North Vista Trail to Exclamation Point (Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO)

Exclamation Point, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, August 2020

!!!!! More than a mere punctuation mark, Exclamation Point is also the name for a prominent vista along the North Rim in Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Longer and perhaps more rewarding than the nearby Chasm View Nature Trail, the North Vista Trail skirts the canyon’s flanks for nearly 1.5 mile before reaching the stunning and secluded viewpoint, overlooking the precipitous canyon below. Here the near-vertical walls—composed of gneiss, granite, and schist—drop around 2,000 feet to the thundering Gunnison River below. (Note: Adventurous hikers can continue on the North Vista Trail to a viewpoint on Green Mountain (8,563’), but it’s not clear that the views are significantly better.)

Map of North Vista Trail to Exclamation Point, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyRun track)

The hike

The relative solitude of Black Canyon of the Gunnison’s North Rim comes at a price: it is 2-3 hours from the more popular South Rim by car. Access is considerably easier from the towns of Crawford and Hotchkiss, but the final six miles to the Black Canyon Ranger Station (the trailhead for this hike) are along (well-graded) dirt roads. Park at the ranger station and look for the obvious sign marking the start of the North Vista Trail, just to the right of the toilets.

Start of the North Vista Trail

Take off on this track heading across the open scrub of sagebrush and Gambel oaks, entering the Black Canyon Wilderness. Soon enough, hikers encounter the iconic pinyon-juniper mix that is so ubiquitous across the Colorado Plateau, and the tree cover gradually becomes denser. About 250 yards from the start, hikers catch their first distant glimpse of the Painted Wall, a beautifully-streaked feature of the canyon’s south-facing walls. Yet the trail at first keeps its distance from the main canyon, instead skirting a series of side drainages, which come in gently from the north before dropping precipitously to the Gunnison off to the left.

Distant view of Black Canyon from the North Vista Trail

Three ravines are passed in turn, even as the relative elevation gain/loss of the easy trail remains negligible. At ¾ mile, a marked spur leads off left to the first unabashed viewpoint of the hike, this one situated at the precipice of a side canyon leading into the main gorge.

View from the first overlook

Beyond this initial viewpoint, the trail edges away from the rim and begins to climb uphill through dense woods, making its way westward to a trail junction at 1.25 miles. Here the spur to Exclamation Point heads off to the left. Follow this track for a couple of minutes, then take either fork to complete the short loop around the vista area.

Views down-canyon (west) from Exclamation Point

At roughly 1.45 miles from the trailhead, hikers are greeted with the much-anticipated 180-degree view of the dizzyingly-steep canyon. Across the deep chasm, one can make out vehicles—and perhaps people—along the South Rim Road, seemingly close but hours away across the harrowing gorge. Of course, do be careful and watch your step…

View up-canyon (east) from Exclamation Point

(Note: When I visited Exclamation Point in August 2020, some curious travelers and lovers of punctuation had left a lovable addition to the viewpoint…a cluster of rocks in the shape of an exclamation mark.)

From here, return the way you came along this easy, quick hike along the North Rim. Allot about 1.5-2 hours for the round-trip hike.

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Chasm View Nature Trail (Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO)

Chasm View Nature Trail, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, August 2020

Black Canyon of the Gunnison River in western Colorado is not the largest, nor the deepest, nor the prettiest canyon in the world. But it is dramatic nonetheless: the sharp incision carved by the Gunnison River is an impressive 2,000 feet deep on average, with an incline that is near-vertical, and the rock exposed dates to an impressive 1.7 billion years old (for perspective, the Entrada sandstone of nearby Arches National Park is about 140-180 million years old). The Chasm View Nature Trail at Black Canyon National Park’s seldom-visited North Rim offers an opportunity to peer down into the heart of the gorge and makes for a nice, short hike for those staying at the North Rim Campground. While not expressly wheelchair-accessible, the short, half-mile hike is largely doable with a stroller, and—a rarity in national parks—pets (on leash) are permitted. (Note: There is also an excellent walking guide/brochure to accompany the hike.)

Map of Chasm View Nature Trail, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

Reflective of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s relatively low-key profile, there is no bridge spanning the deep gorge, meaning it takes visitors seeking to get from the more-popular South Rim to the quiet, remote North Rim at least 2-3 hours. Access to the North Rim is easier from the towns of Crawford and Hotchkiss, Colorado to the north, a mere 12 and 22 miles, respectively, from the park entrance. Once in the park, the well-graded, gravel track quickly forks; bear right to reach the North Rim Ranger Station and, a quarter-mile farther, the North Rim Campground.

