continue on the old road again. Technically there is a junction at about 0.35 miles, but the trail coming in from the right is largely indiscernible.
Around a mile into the hike, the gradual descent turns abruptly steep. With obscured views of the behemoth of Deafy Rock off to the right, the Deafy Glade Trail drops to a crossing of the South Fork of Stony Creek. This lush and beautiful area is situated at the confluence of the main creek with a prominent tributary, which tumbles down a nice set of cascades.
There is no bridge at the crossing, so prepare for either some masterful rock-hopping or a brief foot bath. In spring or after storms, water levels can rise to as high as waist-deep. (Note: As of June 2020, however, the depth was about 1-1.5 feet, just short of knee height on yours truly.) While there are several spur trails, the key to avoid getting disoriented is to cross immediately as the trail drops to creek level. The Deafy Glade Trail continues along the north bank.
Enjoy the stream while it lasts—this is the last steady flow one will encounter for a while. It also marks the start of the 3,300-foot climb to Cedar Camp, the toughest stretch of the entire hike. The ascent begins immediately, climbing steeply to an overlook of the cascading tributary, then jerking left. As the single-track path exits a side ravine and skirts the hillside, views briefly open up to the south and west. The tree-covered hulk to the south is Letts Ridge, a relatively rarely visited area in Mendocino National Forest.
As the trail curves north, the incline steepens to a crushing 25 percent—which does not sound like a lot until one experiences it in person. The woods beyond were hit hard by the Ranch Fire, as attested by the charred remains of small manzanitas along the trail. Some pines and manzanitas, however, have survived, offering continued shade on a hot, sunny day. After briefly levelling off at 1.25 miles, the trail comes into view of its namesake Deafy Glade, a beautiful grassy meadow on the right, then climbs again to a point where it crosses the open clearing. These pretty meadows are one of the touchstones of the hike; hikers will encounter several nice glades in the Snow Mountain area. (Note: There a couple of nice, previously-used campsites at Deafy Glade; backpackers seeking to complete the entire 18-mile loop, however, should continue onward.)
As the trail bears north, it follows a deep ravine on the right, which culminates in a crusty drop-off at about 1.5 miles. Hugging the rim on the left, the path approaches a signed junction. The largely-defunct Smokehouse Trail continues straight, while the Deafy Glade Trail bears left toward Snow Mountain. Take the left turn.
The subsequent section gains about 2,000 feet in elevation in less than three miles. The initial climb from Deafy Glade will feel relatively mild for day hikers—but those carrying heavy packs will start to feel the burn as the grade steadily ascends amid spotty patches of pines, manzanitas, and oaks. Around two miles from the trailhead, the gradient steepens, and the trail enters a more densely wooded area. After a brief clearing offers some southward views, the track climbs to a relatively flat area, where the trail becomes more difficult to follow: generally head west through the gut of the wooded plateau, after which the path becomes more visible again.
At 2.5 miles, hikers reach the base of the lovingly-named Morale-Buster Hill, where grades again exceed 25 percent for a brief period. Take it slow and easy, as the loose, finely-grained rocks can precipitate nasty falls. Finally, at 2.75 miles, hikers reach the end of the 25% section and greet a welcome sight: a left-bending switchback. While the trail continues to climb, more frequent switchbacks from here on out make for an easier ascent. After coursing southward for 250 yards, the trail bends right, inaugurating a relatively mild section that begins to offer some limited views down the South Fork drainage.
After skirting a grassy ravine at 3.3 miles, the trail climbs to an outcrop that offers the best vistas yet. One can begin to make out the Stonyford area and Indian Valley to the east, with Clark Ridge and the broad Central Valley, the breadbasket of California, beyond.
At 3.5 miles, the trail skirts another ravine that offers the best opportunity for treatable water since crossing Stony Creek. Backpackers who are tired of carrying packs can set up camp around here if they’d like, allowing for the option to visit Snow Mountain on the next day with a much lighter load. Most, however, will continue on, setting their sights on Cedar Camp—another 2.5 miles up the mountain.
After crossing the ravine, hikers officially enter the Snow Mountain Wilderness, a road-less tract of 60,000 acres, one of the larger wilderness areas in northern California. At 3.7 miles, the trail begins to ascend a set of switchbacks. At 4.1 miles, the trail passes through an open section with hundreds of scorched manzanita bushes, a preview of the desolate landscapes to come. Finally, at 4.3 miles, the trail crests a high ridge and reaches a junction with the Summit Springs Trail. (Note: The route to Summit Springs Trailhead comes in from the left.) Hikers are dazzled with westward views across Rice Valley and the Mendocino Range, as well as unobstructed vistas to the south and west.
Summit Springs Trail to Cedar Camp (1.6 mi.)
By now the climb to Cedar Camp is more than two-thirds finished, but the best section is just ahead. Ditching the woods below, the onward Summit Springs Trail stays high and sports excellent views westward toward the Pacific Ocean. The behemoth of Snow Mountain extends westward, eventually giving way to Potato Hill (4,405’), with Rice Valley beyond. At the junction, bear right, following the obvious track as it follows the spine of the ridge, then bears left along a steep hillside dotted with scrub oak and brushy manzanitas. While there is significant undergrowth, virtually nothing more than 8 feet tall has survived the latest fires.
At 4.6 mile, the trail passes a rock outcrop and an alluring (though likely windswept) campsite on the left. Sunset from this spot is likely to be excellent. At 4.75 miles, the path rounds a rightward bend and enters a nameless and ghostly ravine. Despite previously passing through burned areas, this is the spookiest thus far: an entire sea of pines, tucked away in a spring-fed gully, reduced to crisp. The eerie feeling is partly soothed by the sight of wildflowers and rushing water, which pours out of a hidden spring.
After a relatively level period, the climb resumes in earnest around mile 5. Having now surpassed 6,000 feet in elevation, a bald hillside offers views back southeast by which you came. Then the onward path traverses a high ridge, weaving between several craggy knobs. At 5.7 miles, the trail enters the densest and strangest stand of devastated pines yet. The charred trees are strangely beautiful in their own way, and spring wildflowers—including blankets of pink-and-green pussypaws. (Note: Around here an unmarked trail heads east toward High Rock, but I was unable to find it.)
