The highest point in Northern California, Mount Shasta rises from the relatively pancake-like terrain of the area about an hour from Oregon's woody border. Its miles of hiking trails offer a close-up of rocky outcrops, craggy divides and snow-packed vistas above the tree line.
Flanked by 10 glaciers, Mount Shasta is a living legend with a shrouded in mystery and lore. And it's one of the most hikeable hills in the land, popular with novice and expert enthusiasts alike. An estimated 15,000-plus hikers challenge Mount Shasta each year [source: Lewis].
Mount Shasta, which can be seen from at least 100 miles (161 kilometers) away, is made up of four volcanic cones that overlap each other: Shastina, Misery Hill, Hotlum and Sargents Ridge. A partially collapsed fifth volcanic cone, Red Fir Cone, is thought to be the oldest of the once-fiery funnels -- its 590,000-year-old rocks predate the Cambrian explosion that eventually ushered in the Dinosaur Age.
There aren't many well-traveled trails leading to Mount Shasta's peak. Although there are 10 maintained trailheads that wind through the Mount Shasta wilderness, none offer a direct path to its zenith. Along with crampons and ice axes, hikers need a strong will to forge their own way. By the time Shasta's peak hiking season comes to a close in September, however, you'll find several hiker-tramped trails to the top.
Mount Shasta Hiking: Wilderness Boundary
The Mount Shasta Wilderness, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, comprises about 34,000 acres that skirt the base of Mount Shasta. At the upper edge of this tree-rich expanse lies the Wilderness Boundary, where pines and firs give way to Shasta's snow-capped upper slopes. Hikers who breach this 8,000- to 8,500-foot (2,438- to 2,590-meter) boundary and go on to reach the 14,161-foot (4,316-meter) summit will have conquered the second tallest peak in the Cascade Range that extends from Northern California to British Columbia.
Avalanche Gulch, the path traversed by Shasta's earliest climbers, is still its most popular hiking trail. It's also the maintained route that will take you closest to the summit.
Labeled a Grade IV trail by the National Climbing Classification System because it requires a full day of technical climbing and hiking over occasionally steep snow-packed terrain, Avalanche Gulch is an 11-mile (17.7-kilometer) round trip course [source: American Alpine Journal]. Sometimes, hikers break it into a two-day climb, walking 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) in from the easy-access Bunny Flat Trailhead at an elevation of 6,880 feet (2,097 meters) to Horse Camp at 7,880 feet (2,401 meters), where they can camp overnight. About a mile above Horse Camp, the Avalanche Gulch trail's elevation rises fairly rapidly as it progresses up through the ridge-flanked gulch to Helen Lake at 10,443 feet (3,183 meters).
From Helen Lake, the trail leads up to the Red Banks area, which has an elevation of 12,800 feet (3,901 meters), traversing past an area known as "the heart" because of its heart-like geographical shape. By the time you reach Red Banks, the trail becomes much more technical, requiring crampons and ice axes until the terrain levels off at the foot of Misery Hill trail (13,200 feet, or 4,023 meters). Ascend Misery Hill (not nearly as difficult as the name suggests) and you'll see that the Mount Shasta summit is only a plateau and short climb away [source: College of the Siskiyous].
Mount Shasta Hiking: Subordinate Peaks
There's more to Mount Shasta than, well, Mount Shasta. Take the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, for example. The 2.1 million-acre spread covers five wilderness areas, including Mount Shasta, and features 460 miles (740 kilometers) of trails -- more than enough to whet your appetite for your next outing. There are a number of subordinate peaks on Mount Shasta that feature stellar hikes, too.
Shastina. Nearly a mile northwest of Mount Shasta, yet connected by a massive saddle of soil and rock, the Shastina summit rises to 12,330 feet (3,758 meters). It's the third tallest peak in the Cascade Range, bested only by Mount Shasta and, to the north, Mount Rainier. To reach it, you'll need to go through Hidden Valley to the Bunny Flat trailhead and then ascend the Cascade Gulch trail or the more challenging Lightning Bolt trail. Regardless of route, the climb is worth it: There's a sizeable crater at the Shastina peak that's home to a body of water known as Clarence King Lake. When not iced over, the water is a brilliant turquoise hue. Other points of interest on Shastina include Sisson Lake, another small body of water in the saddle that connects Shastina and Shasta, and Diller Canyon, a favorite of skiers. The trails on Shastina are ideal for beginners, but experienced hikers sometimes use them as a warm-up before attempting a climb to Mount Shasta's pinnacle.