The Chasm View Trail is located at the end of the one-way loop around the campground. (Note: It’s possible to park at the start of the loop and walk south to reach the trailhead.) Pass through the opening in a wooden fence and grab a helpful brochure in the box below the sign reading “CHASM VIEW NATURE TRAIL.”

Start of Chasm View Trail

Head right first, following the interpretive markers (1-10) in order. The wide and level path begins by passing behind the campground (on the right), briefly passing an open patch dotted with sagebrush on the left. The predominant flora in the area, however, are the ubiquitous Utah juniper and pinyon pine, which will be encountered in abundance along the short trail.

After passing the first four markers, the trail—now bearing southwest—emerges abruptly at the rim of Black Canyon. The text for marker 5 in the brochure is headlined by a bolded “WOW!”, which generally captures the expression of hikers who are seeing the dramatic gorge for the first time. Here the distance from rim to river (1,700) is longer than the distance from rim to rim (1,100), exposing massive, precipitous walls of gneiss, granite, and schist, laced with streaks of pegmatite, an igneous rock composed of quartz crystals and other minerals. The rock seen here dates to the Paleoproterozoic Era (2.5-1.6 billion years ago), though it was only much more recently (2 million years ago) that the Gunnison River began cutting sharply through the rock to form the canyon of today. (Note: The rapids, raging below, that run through the park are Class V, making them “unrunnable” to all but the best kayakers.)

Black Canyon and the Painted Wall from Chasm View

From marker 5, bear right on a short spur that descends a set of steps to a fenced overlook. Downstream, one can see part of the Painted Wall, so-named for its elaborate bands of pegmatite. Hikers will likely be thankful for the sturdy railing at the viewpoint—there is little to no easement before the precipitous drop-off, nearly 2,000 feet to the canyon floor.

Stepping back from the edge, return to the main trail and continue straight as the path roughly parallels the rim, passing three more markers and arriving at a second viewpoint at 1/3 mile. Here one can see eastward upriver, no less precipitous than the first but significantly narrower—at one point upstream, the walls come as close as 40 feet from one another.

Viewpoint from the Chasm View Nature Trail, looking east

From here the trail bears left and climbs uphill, leaving the rim and weaving through the pinyon-juniper forest, with occasional Gambel oaks interspersed. After a few minutes, the trail returns to the start, capping off the half-mile circuit. Allot 30 minutes to an hour for the easy loop walk.

Black Canyon from the second viewpoint
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Return to Capitol Reef National Park

Grand Wash, Capitol Reef National Park, August 2020

After more than five years away, yours truly finally had the chance to return to Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah, where I spent a lovely winter as a seasonal interpretive volunteer. Having effectively already covered all the hikes in the park in previous posts (see Capitol Reef Hiking Guide), my return was limited to retreading old ground, revisiting some favorite spots and camping at the Fruita campground. See below for a collection of a handful of photos from the Capitol Reef “frontcountry”, including the Goosenecks, Sunset Point, Cohab Canyon, and Grand Wash.

Goosenecks Overlook, with Sulphur Creek below
Sulphur Creek gorge from Sunset Point
Hazy evening at Sunset Point, with Navajo Knobs, The Castle, and the Waterpocket Fold beyond
Fruita area from the Cohab Canyon Trail
Pockmarked walls of Cohab Canyon
A lone hoodoo in Cohab Canyon
View from the south overlook along the Cohab Canyon Trail
Narrows in Grand Wash
Grand Wash…so long for now, Capitol Reef!
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Peekaboo Loop Trail (Bryce Canyon National Park, UT)

Peekaboo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park, August 2020

The main attraction and most spectacular portion of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park is the sweeping and colorful Bryce Amphitheater, which spans an area roughly 12 miles long, 3 miles wide, and 800 feet deep. Here the Pink Cliffs, composed primarily of Claron Formation limestone, yield dramatically to a wonderland of multi-hued hoodoos, spires, and deep fissures. Doubling as a horse and hiker’s trail, the Peekaboo Loop Trail forms a circuit through a particularly majestic section of the amphitheater; though still one of the park’s most popular hikes, the nearly 5-mile stem-and-loop hike sees fewer visitors than the nearby Navajo Loop and Queens Garden Trails, owing to its relative rigor and distance from the park’s main overlooks.