From here it is a short northward tread to Cedar Camp, an inviting oasis of green amid the hellish landscape. Off to the left is Cedar Pond, a mucky pool that is nonetheless surrounded by a ring of charming corn lilies. Just north of the pond is a popular campsite—if it’s available, take it. (Note: While Cedar Pond is not a great water source, there is a much nicer creek flowing downstream to the west.)
Cedar Camp to Snow Mountain East Peak (2.2 mi.)
After spending the night around Cedar Camp (there are additional sites just west and north of the pond in the woods), prepare to tackle the remainder of the hike to the summit the next morning. Back at the southern fringe of the clearing, there is a junction—it’s not at all obvious at first, but this is the start of the six-mile circuit. Head right (northeast) to take the loop in a counterclockwise direction—after skirting the fringe of Cedar Camp, a better-defined path continues northward through a minor gully. About ¼ mile from the start of the loop, the path begins to ascend through a low gap, then bears left and climbs to a higher saddle at about 7/10 mile.
From here, hikers get their first glimpse of the summit of Snow Mountain—still relatively distant, but only about 400 feet higher than the ridge on which you are standing. The remainder of the route to the summit is highly scenic: after briefly descending from the ridge, the path skirts a beautifully verdant meadow, fed by Dark Hollow Creek. This area, called Summit Basin, is widely exposed to the sun and, in spring, teeming with wildflowers.
Of course, the climbing is not yet done, and the path begins to ascend steadily again through the pines at around 1.5 miles. After a quarter-mile, the route crests the high saddle between the two peaks of Snow Mountain—bear left to head to the West Peak (7,038’) or right to top the East Peak (7,056’). If one has to choose, pick the East—it is higher, after all, and, on clear days, offers expansive views across the Central Valley as far as Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta.
After flanking a rocky ridge, the path to the East Peak tackles a barren traverse, devoid of all but fine-grained, black-gray rock, offering views in both directions. Down to the left are Signal Peak (6,684’) and North Ridge (6,540’), still part of the Snow Mountain complex. To the right, one can see down the Dark Hollow Creek drainage toward Indian Valley. From here it is a steep and rocky but relatively brief ascent to the broad summit, which offers several nice places to sit and admire the panoramic vistas.
There’s plenty to see—at least if you’re lucky to have clear skies. To the east, the Mendocino Range gives way to the smaller Black Diamond Ridge, followed by Indian Valley and the Stonyford area. Beyond is the modest Clark Ridge and vast Central Valley, which spans all the way to the Cascades and Sierra Nevada on the eastern horizon. The body of water visible roughly due east is East Park Reservoir, a popular boating destination in Indian Valley.
The views to the south are largely blocked by the Snow Mountain behemoth, including the high West Peak, largely free of trees. To the north, the Mendocino Range continues for dozens of miles, through to the Yolly Bollys and Trinity Alps. Westward, a series of ranges and valleys extend all the way to the Pacific, although the ocean itself is just out of view. Down in Gravelly Valley, the sparkling blue waters denote another reservoir, this one called Lake Pillsbury, on the Eel River. (Note: From the West Peak, one can see south toward Mount Saint Helena and Mount Diablo, as well as Clear Lake.)
Snow Mountain East Peak to Cedar Camp via Milk Ranch Loop (4.4 mi.)
Once satisfied, return back down to the saddle to a four-way junction. Weary hikers can head back left, retracing your steps back to Cedar Camp. Those seeking to also bag West Peak can continue straight to reach the summit. But the adventurous who want to take an alternative, highly scenic route back to Cedar Camp should bear right, following the sign for “Milk Ranch.” This is the rest of the loop option.
From the ridge between the West and East Peaks, the narrow route drops steadily to North Creek Meadow, which hosts a small spring and thin stream. After crossing the brook, the trail becomes fainter, but one can generally discern the onward path as it skirts a rock outcrop on the right and reveals open views of Signal Peak to the north.
Hugging the hillside on the left, the trail gradually ascends a gravelly ridge, cresting it at about 3.05 miles (from Cedar Camp, including the East Peak spur). Now on the west side of the ridge, the trail slowly descends. Stay alert for a subtle bend in the trail at 3.35 miles; the trail switchbacks to the left and the pace of the descent quickens as it drops toward Milk Ranch Meadow. The beautiful meadow comes into view at about 3.6 miles; follow the slope (the faint path comes in and out here) down to the north flank of a sea of corn lilies. Here a clear route traverses a small but well-flowing stream, then climbs to the edge of the woods again, where another junction awaits.
Follow the sign indicating the Crooked Tree Trail, which bears left and skirts the west side of Milk Ranch Meadow. An abandoned outpost of some sort, complete with a small wood stove and large water tank, appears on the left. The trail around here is faint and difficult to follow; but as long as you follow the meadow on the left, you will find another trail marker again at 3.9 miles. (Note: The sign indicates “Bear Creek” and “Summit Springs” – the correct way!)
Leaving the pretty glen behind, the trail skirts a modest ravine on the left that bears Gully Spring, the ultimate water source for Milk Ranch Meadow. At about 4.1 miles, the route levels off and crosses another open glen; off to the right, one can see down Middle Fork Meadow, itself fed by a set of springs. Walk through the meadow, then pay close attention as the trail in the next stretch is easy to lose: after a short climb, the trail bears left across more modest flats.
At 4.35 miles, there is another leftward bend in the trail that is very subtle. Look for a patch of grasses/wildflowers; instead of continuing through the trees southward, the path bears eastward (left) through this patch. You are on the right track if you spot a small meadow on the left after about 150 yards from the subtle left turn. From here the track ascends to a woody pass at 4.5 miles.
