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.)
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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.)