Shastarama Point. On the south side of Mount Shasta, you'll find Shastarama Point. A more challenging hike than Shastina because of its vertical ascent and less-traveled scree- or snow-layered trails, at 11,135 feet (3,393 meters), Shastarama Point lies along Sargents Ridge. To reach it, you'll need to ascend the Old Ski Bowl trail, then veer right and follow the Sargents Ridge trail to Shastarama Point. Be sure to make a stop at the Southgate Meadows, situated along the ridge's east side, to take in some of the mountain's most memorable views [source: Mount Shasta Avalanche Center].
Green Butte. Also to the south of Mount Shasta, Green Butte is the tallest in a series of buttes known by color. Green Butte has an elevation of 9,193 feet (2,802 meters) and is directly above the Old Ski Bowl parking lot and its non-maintained ascent. The Green Butte hike is more challenging than that of Shastina, but similar to that of Shastarama Point. For a less vertical hike, you can reach Green Butte from a 1.3-mile (2.1-kilometer) trail that goes cross-country from Horse Camp [source: Mount Shasta Trail Association].
Mount Shasta Hiking: Waterfalls
From Bigfoot encounters to New Age festivals to Lemurians (an ancient race that lives under the mountain), there's never been a shortage of lore surrounding Mount Shasta. Even Native Americans weave the flora and fauna of Mount Shasta throughout their cultural narrative. It's little wonder the mountain inspires, thanks to pinnacle lakes that shine like jewels and a plethora of neighboring waterfalls [source: College of the Siskiyous].
While there aren't any waterfalls on Mount Shasta, there are several of nearby trails that lead to falling water. Take the McCloud River trail, for instance. The trailhead is a 20-minute drive from Mount Shasta; the 3.8-mile (6.1 kilometer) round-trip trail takes hikers by a series of three waterfalls -- each different, but no less compelling.
The hike begins near the Lower McCloud Falls, where a curtain of water tumbles over a rock cliff 30 feet (9.1 meters) above the tree-lined McCloud River. You can also take a chilling dip in the swimming area below the falls, if you're so inclined. From there, it's a 1.2-mile (1.9-kilometer) hike to the Middle McCloud Falls, which is considerably wider than the Lower Falls. It's a good idea to take a break here, because the next leg of the hike is a more demanding one. Although the McCloud River trail has an elevation gain of only 300 feet (91.4 meters), most of it lies in the less-than-a-mile trek between the Middle Falls and Upper Falls. To view the pencil-shaped Upper Falls, you'll need to traverse up a canyon edge to the flats that overlook them.
Experienced hikers -- or those interested in overnighting -- may want to continue another 13.4 miles (21.6 kilometers) to the Algoma Campground [source: Mount Shasta Trail Association].
In addition to waterfall views, you may want to consider a day hike (or two) to get up-close with some massive amounts of frozen water. On Mount Shasta, there are seven active glaciers, many of which can be reached off the main trails. Totaling nearly 5 billion cubic feet of ice, they're the only glaciers in the U.S. still growing from year to year. These, along with three smaller glaciers not yet recognized by the U.S. Geological Survey, flank the mountain above its tree line [source: Young].
Mount Shasta Hiking: Weather Conditions
Hike the trails on Mount Shasta, and there's no doubt you'll encounter scenic surroundings and occasionally technical paths. But you'll also be traipsing an active volcano that erupted as recently as 200 years ago. In fact, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, there's a one in four chance it will erupt again [source: Sabalow].
The dangers most hikers encounter, however, are the risks of avalanche and weather fluctuations rather than lava flow. Mount Shasta is prone to rock slides, and the areas in which these occur can change from season to season. It's a good idea to check in with a ranger's station for an update before taking to the trails.