Beyond the saddle, the Bear Creek drainage unfolds below. Although you are not likely to spot a flowing stream yet, a shady ravine begins to drop southward. Here the trail is again easy to lose: generally stay left, resisting the temptation to descend to the wash. The path hugs the hillside on the left and becomes considerably more discernable again as it tracks through an open patch of scrubby vegetation.
The woods beyond were heavily affected by the recent fires. But the sound of flowing water and lush undergrowth suggests the area is experiencing a slow regrowth. At 4.8 miles, the route passes Upper Bear Creek Springs on the right, continuing to skirt the Snow Mountain hillside. As the trail bears south, the bottom drops out of the Bear Creek drainage, creating a steep canyon sporting tall pines, many of which appeared to survive the fires. At 5.2 miles, the trail crosses a broader wash, with Lower Bear Creek Springs (the main source of Bear Creek) downstream to the right.
By now one has already spotted the onward route – a sudden and sharp ascent out of the shady drainage to a high pass. The ascent begins as a series of switchbacks, emerging out of the trees after 2/10 mile. While the views from the saddle at 5.7 miles are terrific, the scenery around is haunting: what once was a partly wooded slope has been reduced to ashes; scarcely a stump rises more than eight feet above the ground.
The terrain to the south looks just as eerie: an entire valley of tall conifers, virtually all reduced to skeletons. The saving grace as the trail descends into this forbidding landscape is the lush bloom of stunning orange wallflowers in late spring/early summer. As the Milk Ranch Loop Trail drops into the Grassy Spring area, the route becomes fainter but generally skirts the left side of a broad meadow of corn lilies. (Note: Route-finding in the opposite direction would be particularly challenging.) At 6.1 miles, most of the way around the loop, the trail skirts the drainage that leads down to Grassy Spring, then suddenly ascends again. (Note: There are some decent campsites and viewpoints across the wash to the south; these are possible alternatives to Cedar Camp.)
From here it is a short and mild walk back to Cedar Camp. Skirt around the west side of Cedar Pond, hop across a small stream, and then return to the Cedar Camp junction. This marks the end of the Snow Mountain/Milk Ranch circuit, which clocks in at about 6.6 miles.
Cedar Camp to Deafy Glade Trailhead (5.9 mi.)
If you camped at Cedar Camp the previous night, welcome back home! Hikers on a 3-day journey can call it a day here and spend another night. But those on a 2-day trek should pick up their belongings and prepare for the nearly six-mile return back to the trailhead. The route retraces one’s steps from the first day, although the 3,000-foot descent is largely preferred to the grueling uphill of the initial approach.
Do be careful, however, as one drops down Morale-Buster Hill and into the Stony Creek drainage. The 25-percent grade is steep and slippery, necessitating a slow and careful descent. After crossing Stony Creek again, a steep but short uphill turns into a mild ascent along the initial logging road. After 2-3 days and more than 18 miles of hiking, the Deafy Glade Trailhead is a welcome sight. Be sure to check out at the trail register.
All told, this strenuous but rewarding hike is best done as an overnight backpack, making it a possible weekend trip from Sacramento or Bay Area.
(Note: Wildflowers spotted on my mid-June 2020 hike: Indian paintbrush, mugwort, fringed Indian pink, lupine, pussypaws, scarlet larkspur, western wallflower, southwestern pricklypoppy.)
Phleger Estate, the southernmost unit of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is a quiet, serene tract of land on the eastern slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains that boasts one of the closest redwood groves to San Francisco. Although not as stunning as nearby Purisima Creek Redwoods, this once heavily-logged area has recovered nicely, filling the valleys and hillsides with second-growth California redwoods of decent size. While its eastern neighbor—Huddart County Park—is a popular destination for residents of San Mateo County, Phleger Estate is relatively untraveled. The featured hike below covers the estate from end-to-end, combined with a multi-mile descent through Huddart Park to form a nearly 8-mile loop. The highlight is a lush, streamside walk along the Miramontes Trail, which hosts the largest and most impressive groves in the two parks. Save for passing under a few power lines, the entire hike is wooded, making this a good foggy-day option on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Once a vast, privately-owned tract of more than 1,000 acres, Phleger Estate passed into the hands of the National Park Service in 1993, thanks to the efforts of the Peninsula Open Space Trust, Save the Redwoods League, and matching funds from U.S. Congress. It is one of the few units of Golden Gate National Recreation Area with no active roads running through it, although it is relatively easily accessed from Skyline Boulevard (Route 35) and Huddart County Park in the Mid-Peninsula.
There are thus a variety of options for where to start a hike into the estate. Most choose to enter through Huddart County Park, a roughly four-mile drive from Interstate 280 in suburban Woodside. However, the drive is considerably more scenic if one starts along Skyline Boulevard. Heading south from San Mateo or San Francisco, take Route 35 toward Half Moon Bay, then bear left as Skyline Boulevard bears southward and climbs Kings Mountain in the northern reaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains. While there are open views of the Bay and Pacific Ocean from the drive, the road enters dense forest as it climbs higher.
There is an access point at the Kings Mountain Fire Brigade building, 5.8 miles south of the intersection of San Mateo Road (Route 92) and Skyline Boulevard (Route 35), but this is often hard to find. Even though it makes the hike slightly longer, I recommend continuing onward to the south parking lot for Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, 6.5 miles down Skyline Boulevard. (Note: See Google Maps here.) There are a handful of parking spots on the west side of the road.
Huddart County Park section (3.6 miles)
While this is a popular trailhead for hikes into Purisima Creek Redwoods to the west, hikers headed for Huddart County Park and Phleger Estate should cross Skyline Boulevard and then bear south for 50 yards to catch a fire road that enters Huddart on the left. Pass through the gate and immediately come upon the first of many, many junctions—(almost) all impeccably signed. This first junction is a four-way fork. Since you want to make your northward toward Phleger Estate, bear left…but which left? Both the Skyline Trail and Summit Springs Trail head north from the junction. Taking either is fine for now, as they meet up again at a second junction after about 1/10 mile. This time, bear right on Summit Springs Trail for sure, as it provides access down into the heart of Huddart Park. (Note: Hikers will return, hours later, on the Skyline Trail.)
