Backpacking in Lassen NP, Day 1 (August 21)

Posted on September 6, 2016 by Chris Lumens in hiking, Lassen.

In the months before our trip, I’d spent an awful long time staring at maps and reading guidebooks to come up with a good backpacking trip that would satisfy everyone’s requirements. I was looking for something that was about four days long, covered about 30 miles, and passed by at least two peaks I could activate for Summits on the Air. For Sarah, I was looking for something that didn’t have any major climbs or descents and in general didn’t have a ton of elevation gain. For the whole group, I was looking for something that visited several lakes, the Grassy Swale, Cinder Cone, and the Fantastic Lava Beds. I was also interested in a loop so we didn’t have to do a car spot.

This GPS track will be helpful in keeping track of all these locations. I’ll mention it on each day’s post.

Also as a reminder, all posts related to this trip can be read on the Lassen tag page.

After a lot of looking, I came up with what I thought was a pretty good plan - a big loop around the park, starting and ending at Summit Lake, and each day somewhere in the 7-8 mile range. The plan was:

When we got to the park to get a permit, however, we were convinced by a ranger to change our plan. First, there was a problem bear in the Twin Lakes area that meant you needed to use a bear can everywhere in the park and was likely to wake us up in the middle of the night. Second, the Twin Lakes area is very heavily used. Third, the trail south of Summit Lake would be a lot better to descend so it would make a better first day. So we decided on this amended plan:

So with that permit, we set out from the parking lot at the Summit Lake ranger station on August 21.

Right from the beginning, the trail was what I’ve come to expect from western national parks - well graded, sandy, easily followed, and with no logs or big rocks to step over. It skirted around the northern Summit Lake campground, then the lake itself, and then finally crossed the outlet of the lake on a wooden bridge and came to an end in the southern campground. Here, we were pretty confused. My map showed the trail turned left at the bridge but there was nothing there. We wandered up and down the trail a bit, then started looking around in the campground. Probably 30 minutes later, we finally found the trail again at the very southern edge of the campground. The route between the two was not marked at all.

So for anyone doing this hike: The trail enters the South Summit Lake campground on the northernmost loop and then leaves from the southernmost loop. The trailhead sign there is set back a little ways so you basically have to know where it is. As of this posting, there’s no signed route between the two and the Trails Illustrated map is incorrect, but I’ve mailed both the park service and National Geographic about it.

Now a little more frustrated, we set off for real. The trail stayed high above Summit Creek in a forest of very large trees for a while, before dropping down and making several stream crossings.

At the Kings Creek Trail junction, we stopped for lunch. We hadn’t traveled very far but we got a late start and lost a lot of time finding our way through the campground, so it was already lunch time. So we ate and sat around for a bit, then packed up and got moving again. The trail made a quick, steep climb up to the side of a hill with some nice waterfall views.

It then dropped right back down and intersected the Pacific Crest Trail at a wide stream crossing. Sarah and I took off our boots to cross here, while Lon found a log to cross on a little bit downstream. Taking our boots off to let our feet cool was the right choice, though. For the rest of the day, we’d be on the PCT.

This was also the start of a more significant climb and was the hottest part of the day. Sarah was really slowing down and Lon pulled ahead a good bit. We took several breaks on the climb and decided Sarah was suffering from some heat exhaustion. The sun had been intense all day and there wasn’t much shade in these woods. We took a longer break while deciding what to do, but Sarah decided she could keep going. As the grade got easier, she started to feel much better and was moving at a much faster pace.

We then entered the Grassy Swale, a narrow valley between two ridges that is wet and grassy, with several meadows along the way. The park installed boardwalks in three or four places to keep you from sinking into the meadows.

Somewhere in here, we also noticed two things. First, it really smelled like smoke. Second, we’d been hearing planes and helicopters overhead for a very long time. I was concerned about that because California is fire country and it was very dry where we were (well, except for in the meadows itself but still). Lon tried to see if he could hear anything on his weather radio but he didn’t get any reception. So we decided to just keep on walking and hope for the best.

We took another break at the junction with the trail to Horseshoe Lake (the way we would have come back on my original plan) and then got moving up the last climb of the day. The map showed that the trail followed a stream up into a little ravine, then climbed out onto a plateau near Crater Butte. There wasn’t any stream, but there was a wide burned out area. It was hot in here and even though the climb wasn’t huge, it was still tiring at the end of the day.

We could hear and see a lot more helicopter activity from here. It was obvious they were fighting a fire somewhere, probably northwest of us. I hoped it wouldn’t interfere with our hike.

It was starting to get late as Swan Lake finally came into view below us. Lon and I left Sarah at the southern end of the lake to hunt for a campsite. There aren’t any established campsites in the park’s back country. You have to find a good clear spot for yourself. This was never hard, though, and I am glad I didn’t let that stop me from backpacking in Lassen. Anyway, we started looking along the south shore but it was all too steep and loose. We were able to spot a couple promising locations across the lake to its west side and ran over there to check it out.

We settled on a flat spot on the lake’s western shore, just before where the trail started to climb again. There was a prominent cleared area next to camp that we could see from the south side. It had obviously been recently used - there was hay on the ground from someone camping with stock.

With just three people and two tents, it didn’t take long at all to set up camp. We had our tents up in a couple minutes, took turns jumping in the lake, and collected a bunch of water for cooking and drinking. We set up a cooking area in that cleared area away from the tents and had a delightful dinner out of a freeze dried bag. Getting two people’s worth of food, toiletries, snacks, and trash into my bear can was really tough so we had to borrow some space in Lon’s and even still really had to mash things down into our can. Once it got dark, we started seeing eyes out in the woods - it was just deer, but it was a good reminder that we needed to be careful with our stuff. With no established campsites, there’s also no bear boxes or poles to hang things up on.

I think Lon and Sarah stayed up a little bit to look at the stars, but I went to bed pretty early. I kept the sides of the tent open all night Sarah slept pretty well, but Lon and I both woke up several times because of the deer walking around right outside our tents. A couple times I just rolled over which was loud enough to startle them into running off, and one time we both heard them licking up something right outside the tents. It turns out they were licking up urine for the salt content. So it was a pretty weird night.