Saturday, August 25, 2018

Tidbits Mountain

When compared to the larger peaks in the Cascades, Tidbits Mountain barely registers on the chart. The reason we hike to the top of this inconsequential small pimple of a peak though, is Tidbits serves up an epic panorama of those larger peaks. The expansive view from the Tidbits summit is the reason hikers drive all the way from Roseburg to make the 4.5 mile round trip hike to the top. However, on a day when a major forest fire breaks out, those views aren't so epic after all.

The elegant blue color of gentian
On our drive up the McKenzie Highway, we sort of knew we were in for it when smoke first appeared, soon becoming thicker and thicker, like some toxic fog. We pulled over and after a quick roadside confab, decided to keep going and see what conditions were like closer to the Tidbits Mountain Trailhead. Turned out that the day before, the Terwilliger Fire had broken out, sending the nude bathers at Terwilliger Hot Springs running down the trail in be-sandaled panic. I don't know how clothed they were but literally, the bathers had to run for their lives. While we didn't have to run for our lives (or frantically put on clothes) we did have to drive through increasingly acrid smoke.

Baneberries added some color to the hike

Good call on our part, for as we gained elevation the smoke cleared and we found ourselves above the mess as we drove to the trailhead on a gravel road. However, there wasn't any clear blue sky above because the larger (or I daresay huge) fires in California contributed a high cover of gray smoke. At least we were above the Terwilliger Fire smoke but underneath the California smoke, kind of like a metaphoric slice of baloney in a smoke sandwich.

Be afraid...

Several years ago, a small sinkhole had formed at the trailhead and the it was still there, but some wag had labeled the hole with a sign that read "Welcome to Cornhole Canyon". I could almost hear distant strains of banjo music in the still air. From that dubious start, the trail ducked into an incredibly lush forest that would be a worthy hiking destination in itself without the added bonus of having to walk to the summit of Tidbits Mountain.

Sour-tasting thimbleberry
A starry universe of green vine maple leaves shaded the trail, not that there was shade needed on this smoky overcast day. While there were some flowers blooming (like fireweed, pearly everlasting, and penstemon), most of the plant life had gone to fruit already. Accordingly, we grazed on ripe huckleberries and spit out sour thimbleberries. On the unpalatable side were pithy mountain ash fruits, marbled Solomon seal "berries", and the dark black beads that give bead lily (also known as Queen's cup) its name.

Trail through a beautiful forest on Tidbits Mountain
The steady climb through the beautiful and peaceful forest soon weeded camera toting hikers from non-photographers, and those who were out of shape from the uber-hiking crowd. Since Lane and I were both out of shape and toting cameras, we were in short order, way behind everybody else. The trail soon crested at a forested ridge at the site of the former Tidbits Mountain Shelter, right where two trails met.

Dense canopy of vine maple
When I had been here before, the trail coming in from or going to Road 1509 was an abandoned tangle of impenetrable brush. However, on this day, the trail had been cleared and reconstituted, offering a worthier hiking distance to Tidbits Mountain. I'm thinking I may try that next year during autumn, when the vine maples are sure to put on a show.

Smoky view to the west 
At any rate, we had a temporary reprieve from both taxing grade and viewless forest as the trail contoured across Tidbits Mountain. Already, we could see the first of our group of hikers standing on the summit laughing at us laggards. The path was crossing an avalanche slope with rocks deposited courtesy of Tidbits Mountain over the epochs. No trees grew in the rocks so we enjoyed the expansive view to the west, extending all the way to the coastal ranges of Oregon.

Just a short scramble left to attain the summit
Our reprieve soon ended when the trail circled around the mountain and then charged up the final push to the summit. Decaying boards, remnants from the ladder to the former lookout atop Tidbits, were strewn about on the last rocky bit which required mild use of hands (or use of mild hands) to ascend to the actual summit. 

Fire smoke filled up the valleys below the mountain
Actually, the Terwilliger Fire smoke made the view quite interesting. The brand new fire (already at 4,000 acres after burning for a day) had filled up all the river valleys with an ashy blanket of smoke, while surrounding peaks and hills poked their forested heads through the the smoky tapestry. Tidbits Mountain is actually two mountains and the near Tidbits twin was eminently visible. To the east were the Three Sisters, mostly hidden but with their pointy heads eerily rising above the smoke, like ancient pyramids of mystery from Teotihuacán. As far as seeing any further peaks, forget about it, the haze kept views near and dear to us Tidbitters.