Like many mountains, Shasta has a microclimate that creates its own weather patterns. Because of the changes in elevation from the base of the mountain to the tip, temperatures can drop from 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius) to the single digits during a single ascent. And because of the way the mountain's vertical surface affects airflow, it's possible to have heavy snow on one side of the mountain and just a few misty sprinkles on the other -- all from the same clouds [source: Groleau].
Although you can hike Mount Shasta year-round, its busiest season is from May through September, which is when the campgrounds are open. If you're summit-bound, it's easiest to reach the summit when the trails are snow-packed but the weather's not too harsh. These optimal conditions usually occur March through mid-July. By the end of summer, hikers will encounter loose rocks rather than snow on the trails, and this can make it slow going.
For lots more information on hiking, see the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- American Alpine Journal. "Grades." (May 12, 2012) http://aaj.americanalpineclub.org/extras/grade-comparisons/
- College of the Siskiyous. "Bigfoot on the Mountain." (May 12, 2012) http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/fol/big/index.htm
- College of the Siskiyous. "Climbing on Mount Shasta: Popular Routes." (May 12, 2012) http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/out/cli/routes.htm
- College of the Siskiyous. "Existing Glaciers." (May 12, 2012) http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/env/glacial/exi.htm
- College of the Siskiyous. "Geologic History of Mount Shasta." (May 12, 2012) http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/geo/his.htm
- College of the Siskiyous. "Harmonic Convergence." (May 12, 2012) http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/fol/har/index.htm
- College of the Siskiyous. "Native American." (May 12, 2012) http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/fol/nat/index.htm
- Lewis, Steve. "Climbing Mt. Shasta: Route 1, Avalanche Gulch." PhotograFix Publishing. October 1996 (May 12, 2012)
- Mount Shasta Avalanche Center. "Climbing Routes." (May 12, 2012) http://shastaavalanche.org/maps/climbing-routes/southwest-side
- Mount Shasta Trail Association. "Three Waterfalls of the McCloud River Trail." (May 12, 2012) http://mountshastatrailassociation.org/trails/mccloud/mccloud-rivers-three-waterfalls/
- Mount Shasta Trail Association. "Old Ski Bowl Trail on Mount Shasta to Green Butte." (May 12, 2012) http://mountshastatrailassociation.org/trails/mt-shasta/old-ski-bowl-and-green-butte/
- Groleau, Rick. "Mountain Weather." (May 12, 2012) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/kilimanjaro/weather.html
- Rippon, Cy. "Excursion of Yreka's Brass Band to Summit of Mt. Shasta." College of the Siskiyous. 1982. (May 11, 2012) http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/lit/des/desc9.htm
- Sabalow, Ryan. "Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak Ready to Erupt? Counties' Plans Provide no Specifics on Evacuations." Redding. Dec. 17, 2011. (May 12, 2012) http://www.redding.com/news/2011/dec/17/ready-to-erupt-counties-hazard-mitigation-plans/
- Summit Post. "Mount Shasta." Feb. 27, 2012. (May 11, 2012) http://www.summitpost.org/mount-shasta/150188
- Trails. "Mount Shasta." (May 11, 2012) http://www.trails.com/tcatalog_trail.aspx?trailid=HGS435-001
- USDA Forest Service. "Before You Go: Mt. Shasta Wilderness Permits and Summit Passes." (May 11, 2012) http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/stnf/home/?cid=stelprdb5353013
- USDA Forest Service. "Mt. Shasta Wilderness." (May 11, 2012) http://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/stnf/recreation/recarea/?recid=6575
- Wilderness. "Wilderness Acreage Breakdown for The Mt. Shasta Wilderness." (May 11, 2012) http://www.wilderness.net/index.cfm?fuse=NWPS&sec=acreage&WID=397
- Young, Samantha. "Glaciers on California's Mt. Shasta Keep Growing." USA Today. July 8, 2008. (May 12, 2012) http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/environment/2008-07-08-mt-shasta-growing-glaciers_N.htm
- Zanger, Michael. "Virtual Climb of Mount Shasta." College of the Siskiyous. http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/out/cli/intro.htm