Thus begins the main loop portion: hikers should proceed counterclockwise, dropping first down through Huddart Park, then saving the more interesting ascent through Phleger Estate for the second half. The Summit Springs Trail is a wide, gradually descending track that immediately passes several batches of towering redwoods. These trees are a lesson in resilience: while the largest members of the old growth forests were heavily logged starting in the latter half of the 19th century, these second-growth redwoods have survived as a result of preservation efforts: some were small and forgotten during the logging period; others have sprouted and grown in the past several decades. Redwoods are also famously resistant to wildfires, boasting chemical tannins and thick barks that retard the fire’s progress.
The Summit Springs Trail hugs the wooded hillside, then traverses the upper reaches of McGarvey Gulch and approaches another junction at 6/10 mile. Bear right here, ditching the wide Summit Springs path for the narrower Crystal Springs Trail, a main thoroughfare through Huddart County Park. (Note: It is technically shorter, though less interesting, to proceed straight and then follow Richards Road down to the Miramontes Trail.)
The Crystal Springs Trail begins as a relatively uninteresting, though pleasant, walk through a mix of bay, oak, and chestnut trees. Beautiful reddish-bark madrones, a cousin of manzanita, become increasingly common as the trail gradually descends a wooded hillside. At 9/10 mile, the woods are interrupted abruptly as the trail passes under power lines.
Reentering the woods, the descent continues, dropping down a set of switchbacks, then the trail bears northeast. Passing under the cover of wily madrone, the Dean Trail enters from the right at 1.4 miles. Stay left on the Crystal Springs Trail, entering the prettiest stretch yet, a shaded gully with nice stands of second-growth redwoods, mixed with leaning bay trees and madrone, with limited underbrush.
After clearing the ravine, the trail descends a series of winding bends with more frequent redwoods and firs. At 1.9 miles, the track passes again under power lines, this time allowing for some distant views of the San Francisco Bay, with the East Bay hills and Mount Diablo beyond. From light to dark, the onward trail returns back to dense redwood cover, then drops down a pair of switchbacks to cross the Campground Trail, a wide, old road. By now the crowds are likely to be more apparent—you are within striking distance of the Toyon Group Camp at Huddart, and within a couple miles of the main parking areas for the county park.
Continue straight on the Crystal Springs Trail, which drops through another nice grove of redwoods. Stay right at the next two junctions (signs #8 and #9). By now hikers are used to the gradual, winding path with seemingly endless, though mild, switchbacks. The trail descends into the lower reaches of McGarvey Gulch, passing two more junctions (#14 and #15), crossing under more power lines, and culminating at a series of three wooden bridges. Here the Crystal Springs Trail crosses a seasonal creek, followed by another fork, 3.4 miles from the trailhead.
This time, at post #13, bear left on the Spur Trail, leaving the Crystal Springs Trail behind. This track follows the right flank of McGarvey Gulch, then ends at another junction at 3.5 miles (signpost #12). Follow the wide Richards Road left, across the creek. Thereafter the route does something it hasn’t done all hike to date: it ascends (!), though mildly, for 1/10 mile. At 3.6 miles, look for a turnoff on the right—this is the start of the Miramontes Trail, the highlight of the walk, which leaves Huddart Park and enters the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
Phleger Estate section (3.7 miles)
It’s hard to believe, but the hike is not yet half done. The improved scenery of the following section, however, makes the wait worthwhile. After the Miramontes Trail makes a hard left around a bend, it drops to the banks of West Union Creek, a seasonal but oft-flowing stream that feeds an impressive clutch of redwoods. The landscape here feels considerably lusher and greener than the hilly descent through Huddart Park, with clover and ferns blanketing the riparian slopes.
At 3.9 miles, hikers pass a towering sign for the Miramontes Trail, with a metal plaque on the right that briefly tells the story of the estate’s acquisition. The shady walk beyond is the best part of the hike—the redwoods are taller and denser, inviting passersby to stop, reflect, and gaze up at the hearty trees.
One also notices, after passing into Phleger Estate, the impressive trail work: the route is neatly manicured, with impeccably-built stone steps, bridges, and rock walls. The signs, of course, are also a standout: the trail markers rise to more than 8 feet and resemble old lampposts, topped by a carveout of a rider on horseback.
At 4.1 miles, the trail crosses a bridge over a tributary stream. Even as the redwoods in this section are impressive, there are also less savory signs of the old logging days: large stumps are visible in several areas, a reminder of the massive giants that once dotted this landscape, growing for centuries before being felled by human settlers in the quest for a quick buck in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
At 4.3 miles, West Union Creek enters private property, and the Miramontes Trail abruptly cuts left around a switchback, bearing southeast from the park boundary. The mild uphill climbs through batches of redwoods, then the trail levels off again as it renews its westward course. The redwoods briefly dissipate before reappearing again as one skirts a series of minor ravines.
A junction at 4.9 miles—again nicely adorned with fantastic signage—marks the end of the Miramontes Trail. Both the Raymundo Trail (which bears right) and Mount Redondo Trail (which bears left) end up in the same place, but the latter is slightly shorter.
Head left as the Mount Redondo Trail climbs steadily, following the left flank of a broad gulch, dotted with small redwoods nearly all the way. At 5.5 miles, the trail crosses to the west side of the ravine, then switchbacks up a slope. While not particularly steep, the ascent is persistent, making up for the significant loss of elevation during the first few miles of the loop.
At 5.7 miles, there is another fork, as the Raymundo Trail rejoins from the right. Head left on the curious-but-aptly-named Lonely Trail, a quiet and pleasant single-track that climbs back to Skyline Boulevard and the top of Kings Mountain. After an initial ascent, the path levels off briefly as it bears south, passing a series of redwood-filled ravines. There is a minor clearing with a bench at 6.2 miles, followed by a steady ascent to larger ravine at 6.5 miles with another bench.
