Backpacking in Lassen NP, Day 3 (August 23)

Posted on September 12, 2016 by Chris Lumens in hiking, Lassen.

Our third day of backpacking in Lassen NP ended up being our last day, thanks to a surprise car ride. This day passed through some of the strangest terrain of the entire trip as we followed the lava beds for most of the day and climbed the Cinder Cone. When we got to Butte Lake Campground, we were able to get a ride back to our car at Summit Lake instead of having to go through with our plan of hiking across the park on day four.

This GPS track of our trip is useful for figuring out where exactly I’m talking about:

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

We knew that today would be hot, dry, and fully exposed to the sun. There didn’t appear to be any places to refill water between our campsite and the front country campground. The map mentioned a spring or two, but I didn’t really believe it. So, we decided to get an early start and carry extra water so we would be done hiking before noon. It would make for a lot of sitting around at Butte Lake, but it would beat baking.

Packing up went quickly again today - we’re all pretty experienced at backpacking so we can do it in a hurry. We also knew that despite the short hike today, it would be slow between Sarah’s foot problems, the very soft trail conditions, and it being our third day out.

As we could tell just from sitting around camp, the trail immediately started a moderate climb between the Fantastic Lava Beds on the right and the burned out hill on the left.

For a mile or so, we climbed almost continuously up. The trail itself was deep ash and cinder, like walking on a beach but darker and hotter. It made for some tough walking even when the trail would have been very simple. Surprisingly, there were a couple trees growing on the lava beds. The colors were also constantly shifting. Most parts were black or grey, but some parts were streaked with bright oranges and reds.

After perhaps an hour of walking, we reached the top of a crest where we got our first glimpse of the Cinder Cone. We started descending, passed around the western most point of the lava beds, and saw a whole lot more weird terrain ahead of us.

From the next trail junction, we also got a great view of exactly how big and steep the Cinder Cone was, as well as our first view of Lassen in a couple days. It was just the summit peaking above the trees, though. This junction was where Lon and I were planning on being again tomorrow when we hiked back to the car. I was already not looking forward to walking back through all the soft stuff.

We kept hiking through a very brief wet and shady spot. There were a couple dry washes nearby where it looked like some water occassionally flowed. There wasn’t much today except for just a little water in the lowest point. We then split up - Lon and I were going to walk up and over the Cinder Cone. Sarah would take the bypass to save some climbing on her foot, though the bypass also climbed a fair bit. We would all meet up again on the north side.

So off we went - Lon and I started climbing up around to the southern side of the Cinder Cone. I got a couple good pictures of Sarah getting smaller and smaller and we climbed. This was the last time I would see her for quite a while.

Our route took us higher up to the south until we were basically on top of the Fantastic Lava Beds that we’d been hiking by all day. I was struck by how much lava was out there. It was also our first real glimpse of the painted dunes. Those weren’t easily visible from down low - I certainly hadn’t been able to see all the colors.

The trail briefly flattened out at a little spot on the southeast of the Cinder Cone. To the south we could see more of the dunes. However, the most impressive view was to the east where the full extent of the lava beds could be seen. There was easily three times more of them than had originally been visible. The trail then turned north and began the most serious climb to the top.

It was steep and loose and took a long time to reach the rim of the cone. Luckily there were great views in all directions and I was really busy with the camera so I took plenty of rests. When we topped out after maybe 45 minutes, we could see how colorful and complicated the top was. There was the trail we were on that went around the rim, and then a trail just above the center of the cone, and then several connecting trails. We spent a long time just looking around.

I also decided to descend into the thing. I’d originally been a little reluctant to do so because I didn’t want more extra credit and I didn’t want to leave Sarah sitting at the base for too long. Once I got a glimpse down into the thing, I had to go though.

First I went down, and I could basically ski down through the very loose cinders. The farther down I got, the weirder it became. Everything outside disappeared as I went deeper into this big black hole. The rocks got bigger and sharper, and the couple people on the rim just turned into silhouettes. It was very bizarre. It didn’t feel like a place I belonged. After a couple minutes and failed pictures, I trudged back up and Lon ran down. It took much longer to climb out, but luckily it wasn’t very far.

While Lon was down there, I walked around to the north side and climbed up to the rim trail. Approaching this trail was exciting. I could see the ground around the Cinder Cone far away, but nothing nearby. Even once I was up on the rim, I had to lean pretty far over to see the side of the cone. Sarah was down there somewhere.

Lon joined me after a few minutes and we looked around a while longer. I didn’t really want to leave because this was the best views of the whole backpacking trip, but we did need to get moving. It certainly wasn’t going to get any cooler and I was starting to get hungry. Before we headed down, I got one more shot of Lassen off in the distance.

And then away we went. I ran down the trail coming off the north side of the Cinder Cone, which was somehow even steeper than the trail on the south. It made for a very fast descent in a big cloud of dust. I got to the bottom but Sarah wasn’t there. I backtracked for a bit just to make sure she wasn’t still hiking, even though I thought this was a remote possibility. Lon and I had taken at least 90 minutes to deal with the Cinder Cone. When I didn’t see her, I figured she had just gone on ahead. She’s a pretty experienced hiker now so that was likely.

I met back up with Lon and we set a quick pace out. From here, it was about another 1.5 miles to the campground. We couldn’t go too fast because it still felt like walking on the beach. I was pretty surprised that the lava beds continued to our right. We’d been next to them the entire day.

As we got closer to Butte Lake Campground, we started to see a lot more people. A couple of them knew who we were and let us know Sarah was up ahead. One person even stopped us and told us her husband was heading back to Summit Lake today and would give us a ride when we were done. We were instantly pretty excited about that. It would be before lunch when we got to the campground, and Lon and I were not too happy about just sitting around the entire day. We had even begun to consider dropping our stuff, turning around, and hiking back to the car when we got to the campground.

Finally, we saw water and knew we were at Butte Lake. Sarah was sitting there on a log with her shoes off already. She’d managed to arrange the ride back for us from the first people she saw at the campground. We were done backpacking and looking forward to showers and real food.

So that was that. We got a ride back to Summit Lake without inconveniencing anyone. We got burgers and shakes at In-N-Out on the way back to Redding and checked into the hotel a day early. That let us take care of laundry and get Sarah to an urgent care to look at her toes without burning a day of vacation. I was a little sad to not be backpacking a fourth day, but the promise of a shower and a bed was too much to pass up. Plus, we had basically hiked all the way across the park and had seen a lot of really fascinating terrain. It was a great trip.