Patty picks her way down the summit
After a lunch and laze atop Tidbits, we carefully picked our way down the rocky summit and Lane and I decided to take the lesser-used path round the back side of the mountain while everybody else used the regular trail for their return. Good move, everybody else! The path the two of us we were on grew fainter and sketchier and soon petered out altogether leaving us lost in the forest. Good thing we both had GPSs! We bushwhacked and scrambled down, popping out onto the trail just behind our bemused comrades. 

Yummy huckleberry
From there, it was another slow hike through a beautiful forest while nibbling on huckleberries and taking photos. In no time at all, Lane and I were soon lagging behind, per usual. The Terwilliger Fire wound up being a pretty big deal, eventually burning 11,555 acres. Had we hiked this trail a day or two afterwards we would have definitely hiked in unpleasantly thick fire smoke. So all things considered, we didn't do too bad by sneaking this one in when we did.

Bead lily beads
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Cold Boiling Lake

So there we were, all done with our Lassen Peak hike and  in a manner of speaking, all dressed up and nowhere to go. While epic and challenging, the hike to the summit of Lassen Peak had been a fairly short 5.5 miles or so and a whole afternoon stretched out ahead of us. Nobody wanted to go hang out in a smoky campground just yet, so eventually it was decided we'd do a follow up hike to Cold Boiling Lake, chosen because that while you can't judge a book by its cover, you can choose a hike because of a really cool boiling name.

Cliffs overlooking Little Hot Springs Valley
So, leaving the trailhead parking lot, I turned on the left turn signal but the map reader and direction-giver in the back seat insisted we turn right. So right it was, since it is my general policy never to argue with maps. However, after a surprisingly lengthy drive, the park exit came into view and it was then that we all realized we had gone the wrong way and our map reader (who shall remain nameless) was unceremoniously relieved of that duty. But no complaining or trolling allowed because while our friends were off hiking, we were off touring Lassen Volcanic National Park, and that is not a bad thing at all.

Be glad this is not a scratch 'n sniff photo!
We did stop at the Sulphur Works, which is basically a collection of boiling (and not cold boiling, either) mud pots and steamy sulphuric vents that perfumed the general vicinity with that sweet intoxicating smell of fetid ass. The mud pots were small pools of gray mud that were boiling and bubbling like some witch's brew that stank of effluvium. The air was filled with humid steam, like a bathroom with a fan turned off during a shower and from personal experience, it was difficult to take photographs with one hand on the camera while pinching your nose shut with the other.

Sulphur tinted landscape
The surrounding landscape was barren and unnaturally colored due to the numerous sulphur seeps permeating the slopes at the Sulphur Works. In a ravine below, Suphur Creek flowed, the color of the water tinted an odd green-yellow color. I made a mental note that if I were ever to backpack along Sulphur Creek, I probably should not drink the water. Anyway, after taking lots of photographs of the illegal-chemical-dumplike landscape, we piled into the car and headed back in the general direction of camp.

A large and sparse meadow along the trail
Meanwhile, the other half of our contingent had already hiked Cold Boiling Lake and were off exploring nearby Kings Creek Falls. Unaware of where everybody else was, we set out on the Cold Boiling Lake Trail and never saw our friends until we reached camp. But that's OK, we still got to hike to the geological oddity that is Cold Boiling Lake.

Even the fungus are sulphuric in color
Nearby Kings Creek is a popular destination in Lassen Park and the parking lot was full to the point of overflowing. It is a short and relatively flat hike to Cold Boiling Lake and we did encounter plenty of other hikers. The hike to the lake wasn't that much, passing through a relatively plain lodgepole forest, but there was a dead tree with huge clumps of bright yellow fungus sprouting forth from it like so many unnaturally colored cauliflower heads. It was a fungal Sulphur Works of sorts and we stopped and took more pictures. Well, to be accurate, Penny and I clicked off lots of photos, while Edwin good-naturedly stood nearby like a patient parent waiting for the kiddie ride to stop. 

The bubbling spring at Cold Boiling Lake
Cold Boiling Lake gets its name from a small but active spring at the lake. Seems that, much like my brother on spaghetti night, pressure from below forces gases to finally bubble out into the world. Unlike my brother's gases however, the air contained within the bubbles are not noxious and have no capability of peeling paint and corroding metals. And unlike the foul vapors emanating from the Sulphur Works, these gases are not hot and steamy either. The spring simply sports a constant stream of innocuous bubbles percolating in the water, much like the aerator in an aquarium. 