Map of Peekaboo Loop Trail, Bryce Canyon National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

While possible to reach the Peekaboo Loop from Sunrise or Sunset Points in the most popular part of Bryce Canyon National Park, the hike described below tackles Peekaboo from Bryce Point, a spectacular overlook in itself that is a roughly four-mile drive from the Visitor Center. (Note: Bryce Point can also be accessed via the park’s free shuttle.) Before beginning the hike, wander out to the Bryce Point viewpoint, which offers one of the most expansive views in the park. From here, return to a spot just before the parking area, where a sign indicates the start of the main trail heading off to the east.

The trail briefly descends a set of wooden steps, then levels off as it bears southward, below the stone wall that parallels the parking area. From here the trail cuts across chalky white sands, skirting an initial ravine with views north toward the pink-and-orange-hued amphitheater. Then the trail edges into a pine forest and forks: bear left (the Under-the-Rim Trail heads right). It’s a short walk back to the rim of Bryce Amphitheater, where the trail begins a steady descent.

Bryce Amphitheater from near Bryce Point

At around 3/10 mile, the chalky white gives way to deep orange and rounds a sharp switchback, high above a minor drainage dotted with the park’s iconic hoodoos, here relatively clumped together in lines. Now making its way northwest, the trail cuts through the first of several archways on the hike—presumably what gives “Peekaboo Loop” its name?—revealing views of a second drainage beyond.

At ¾ mile, the trail climbs to a saddle below Bryce Point (the overlook is visible overhead), leading into a third drainage and inaugurating another steady descent. From here the trail traces around a set of long switchbacks, with the Wall of Windows coming into clear view to the west. The imposing skyline reveals two sandstone arches, a prominent icon of Bryce Canyon.

Wall of Windows
Morning sun on the dusty hoodoos

Meanwhile, the wide path has by now dropped to a point level with the tops of the smattering of hoodoos that dot the drainage, and—roughly one mile from Bryce Point—the trail forks. This is the start of the Peekaboo Loop section, a nearly three-mile circuit through some of Bryce Canyon’s most stunning terrain.

The loop comprises two sections, a longer (1.7 mi.) and shorter (1.1 mi.) portion, interrupted by a junction that provides access to the Navajo Loop, Queens Garden Trail, and northern reaches of the park. Head left, tackling the longer—and more interesting—section first.

The loop portion begins with a continuing descent that tracks through the hoodoo formations en route to the Wall of Windows. Upon reaching the base of a side ravine at 1.2 miles, hikers will find a large horse corral and pit toilet. Though now having covered most of the elevation loss from the rim, the trail embarks on a series of ups-and-downs that are required to traverse the Martian landscape on the western side of the drainage.

The first uphill brings hikers to the Wall of Windows benchmark, a wayside at the base of the two arches. From here the Peekaboo Loop descends into another dry wash and repeats the uphill again, climbing steadily up through a narrow notch. The winding switchbacks here resemble the wiggles of Wall Street, a scenic section of the nearby Navajo Loop Trail. The ravine is interspersed with towering ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, adding a touch of green amid the sea of red-orange.

At about 1.7 miles, the switchbacks end as the trail cuts through another archway and drops again to clear another side wash. Beyond, it’s uphill again as the trail approaches a constellation of hoodoos known collectively as the Hindu Temples. At mile 2, the Peekaboo Loop Trail cuts through a narrow slot, revealing another new landscape ahead.

Instead of descending to the next drainage, this time the trail stays relatively high, hugging the ridgeline on the right. The trail climbs to a sun-soaked hill below a towering feature called The Cathedral. From here the path makes its final, meandering descent to complete the 1.7-mile section of the loop. Ahead, the main drainage of Bryce Creek separates the Peekaboo area from the rest of the amphitheater. Here the sounds of other voices are likely to get louder, as the trail is now a stone’s throw ahead from the popular Navajo Loop and Queens Garden Trails.

Looking north across Bryce Creek

At the junction at 2.7 miles, stay right, embarking on the 1.1-mile return route to complete the loop portion. The section begins with a persistent climb that may be unwelcome in the hot summer sun, but hikers are rewarded with up-close views of wiry pinnacles as the path crests an exposed ridge at 2.9 miles.

