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.