The subsequent section is the steepest of the hike, gaining steadily until topping off at about 2,000 feet at 6.9 miles. Stay left as an unmarked spur bears off to the right. By now one can hear the road traffic on Skyline Boulevard. At mile 7, stay left at an unmarked junction—heading right leads back to Skyline but about a mile north of the parking area. The onward trail briefly descends, then climbs again, passing another spur at 7.1 miles. Stay left again, coming within sight of Skyline Boulevard. There is a spur here to a small parking area. But the route back to the loop’s start continues onward. At 7.3 miles, exit Phleger Estate and return to Huddart Park, greeted with another junction.
Return to Trailhead through Huddart Park (0.6 miles)
At the junction, stay right on the Skyline Trail as it passes through a nice redwood grove, flanked on the left by a modest meadow of scrubby underbrush. There is another junction at 7.7 miles; you have been here before—the Summit Springs Trail bears off to the left. Stay straight this time on the Skyline Trail, wedged between Summit Springs and the road. Stay right again at the next junction, then return to the initial four-way intersection. Heading right, pass back through the entrance gate and cross Skyline Boulevard to return to the parking area.
This 7.9-mile trek, almost entirely wooded, covers more than 1,400 in elevation gain, but—lacking any truly daunting ascents—can be considered moderately difficult. Hikers looking for a truly inspiring experience should venture west into the more impressive Purisima Creek Redwoods, but the Phleger Estate – Huddart Park Loop isn’t half bad.
Despite being overshadowed—almost literally—by Mount Diablo (3,848’), Diablo Foothills Regional Park covers a surprisingly beautiful but low-elevation landscape in northern California’s East Bay. There is but one knoll in the park that rises above 1,000 feet, yet the oak-studded ravines, hidden valleys, and verdant hillsides—particularly alluring in spring—are beautiful nonetheless. A short drive from downtown Walnut Creek, parts of the park can be overrun on weekends, but the crowds thin as hikers venture into the hilly expanse. The below hike covers a nearly six-mile circuit, dipping briefly into neighboring Mount Diablo State Park and traversing canyons, oak-bay woodlands, and open pastures with several fine vistas throughout.
The loop hike begins and ends at Castle Rock Regional Recreation Area, an almost park-within-a-park and the most popular staging point for walks into Diablo Foothills Regional Park. (Note: See Google map here.) From Walnut Creek, follow Castle Rock Road to its end. Arrive early to get a parking spot at the small lot at Castle Rock; otherwise backtrack about ¼ mile to the much larger Orchard Staging Area. (Note: If parked at Orchard, follow the roadside trail to Castle Rock.) While most visitors come to Castle Rock for the picnicking, softball/volleyball, or the pool, there are also several hiking trails taking off from the parking lot.
From the Castle Rock parking area, find the marked single-track heading up the western slope. After 50 yards, this merges with a wider track—the Castle Rock Trail—which bears southward for the next half-mile. Follow this broad path as it hugs the hillside, a couple dozen feet above the crowded valley below. The hills on both the near and far side are part of the broader Shell Ridge, composed of rock that was thrust upward as part of the Mount Diablo uplift a mere five million years ago.
As the Castle Rock Trail proceeds, Pine Canyon narrows ahead, and the open hillsides give way to denser vegetation. After passing through a gate at 3/10 mile and a trail fork at ½ mile (stay left), hikers should bear straight on the Stage Road Trail as it passes through another gate and briefly leaves the confines of the park. As the once-rolling hillsides evolve into jagged canyon walls, another track comes in from the right, and then the Stage Road Trail intersects with the Buckeye Ravine Trail at 7/10 mile. Stay left again.
Having now reentered Diablo Foothills Regional Park, the trail passes a dry reservoir along Pine Creek on the left, and hikers can begin to spot the towering outcrops ahead—these are the official Castle Rocks, a popular climbing area situated just within the boundaries of Mount Diablo State Park.
At 1.1 miles, the Stage Road Trail intersects with the Buckeye Ravine Trail again. Stay left and follow the wide track as it passes a series of pleasant meadows and oak groves. The trail twice crosses Pine Creek, which is usually very low volume. Finally, at 1.45 miles, just before another oak-studded grassland, look for a well-worn single-track that bears off to the right and skirts the edge of the thicker woodland to the south. This is the Little Yosemite Trail, your cue to exit Pine Canyon.
Follow the Little Yosemite Trail as it passes into Mount Diablo State Park and skirts a craggy ravine on the left. The path eventually crosses a small creek, and the scenery briefly opens up into a quiet, narrow valley. At 1.9 miles, the trail veers away from the creek and climbs a rocky ridge. From here the woods eventually fade away, and the Little Yosemite Trail mounts a grassy slope, revealing views back toward Pine Canyon, east to Mount Diablo, and west across Shell Ridge. This is a particularly scenic stretch of the hike, and the views continue as hikers bear right on the Briones-to-Mount-Diablo Regional Trail at 2.25 miles.
From here it is westward ho! Traverse relatively level terrain, surrounded by hillsides that appear to be straight out of Scotland or Ireland. You are likely to spot animals grazing—at least the resident cattle population, the park’s natural lawnmowers.
At 2.6 miles, a spur trail leads south to the base of what is called the China Wall—a peculiar line of jagged stones that I suppose sort of resembles the not-so-natural Great Wall of China—for which I assume it was named.
Stay on the main track as it climbs to clear a grassy hillside, revealing northward views beyond. After passing through a cattle guard, the route drops to a low saddle, where a connector trail bears off to the left. Then the Briones-to-Mount-Diablo Trail climbs again to a high gap with excellent views of Mount Diablo, the massive behemoth that is, though not the tallest, perhaps the most famous peak in the East Bay.
The onward path then descends gradually into a splendid, nearly tree-less valley, a true gem of the Diablo Foothills. After passing a popular watering hole for cows on the left, the valley opens up into a wide basin, and a series of intersecting trails come into view. Stay right on the main track, which wraps around to the northeast of the basin, leaving the valley behind after a short stay.