Along the return route on the Peekaboo Loop Trail

A steady descent ensues and then the trail largely flattens for a bit as it crosses a series of sandy washes. This section, deep in the heart of the amphitheater, is shadier than the rest, with tall pines and firs scattered across the canyon floor.

Wily pinnacles along the Peekaboo Loop Trail

After passing the third and widest of the successive drainages, the trail begins a gradual ascent again, then climbs more steadily up a set of switchbacks, returning to the start of the loop portion, with 3.8 miles now in the books.

From here, it’s a mile-long slog back up the entry route to Bryce Point. Even as you retrace the terrain the same terrain as earlier, the changing sun is likely to yield different views from before. Take your time, enjoying the splendor of the hoodoo-studded landscape, as you return to Bryce Point and the canyon rim.

The entire stem-and-loop clocks in at just under five miles, but because of the significant up-and-down, plan to take at least a half-day to complete the strenuous hike.

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Buckhorn – Golden Wall Trail Loop (Dixie National Forest, UT)

Golden Wall Trail, Dixie National Forest, August 2020

Receiving roughly 2.5 million visitors per year, Bryce Canyon National Park is the second-most popular national park in Utah. And yet, while Bryce’s wild landscape of colorful hoodoos is absolutely majestic, it is not the only place in the state to walk among towering, pinkish-orange rock pinnacles of the Eocene-era Claron Formation. One such alternative is beautiful Red Canyon, situated along Highway 12 between Bryce Canyon and Panguitch, Utah, a mere 10-15 miles from the national park but a world away in terms of crowds. Most pass through this “mini-Bryce” without bothering to stop for more than a picture; but those who stay are rewarded with terrific hiking opportunities among the multi-hued hillsides, lofty hoodoos, and twisted canyons.

One great option for a 2-3 hour, moderately strenuous hike is the Buckhorn-Golden Wall Trail circuit, one of the few short loop options in the Red Canyon area of Dixie National Forest. Starting and ending at Highway 12, hikers climb to soaring heights with panoramic views before descending and ascending a series of ridges with colorful knobs that arguably rival those in neighboring Bryce in terms of beauty. This roller-coaster of a hike is particularly inviting for overnighters at Red Canyon Campground, as the Buckhorn Trail leaves right from the campground. (Note: While I describe below a minimalist, 4.0-mile loop that links the Buckhorn, Golden Wall, and Red Canyon Bicycle Trails, it is possible to extend the hike by adding side trips to Buckhorn Point and Castle Bridge.)

Map of Buckhorn – Golden Wall Trail Loop, Dixie National Forest; created using altrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

From Panguitch or Bryce Canyon, make your way along Highway 12 to the Red Canyon area, stopping at the Red Canyon Visitor Center for a map and information on the area. While possible to start the loop from the visitor center by crossing the road to the south, yours truly tackled the Buckhorn – Golden Wall Trail Loop from Red Canyon Campground. The Buckhorn Trail begins just to the left of campsite #26 – there is a prominent wooden sign. (Note: There is an unmarked trail between sites 24 and 26 which leads up to an old CCC amphitheater – while an interesting sight, this is NOT the Buckhorn Trail.)

Start of the Buckhorn Trail at Red Canyon Campground

From the start, the Buckhorn Trail wastes little time in ascending, rounding seven switchbacks before settling into a southward ridge after 4/10 mile. Views improve with each bend, as the trail rises above reddish slopes with a smattering of ponderosa pines, with Highway 12 and the hoodoos of Red Canyon visible to the north.

Views of Red Canyon and Black Mountain (7,889′) from the Buckhorn Trail

Once atop the ridge, the upward slog eases as hikers make their way southward along a breezy ridgeline. Eastward views extend across a wide drainage, while the distant cliffs of Hancock Peak (9,964’) and Flat Top (9,367’) fill the horizon to the northeast.

After a brief respite, the incline steepens again and climbs to clear a high saddle at 2/3 mile. Beyond, to the south, is a wonderland of golden cliffs and knobs and weathered slopes. The tree-studded mass beyond is Thunder Mountain (itself hosting a longer mountain bike trail). Just after cresting the ridge, the trail bears right and then forks: a short spur heads right up to Buckhorn Point, a fine vista, while the Golden Wall Trail veers down to the left, dropping below the ridge.