Cold Boiling Lake
From a Wonder of the World standpoint, the bubbling spring was somewhat underwhelming even though it was also curious and interesting at the same time. The lake itself was pretty enough though, reposing in a grassy meadow below a forested slope and we sat and relaxed for a bit, taking in the scenery before returning to the car.

Penny and John work on The Best Salad Ever
At camp, we were all getting ready to cook our individual meals and since this was the last night of our trip, there was a certain camraderie due to our shared hiking adventures over the long weekend. Those who partook, shared wine and beer and those who didn't, shared their general goodwill and cheer. Soon it was time for dinner and when Penny whipped out a large bowl of salad greens, that inspired everybody to search their remaining food stuffs and contribute to the salad-in-progress. The result was The Best Salad Ever and there was enough of it to feed everyone. A bold and daring ground squirrel managed to purloin a cantaloupe rind, agreeing with us that it was a fine meal indeed. Consisting of salad greens, chicken, nuts, canteloupe, oranges, and tangerines, the salad nearly surpassed any wonders that Lassen Volcanic Park had to offer. All life should be like that salad.

Daring camp raider
Sad to say, the next morning we all packed up and returned to the smoky air of southern Oregon, our brief but happy interlude at Lassen Volcanic National Park behind us. For more pictures of Cold Boiling Lake and some of the other Lassen Park sights, please visit the Flickr album.

Lassen Peak

And now a word about wildfires. To the south of Roseburg, there were several large fires burning in the Siskiyou Mountains. Even further south in California, the massive Carr Fire and even more massive Mendecino Complex Fire were busy immolating their respective 229,651 and 459,102 acres. All that smoke just has to go somewhere and during the six-hour drive to Lassen Volcanic National Park, three horrifying hours (from Grants Pass to Redding) were spent driving through bitter, choking smoke that made the whole vibe seem apocalyptic. Part of the drive passed through the blackened devastation of the now forgotten Klamathon Fire, with charred ruins of homes and vehicles flanking the freeway. It really felt like the end of the world was nigh,

A vampire moon
It was not without a quite a bit of trepidation that I headed to Lassen Park, which was located a relatively close 70 miles from the Carr Fire, I mean who wants to spend 4 days in dense smoke, much less hike in it? But a funny thing happened as I left I-5 and drove east into the mountains: The smoke cleared, supplanted by a much appreciated blue sky. And, while smoke was always around in the distance, the first two days of our Lassen trip were spent hiking and camping under mostly clear skies. But on Night 3, clouds of smoke rolled in, turning the setting sun an unearthly blood-red color that was nowhere near natural. Fortunately the smoke was up high, so we didn't have to breathe in too much of it.

The start of the hike, under a hazy sky
However, as we snored the night away, that too changed and when we arose, we were disappointed that the sky was sort of blue with more than a hint of dirty grayish brown color, while smoke filtered through the forest surrounding our camp. Ever the optimists, we headed up curvy Lassen Highway to Lassen Peak Trailhead, believing that somehow and miraculously, the smoke would clear by the time our hike started. Needless to say, our faith was somewhat misplaced but nonetheless, we laced up our boots and headed up the Lassen Peak Trail.

"Up" was the operative word

"Up" is the key word here. In front of us was a trail that charged straight up the mountain and I do mean straight up. Turned out, that daunting track we were looking at was a short-cut trail carved into the delicate volcanic soil by cretins who think trails are for other people besides themselves. A nearby sign admonished all hikers to stay on trail or else the National Park Service would start limiting the amount of hikers able to use the trail on a daily basis. 

A whitebark pine cone leaks sap
On the plus side, the real trail switchbacked to and fro, climbing up at much gentler (but not gentle) rate before leveling out briefly on a bench populated by mats of low growing lupines and twisted hunchbacked whitebark pines. We could see a few neighboring peaks in the smoky haze but not much more than that.

First look at Lassen Peak's summit
The back-and-forth trail relentlessly climbed uphill and the meager vegetation disappeared altogether, leaving us in a veritable moonscape of orange and tan rock. Up the slope above us, were three rocky pillars that we used to gauge our painfully slow progress as we hiked up the ridge. We also could see Lassen Peak's summit, demoralizingly high above us.

Switchbacks provided plenty of "photo stops"
There were lots of hikers on this trail and we made friends with many as we leapfrogged each other while laboring up the path. One good thing about switchbacks is they provide a place from which to take photographs (or rest, as the non-camera toting crowd likes to call it), and refortify our wavering determination to make it to the top. 