As the trail climbs mildly to a low gap between hills, stay right at the first junction, then left at the second, now following the Buckeye Ravine Trail back toward Castle Rock. At the fork at 4.1 miles, the shortest way is to continue right on the Buckeye Ravine Trail, but this involves an unnecessary descent and climb. Instead stay left on the Mokelumne Coast-to-Crest Trail, which is relatively level. The trail approaches a gate and the western boundary of the park, but stay right just before the gate, following the Fairy Lantern Trail eastward along the base of a tall hillside.
The wide track gradually drops into a shady ravine, with stony protrusions visible off to the left. Stay left at the next fork, then one faces a choice: continue right on the Fairy Lantern Trail for a mild descent back to the Castle Rock Trail, or head left for an added adventure—the scenic route back to the start. I highly encourage heading left, as the roundabout route is worth it for the fantastic views of Mount Diablo, Walnut Creek, and surrounding landscape.
Bearing left on the Shell Ridge Trail, one faces an option again roughly 250 yards later. Both trails leading from this fork end up in the same place, but heading right on the Shell Ridge Loop Trail is slightly shorter and more scenic. Climb the oak-studded hillside, steeply in places, before cresting the ridge at 5.1 miles, where the Shell Ridge Trail reenters from the left.
From here, bear right—northward—on the Shell Ridge Trail, which drops, then climbs again along a scenic ridgeline. To the south and east, one can spot the neatly parallel outcrops at Castle Rocks, with the long arms of Mount Diablo beyond. Westward, hikers can see across Walnut Creek to the Briones Hills. And northward, peer across the valley toward Suisun Bay and the Carquinez Strait, with the high peaks of the Mayacamas Mountains visible on the horizon.
At 5.25 miles, the climbing is done, and the only way back is down. Bear right on the sharply descending Diablo Scenic Trail, a wide but brutally steep track that sheds 300 feet in just over 1/3 mile. After a dogleg left, the incline eases, and hikers approach another junction. Bear right, then right again at the penultimate fork, situated behind the Park Office, a stone’s throw from the staging area. Bear left at the final junction—which was the initial approach from the parking area hours ago—and return to the trailhead.
All in all, this loop hike clocks in at 5.8 miles, with about 500 feet in absolute elevation gain (but more if one includes the ups and down). Of course, in a park with a maze of interlocking trails, several variants of the route described here are possible. In any case, hikers are likely to leave impressed with the diversity of the terrain and majestic landscapes—despite never topping more than 900 feet above sea level.
Nestled at the base of stunning granite cliffs, Trail Gulch Lake is a jewel of northern California’s Trinity Alps yet remains rather sparsely visited. This is all the more surprising since the short and relatively easy hike to the serene lake is easily accessible from the Carter Meadows area, situated just off paved Route 93 between Cecilville and Callahan. Some will climb to Trail Gulch Lake as part of a more difficult, nine-mile loop that combines Trail Gulch with its westerly cousin Long Gulch. But for those seeking a more modest walk, the out-and-back to Trail Gulch Lake is a worthy trip on its own. (Note: On many maps—including Google—Long Gulch Lake and Trail Gulch Lake are incorrectly switched; Trail Gulch is the easternmost of the two.)
To reach the trailhead in Klamath National Forest, follow Route 93 (Cecilville Road) southwest from Callahan, California, cresting Carter Meadows Summit at about mile 12. (Note: A number of excellent hikes begin from the trailhead at the summit, including a strenuous jaunt to South Fork Lakes.) About a half-mile beyond the summit, take the next left, following a wide gravel track toward Carter Meadows Campground. Instead of pulling into the campground, however, stay left on Forest Road 39N08, which wraps around Carter Meadows to the northern flank of the Trinity Alps. (Note: Technically this area is situated at the confluence of three ranges—the Trinity Alps, Scott Mountains, and Salmon Mountains.) Follow the dusty road for 1.5 miles to the Trail Gulch Trailhead, on the left. There is a large information board and orientation map at the trailhead.
The Trail Gulch Trail begins as a wide and easy stroll, climbing gently through a stand of Douglas firs. The old road-bed keeps its distance from Trail Gulch Creek off to the left, but the lovely stream occasionally comes into view. At ½ mile, there is a small open patch, but the trail quickly reenters the dense forest. Minutes later, the hike enters the Trinity Alps Wilderness, more than 500,000 acres of pure mountain bliss, the “hipster” of California wilderness, the Sierra Nevada with far fewer crowds.
After ¾ mile under a dense canopy of conifers, the trail abruptly enters an open and beautiful meadow, marred only by the boggy mud after recent rains or snowmelt. After passing a marshy area on the right, hikers will catch views of the craggy mountaintops to the west and east, the highest being an unnamed peak ahead that reaches 7,794 feet.
From here the trail traverses the sunny meadow and crosses Trail Gulch Creek, which, though not too challenging to traverse, can be above ankle deep during the spring snowmelt. Beyond the creek, the Trail Gulch Trail continues its southward tread, climbing more sharply through a red-fir forest. While not yet visible, a tributary creek can eventually be heard off to the left, while the main Trail Gulch Creek also remains temporarily shrouded from view. At about 1.25 miles, the trail crosses the tributary stream and then climbs a rocky traverse with window views to the south, down the valley toward the Salmon Mountains and Russian Wilderness area.
At this point, listen for the roar of Trail Gulch Creek and divert off to the right across an open meadow for a short detour to the hike’s best cascades, which, at least in spring, are thundering down the willow-choked hillside. Southward views to the Russian Wilderness from this spot are also excellent.
Returning to the trail, the single-track path continues to climb, switchbacking up a stony hillside. At 1.6 miles, the ascent eases and a marked track bears off to the right. This is the 4/10-mile spur trail to Trail Gulch Lake. (Note: The route to the high pass between Trail Gulch and Long Gulch continues off to the left.) Head right on this spur, which climbs mildly before leveling off, passing a tangle of creekside willows on the right.