Views of Buckhorn Point from the first ridge (Golden Wall Trail visible in bottom left)

Bear left on the Golden Wall Trail (or take the short but uphill spur to Buckhorn Point before returning to this point), which immediately sheds at least 150 feet of the elevation gain that it took to get to this point. That’s the thing about this loop: just as you think you have done all the climbing, the trail drops again and climbs another ridge—a maddening but also perhaps endearing quality of the Golden Wall Trail section.

The first descent settles into a relatively level trek as the trail weaves around a series of minor ravines, each sprinkled with hearty pine trees. At about 9/10 miles, hikers get a nice view of the striated, pantone-colored monolith towering above. Soon enough, the trail enters another set of steep switchbacks, followed by a staircase of 26 wooden blocks, culminating in excellent views across the ruddy landscape at the base of the bulky monolith.

Approaching the unnamed monolith ahead
View northeast across Red Canyon toward Butch Cassidy Draw and Hancock Peak/Flat Top

Passing the stony temple on the right, a new drainage comes into view, this one boasting bulging, carrot-tinged fins and a pine-studded valley to the north. Red Canyon and Black Mountain (7,889’) return to view in the background, with Panguitch Valley off to the left.

Northward view toward Red Canyon and Black Mountain

So now the trail descends back toward Highway 12, right? Wrong. Instead of dropping to the north, the trail hugs the ridge for a brief moment before descending again down the south slope, ending up in a wide, sandy wash at 1.6 miles. Briefly follow the drainage upstream before taking the unmarked-but-evident trail continuation. From here, the narrow path ascends sharply again, wrapping around to the west of the trail’s namesake: the Golden Wall, a spectacular, towering spectacle dotted with clear layers of brown, gold, and orange.

Below the Golden Wall

Having climbed around 200 feet from the wash, the trail at last crests another ridge, marking the end of the last ascent of the loop hike. From here, atop a shelf of grey ledges, hikers peer into yet another side drainage, this one bearing northwest toward the main Red Canyon.

From this point, roughly the 2-mile mark, follow the winding path as it drops into the canyon and crosses the dry streambed at 2.4 miles. Minutes later, the trail crosses back to the right side of the wash, and then reaches a trail junction—the steep and meandering Castle Bridge Trail bears off to the right, offering a longer (and more scenic) way back to the trailhead. Those short on time (as I was, trying to escape a looming thunderstorm), however, should continue straight on the Golden Wall Trail, which follows the widening wash and drops into it again at 2.7 miles. From here, follow the streambed for ¼ mile, after which the trail returns to the right bank and the Castle Bridge Trail rejoins from the right. From here, it is a half-mile of relatively level walking through pinyon-juniper forest to the main, much larger drainage cutting east-west through Red Canyon. Cross the wide wash, then climb to reach the paved Red Canyon Bicycle Trail at 3.4 miles. Bear right, following the bicycle trail (which parallels Highway 12 on the left) for a little over a half-mile to return to the entrance to Red Canyon Campground.

All told, the loop as described involves around four miles of walking, although extensions (to Buckhorn Point and Castle Bridge) can add another mile. This is no easy walk in the park, however, considering the significant up-and-down, so plan to budget at least 2-3 hours for the scenic walk through the hoodoo wonderland.

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Alpine Lakes Loop and Bristlecone-Glacier Trails (Great Basin National Park, NV)

Glacier Trail, Great Basin National Park, August 2020

Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada has three main claims to fame, including: 1) the lowest visitation of all national parks in the contiguous United States; 2) the only glacier in Nevada; and 3) large concentrations of bristlecone pines, thought to be the longest-living tree species on the planet. Being one of the most popular hikes in an otherwise scarcely-visited park, the featured hike does not necessarily offer the solitude offered by #1, but its popularity is owed to its proximity to #2 and #3. The Bristlecone-Glacier Trail leads to an excellent stand of trees that predate the Roman Empire before ending in a glacial cirque at the base of Wheeler Peak (13,063’), the highest mountain contained entirely within the state of Nevada. In this description, I combine this one-way trek with a brief circuit on the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, which passes two glimmering pools—Stella and Teresa Lake—nestled deep in the Snake Range. Together this combination of trails makes for a fine half-day hike in Great Basin.

ap of Alpine Lakes Loop & Bristlecone – Glacier Trail, Great Basin National Park, created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

The featured hike begins at the end of Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive, which winds for 12 miles and climbs to more than 10,000 feet above sea level. The parking area at the Bristlecone-Alpine Lakes Trailhead is one of the most popular in Great Basin National Park, while the hike’s proximity to the Wheeler Peak Campground brings a steady stream of visitors on summer weekends. (Note: Otherwise, the crowds are far more manageable. Remember: Great Basin is the least visited national park in the contiguous US.)

A large wayside and map marks the start of a well-kept trail leading south from the parking lot. Follow the wide path as it crosses a bridge over a minor creek, then stay right as the short, ADA-accessible Island Forest Trail bears off to the left. Continue as the broad trail weaves through a dense forest of pines and firs (these are largely not bristlecones) to a second junction at 1/10 mile. Bear right on the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, heading for the two lakes first before hitting the bristlecone grove and glacier.

Alpine Lakes Loop section (2.0 miles)

The Alpine Lakes Loop Trail remains relatively level as it crosses a wooden boardwalk and bridge at ¼ mile, then climbs amid patches of aspens and occasional clearings with views of Wheeler Peak—a popular destination in itself. After a series of mountain-building events formed the Snake Range during the middle Cenozoic Era, Ice Age glaciers and erosion sculpted Wheeler Peak into the jagged behemoth of today.

Wheeler Peak complex from the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail

At about 9/10 mile, a trail comes in from the right: this is the Wheeler Peak Summit Trail, which begins partway down the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive from the Bristlecone Trailhead. Stay left, then left again at a subsequent junction: here the Wheeler Peak Trail bears off to the right, continuing up a steep slope toward the summit. Bearing left brings one to the shores of Stella Lake—about one mile from the trailhead.

Stella Lake along Alpine Lakes Loop Trail

Stella Lake has arguably the more impressive views of the two lakes, with the still waters abutting a steep scree slope, with Wheeler Peak in the distance. The lakeshore is easily approachable and in exposed sun. In dry years, however, expect the water levels to be rather low (although not as low as nearby Teresa Lake).

Moving on from Stella Lake, hikers continue south on the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail, which gradually descends in fits and starts through thickets of pines. At 1.8 miles, the trail descends to Teresa Lake on the right. The lake is hit-or-miss, depending on levels of precipitation in the preceding months. In dry years, the lake shrinks to barely a puddle. In wet years, the basin fills with beautiful, turquoise waters that are alluring and photogenic. (Note: Winter 2019/2020, unfortunately, produced only about 60% of the average snowpack, so I got the former.)

Teresa Lake – or what’s left of it after a dry winter

From Teresa Lake, it is a short but rocky climb to the junction with the Bristlecone Trail.

Bristlecone – Glacier Trail section (1.7 miles)

At the fork, turn right and follow the east-bound trail along a north-facing slope with emerging views across Lehman Creek Valley toward Bald Mountain (11,562’) and Buck Mountain (10,972’). After a steady ascent, the trail rounds a corner at 2.3 miles and enters a side drainage that includes distant views of Brown Lake, a small pond in the moraine below. From here the Bristlecone Trail drops to clear a rock-choked wash and then switchbacks right, climbing more steeply along the adjacent slope.

Looking back toward Lehman Creek and Buck Mountain from the Bristlecone Trail

At 2.7 miles, the Bristlecone Pine Grove Interpretive Trail bears off to the left. This short spur is well-worth the detour, passing through the heart of one of the world’s oldest groves of bristlecone pines. Regular signs point out features of these magnificent natural wonders: many of the gnarled trees date to more than 3,000 years old, alive since before the days of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra, or Alexander the Great.

Why such longevity? Counterintuitively, the harsh conditions in which Great Basin’s bristlecone pines are found—usually just below treeline on cold, windswept slopes—compels the trees to grow very slowly, which creates very dense bark that is more resistant to the elements (wind, water, insects).

More awesome bristlecone trees
Some of the oldest trees in the world

Follow the meandering interpretive trail as it passes a handful of epic bristlecones before it empties out again at the main trail. The route beyond turns into the Glacier Trail—bear left to climb above treeline and continue to the base of Rock Glacier.

Depending on the season, the trail beyond may be impassable due to snow. But late-summer travelers can make their way to trail’s end with relatively little trouble (although the glacier, of course, is not quite as impressive sans snow). At 3.0 miles, the trail reaches a viewpoint with an interpretive wayside for Rock Glacier. The glacier has formed a deep cirque, a hollow, snow-sculpted valley rarely found in the Basin and Range area of the West. Ahead, the tall, triangular summit is Wheeler Peak; the unfortunately-named Jeff Davis Peak (12,771’) dominates the view to the south.