At 1.8 miles, the trail crosses Trail Gulch Creek again—this time the stream is narrower and thus easier to avoid wet feet. From here it is a short and easy trek to the northern banks of Trail Gulch Lake.
The splendid, 14-acre lake is nestled in a glacial cirque at the base of near-vertical granite cliffs. Late into spring and early summer, snowbanks dot the southern flanks of the lake. On the near side, there are a couple nice potential campsites, while a smattering of logs and rocks offer a place to dip your feet in the chilly waters.
From here, adventurous hikers can hike back to the junction and bear right to continue on to Long Gulch Lake, but more casual day hikers should return the way they came, returning to the meadow and initial Douglas-fir forest before ending back at the trailhead. The round-trip out-and-back hike clocks in at just under four miles round-trip, enough to occupy a morning or afternoon in this beautiful corner of northern California.
Short hikes to the majestic alpine lakes of northern California’s Trinity Alps Wilderness are relatively difficult to come by, as distance and elevation gain puts many of them out of reach to day hikers. Even rarer are trails accessible by way of only paved roads – the vast majority require braving gravel tracks of questionable condition, easy for jeeps and SUVs but dicey for your average sedan. That’s what makes the 5-mile hike to and from the South Fork Lakes in the northern Trinities special: a beautiful spot that feels remote and off-the-beaten path, yet—due to its location off paved Cecilville Road (Route 93)—reasonably accessible to travelers. But driving there is the easy part, as the hike itself requires a grueling climb of more than 900 feet in less than 1.5 miles. Hikers are rewarded with majestic solitude at the two alpine lakes, however, increasingly rare as the Trinities—once one of California’s best-kept secrets—sees more and more crowds. (Note: There are also some previously disturbed camping spots at the upper lake for those who seek a short, overnight backpacking trip.)
Although reasonably associated with the Trinity Alps, the South Fork Lakes are technically situated in the western Scott Mountains, a scenic range that extends more than 20 miles between the Trinities and Shasta Valley. (Note: The Salmon Mountains, which span the Russian Wilderness, are also located just north of here.) Most day hikers will reach the lakes by way of the Carter Meadows Summit Trailhead, situated atop a high pass between the Salmons and Scotts in Klamath National Forest, 12 miles southwest of the sleepy town of Callahan on Cecilville Road (Route 93). (Note: Through-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail, however, may also visit South Fork Lakes as a short detour.) Park at the small lot at the trailhead at about 6,150 feet in elevation.
Carter Meadows Summit is a waypoint on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), which passes through the trailhead and serves as the initial thoroughfare for day hikers heading to the South Fork Lakes. From the trailhead, head south into the conifers, staying left as the Hidden Lake Trail bears right. (Note: The 2-mile round-trip trip to Hidden Lake is even shorter but less rewarding than South Fork Lakes. It has been described as “the easiest trail in all of the Trinity Alps.”) From here the PCT begins to descend at a modest clip, hugging a hillside as it enters the Trinity Alps Wilderness, a more than 500,000-acre wonderland of granite crags, thick forests, and remote alpine lakes.
From here the descending trail approaches the upper reaches of the Scott River watershed. Briefly emerging out of the trees, hikers get a glimpse of the stony divide to the south. The prominent knob in the middle is an unnamed peak at 7,166 feet, low compared to the Sierra Nevada but high enough to be surrounded by snow until late spring. The high notch that contains the South Fork Lakes remains just out of view to the right, behind a towering crag of 7,450 feet.
At about 4/10 mile, hikers reach the first of several stream crossings. In late spring or early summer, expect water levels to be high enough to get your feet wet – so plan to bring hiking sandals or waterproof boots. Just beyond the tumbling creek, the incline eases, but the trail continues to shed elevation—a loss that will be made up in earnest in the steep ascent to come.
Just short of the one-mile mark, the trail crosses a second stream—this is the South Fork of the Scott River, which is fed by the South Fork Lakes and nearby snowmelt and flows all the way down to Callahan and the Scott Valley. High volume brings rushing cascades, beautiful and picturesque in late spring. This crossing is arguably easier than the first, although, again, be prepared for wet feet.
Beyond, the PCT begins to gradually climb, abruptly reaching a junction with the South Fork Lakes Trail at around 1.1 miles. The spur trail is not marked, but a sign on the opposite side of the trail—which indicates distances on the PCT to Carter Meadows and Scott Mountain—marks the junction.
Bear right on the South Fork Lakes Trail, which almost immediately starts to climb amid thick woods. Hikers will cover about 900 feet in elevation gain in the next 1.4 miles. After a reasonably mellow ascent through the forest, the canopy opens up into a beautiful meadow, about 1.4 miles from the trailhead. The grassy patch is rather boggy, especially after recent snowmelt.
It is at first unclear which way the trail goes from here, but hikers should eventually catch sight of the tread heading off to the right, crossing two forks of the river that both require some modest rock-hopping. An imposing granite slope stands between you and the lakes, ushering in a brutal climb for the next half-mile that is one of the toughest in the Trinities.
The ascent begins by switchbacking up a pine-studded pitch, then traverses a relatively level willow patch that is fed by numerous springs. Here hikers are briefly distracted by the open views down the South Fork valley toward Callahan before the trail exits the brush and resumes its steep climb. The next section features loose rock and some decent exposure as the South Fork Lakes Trail approaches a scenic outcrop at about 1.8 miles. Here there may still be some snow early in the summer season.
The final ascent is the steepest, abandoning switchbacks in favor of a straightaway pitch that is likely to leave even experienced hikers huffing and puffing. But, at last, at about two miles, the path levels off and crests a high saddle, revealing another wooded basin ahead. From here it is a quarter-mile of relatively level and easy walking to the first of the two lakes—Lower South Fork Lake.
The first lake is smaller and less scenic than the second, but it is worth stopping to admire the beautiful stillness or try to spot fish swimming along the shallow shores.
Technically the ongoing trail skirts the western shore of the lake, then bears left and eastward, climbing again to the crest of the mountains. However, after clearing the lower lake, hikers will want to divert off to the south, traversing off-trail through relatively brush-free woods for 1/10 mile to reach the ultimate destination: Upper South Fork Lake.
The upper lake, situated in a glacial cirque flanked by stunning granite hillsides, is far more scenic than its lower and smaller cousin. In late spring, snowmelt produces rushing waterfalls that plummet into the chilly waters. The lake is quintessential Trinity Alps: beautiful, serene, and quiet, surrounded by intimidating walls of stone. Brave souls can take a dip in the glacial water—but expect something akin to a polar bear plunge.
Upper South Fork Lake is a nice spot to spend an afternoon—after all, staying awhile makes the steep ascent worth it. But once you are ready to go, return the way you came, tackling the challenging incline in reverse. Once back on the PCT, hikers will suddenly remember the initial descent from the trailhead—which now turns into a nearly 400-foot gain.
Despite the relatively short distance of five miles round-trip, expect this strenuous hike to take upwards of 3-5 hours.
While Kangaroo Lake is a fairly popular spot in northern California’s Klamath National Forest, the trails that take off from this camping and fishing destination see far less traffic than the lake itself. The switchbacking Fen Trail provides access from Kangaroo Lake with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), but the 1.25-mile path is more than a mere connector trail: along the way, hikers enjoy excellent views across the various ranges of the Klamath Mountains, as well as a bird’s eye view of the lake and close encounters with Darlingtonia californica—the California pitcher plant—a carnivorous plant shaped like a cobra. Onward hikers can follow the PCT to nearby destinations, such as Scott Mountain, Cory Peak, and Bull Lake.
Kangaroo Lake is nestled amid the northern slopes of the Scott Mountains, a more than 20-mile stretch of the Klamaths that runs east-west through north-central California. Though remote, the lake is relatively easily accessible—one can take paved roads all the way (a stark contrast with the nearby Trinity Alps). About halfway along the Gazelle-Callahan Road, which connects Highway 3 with Old Highway 99, look for a signed turnoff to Kangaroo Lake Campground in Klamath National Forest. From here, the spur road winds seven miles up into the mountains, topping off at a large parking area with access to the shores of the lake.
While the Kangaroo Lake Trail is partly paved and takes off right from the parking area, reaching the Fen Trail requires backtracking down the access road about 400-500 feet and crossing Rail Creek. (Note: There is also a gravel pull-off here that provides access specifically for the Fen Trail.) A prominent trail sign on the south side of the road signals the start of the Fen Trail (alternatively known as Kangaroo Fen Trail or Fen Nature Trail).
The short but steep trail begins to ascend from the start, albeit at a mild incline. Pines, firs, and hemlocks blanket the craggy slopes, and the trail quickly passes clear indicators that one has entered the trail’s namesake environment: grassy wetlands fed by mineral-rich stream water. Unlike bogs, characterized by the presence of standing water, fens tend to be located on slopes and are fed by flowing streams.
Minutes into the hike, the easily-discernable path crosses an old road bed, then bears left up a switchback, the first of many on the hike. An interpretive sign on the left direct hikers to look down the hill toward a sea of Darlingtonia californica, or California pitcher plants. These cobra-shaped bulbs are carnivorous, using smelly secretions and their bright-colored spots to attract and trap insects, which are later digested. This is the best spot on the trail to spot the pitcher plants, although they are scattered in patches elsewhere in the area.
After rock-hopping across Rail Creek, hikers will reach an attractive rock outcrop on the left, offering the hike’s first unobstructed views of the surrounding landscape. To the north, one can see across the Little Scott Mountains and the Mineral Range to the Siskiyou Range, which crosses into Oregon. On clear days, one can spot Oregon’s Mount McLoughlin (9,493’), an impressive volcanic peak in the Cascade Range to the northeast. Off to the west are the Salmon Mountains, Marble Mountains, and Russian Wilderness, also sub-ranges of the Klamath Mountains. The highest peak in the foreground, off to the right, is nearby China Mountain (8,551’), the tallest of the Scott Mountains.
While it is tempting to stay at the outcrop, the views get even better as one continues up the Fen Trail. At 4/10 mile, a short detour to the left leads to the Kangaroo Lake Overlook, situated above 200 feet above its namesake waters. The lake sits in a glacial cirque, bounded to the east by towering Cory Peak (7,737’), which comes into view for the first time.
Beyond the viewpoint, the Fen Trail continues upward amid scrub of manzanita, mountain mahogany, and huckleberry oak and crosses Rail Creek again at about ½ mile. Stay left at the trail junction minutes later. (Note: Heading right leads to Forest Road 40N62 and Cooper Meadow.) Cross the stream a third time at 0.65 miles, then climb to a well-worn wooden trail sign (barely readable) on the left. A short spur trail heads right to an old-growth forest, featuring Shasta red fir, Jeffrey pine, mountain hemlock, and white fir. The main track continues straight, toward the reddish ridgeline ahead.
Climbing to the ridge is the steepest part of the hike and, in late spring or early summer, the slopes may have patches of snow. The views from the ultramafic ridge, however, are worth it. (Note: High concentrations of iron give the periodite rock here its reddish color.) In addition to sweeping northward vistas, views open up to Cory Peak and the Scott Mountains to the east. (Note: Heading down the trail on the other side of the ridge, one can eventually see southward to the Trinity Divide and Trinity Alps.)
Some may be content to turn around here, but hikers bound for the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) can continue onward as the Fen Trail descends a rocky slope, then passes again through a conifer forest with manzanita undergrowth. It is about 1/3 mile from the top of the ridge down the junction with the PCT, the end of the Fen Trail. (Note: Beyond the ridge, hikers pass into Shasta-Trinity National Forest.)
Hikers can continue left for a nice day hike to Robbers Meadow, Bull Lake and/or Cory Peak. Otherwise, trekkers should turn around here, retracing your steps back to Kangaroo Lake. Allot about 1.5-2 hours for the 2.5-mile round-trip walk to the PCT and back.