Wheeler Peak and the glacial cirque

While some hikers turn around at the wayside, the trail continues onward, first climbing a pair of switchbacks before leaving the trees behind and cutting across the rocky moraine. Follow the circuitous path as it bounds up and over a series of hillocks before ending abruptly at a sign that reads “Rock Glacier – Elevation 10,800 Feet.” This is the terminus of the Glacier Trail.

End of the Glacier Trail – Rock Glacier and Wheeler Peak beyond

Return to trailhead (2.1 miles)

When you’re ready to leave the picturesque cirque, return the way you came, passing the Bristlecone Pine Grove and arriving again at the turnoff to Teresa Lake. This time stay right, descending the final section of the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail as it returns to the trailhead. At 5.7 miles, stay right at the fork, then bear left at the junction with the Island Forest Trail. After traversing the final bridge, hikers return to the parking area having completed a moderately difficult—but immensely scenic—5.8 mile hike.

Turkey sighting!
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Lassen Peak Trail (Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA)

Lassen Peak Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park, June 2020

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.)

Map of Lassen Peak Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

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.

Start of the Lassen Peak Trail

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.

Snow bowl with Eagle Peak beyond

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.

Reading Peak and Lake Almanor from the Lassen Peak Trail

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.

Lake Helen and Brokeoff Mountain to the southwest

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.

Crater area atop Lassen Peak

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.

Southeast to Reading Peak, Lake Almanor, and beyond

There are several waysides at this point, including a bit about the crater and the droves of tortoiseshell butterflies that frequent the summit in early summer.

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).

View northeast toward Prospect Peak, Cinder Cone, and the Butte Lake area
Lassen Peak, with Mount Shasta in the distance

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.

Brokeoff Mountain from Lassen Peak
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Drake Lake Trail (Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA)

Drake Lake Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park, June 2020

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.)

Map of Drake Lake Trail Loop, Lassen Volcanic National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the interactive map)

The hike

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).

Following the Pacific Crest Trail through a meadow in Warner Valley

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.

Drake Lake Trail

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.

Pilot Mountain, Saddle Mountain, and Mount Harkness from the Drake Lake Trail
Lassen Peak and Reading Peak from Drake Lake Trail

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.)

Drake Lake
Drake Lake

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.

Crossing Hot Springs Creek

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.

Sifford Mountain from the meadow

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.

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Devil’s Kitchen Trail (Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA)

Devil’s Kitchen Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park, June 2020

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.)

Map of Devil’s Kitchen Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version and interactive map)

The hike

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.

Steaming creek with Drakesbad beyond

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.

Remains of Dream Lake

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.

Mount Harkness from the meadow

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.

Meadow with Sifford Mountain beyond

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.

Dense woods on the Devil’s Kitchen Trail

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.

Hot Springs Creek and the Devil’s Kitchen area

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.

Boiling pool and striking colors

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.

Gurgling hot springs
Broad flat at Devil’s Kitchen

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.

Crossing the milky froth

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.

Extra credit

With the second half of your day, take the 3-mile round-trip hike to Boiling Springs Lake or extend it with a trip to nearby Terminal Geyser (6 miles round trip), the two other hydrothermal sites in the Warner Valley area of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

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Terminal Geyser, Little Willow Lake, & Boiling Springs Lake (Lassen Volcanic National Park, CA)

Terminal Geyser, Lassen Volcanic National Park, June 2020

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.

Map of Pacific Crest Trail and hike to Terminal Geyser, Little Willow Lake, and Boiling Springs Lake, Lassen Volcanic National Park; created using alltrails.com (Check out the PDF version, interactive map, and MapMyHike track)

The hike

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.

Traversing meadow near Warner Valley Trailhead

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.

Looking down across Warner Valley to Drakesbad Guest Ranch

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.

Views of Pilot Mountain and Saddle Mountain from the Pacific Crest Trail

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.

Beautiful meadow; Lake Almanor in the distance

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
Steam from the boiling pools of Terminal Geyser

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.

On the route to Little Willow Lake

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.

Little Willow Lake

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.

Some limited views from the park boundary

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.

Boiling Springs Lake

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.

Rim of Boiling Springs Lake

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.

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