Katchan honors Lassen Peak
At a crude and rocky windbreak, a sign announced there was only a half-mile to go. Yay! Still, it was a long half mile with something like forty-nine more switchbacks on the way up before the trail blessedly leveled out altogether on Lassen Peak's summit ridge. Still the summit loomed overhead but it was near enough to almost touch. I ran into Katchan and John, who were coming down from the summit, and we exchanged pleasantries on the large snowfield blanketing the ridge below the summit.

The last mad scramble to the top
After carefully negotiating the slippery snowfield, it was a hands-on scramble up a rock pile to reach the summit, so denoted with an official benchmark. Penny and I lingered for a bit with a few thousand other summiteers (an exaggeration to be sure, but there were a lot of people) and ate lunch while we rested and otherwise gave succor to tired legs. 

Lassen Peak's tortured crater
On a clear day you can see forever but on a smoky day, not so much. Immediately below us was Lassen's crater, a twisted and gnarled garden of blasted rock. Everywhere else, it was just smoke, I'll have to come back some future fire-free summer, if there ever will be such a thing in this age of global warming, just to see what I missed. 

The trail switchbacked all the way down (and up)
I tend to hike fairly slow because of all the sports I've played in my lifetime, my oft-injured ankles tend to roll fairly easily so I really watch my step when I walk. But going downhill, the trail was mostly soft volcanic soil or well-carved rocky stairs. The well-maintained trail made it easy to hike downhill and I was flying, passing even Katchan and John about halfway down. Several switchbacks later, I heard John yell out to me from above "Is your ass on fire?" I just wish I could hike uphill like that! But while I was last on the summit, I was first back to the trailhead.

Stairway to heaven
So, while being far from a perfect hike, this hike was nonetheless epic and a worthy coda to our long weekend at Lassen Volcanic National Park. For more photos of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Cinder Cone

Day 2 of our Lassen camping trip dawned clear and sunny. Considering the two massive fires burning in northern California at the time, the blue sky was most surprising and welcome. So, with hiking hearts buoyed by what promised to be a magnificent day, we piled into two vehicles and drove to the northwest corner of Lassen Volcanic National Park and at Butte Lake, we then then piled out of those same two vehicles.

As perfectly symmetrical as the curve of a parabolic equation

There were two schools of thought about the day's hike. One thought was "Hey, we love a challenge!" and the other thought was "Geez, I'm sorely tired from yesterday's twelve-miler!". I was in the latter group. The Hardy Boys and Girls opted for the seven mile test of manhood and womanhood hike to the summit of Prospect Peak. Us Wimpy Boys and Girls (Me, Joe, and Helen) opted for a five'ish mile hike up and over Cinder Cone and that wound up being a test of its own.

The otherworldly landscape of the Painted Dunes

So off we went, starting out from a well developed trailhead at Butte Lake. Not even a half-mile in, our group split up up at a trail junction and went our separate ways. Even though the trail was level at this point, legs were already burning, thanks to the soft sandy texture of the volcanic ash deposited by Lassen Peak in the early 1900s. It was exactly like walking on soft sand on the beach, complete with the related bad attitude forthwith.

The trail skirted the edge of the Fantastic Lava Beds

The trail was bathed entirely in warm sunshine as it split the difference between forest on the right and imposing wall of black volcanic rock on the left. We were following the edge of the Fantastic Lava Beds which didn't necessarily look all that fantastic when walking next to the fifteen-foot high edge of the lava flow. What was fantastic was our first glimpse of Cinder Cone, which simultaneously filled us with both awe and dismay.

Our daunting task is to hike to the top
The cone's summit was high above us and the cone was indeed perfect conical. The only asymmetry involved with the cone was our trail which sort of circled around it but was nonetheless dauntingly steep. My quads began burning in sympathy pain just looking at what awaited us.

Well the pain of hiking a steep trail in soft volcanic ash was assuaged somewhat by numerous photo ops, view gawks, and plain old rest stops. Behind us were several other hiking parties and despite our numerous stops, we were still walking faster than the other groups. Man, that trail was steep!

Epic view from Cinder Cone's rim
At the summit, a dusty path circumnavigated the crater's rim and Helen and I walked around the rim while Joe plopped down in blissful repose, waiting for us to complete the loop. The views were simply astounding from the top of Cinder Cone. Now the Fantastic Lava Beds did indeed look fantastic as they connected the blue jewels of Stag and Butte Lake with a river of black rock. A subset of the lava beds were the Painted Dunes which hugged the base of Cinder Cone. The colors of the dunes provided an interesting contrast to the black rock of the lava beds and the dark grayish colors of Cinder Cone. Further afield, Mount Lassen presided over all, and we tried but failed to spot our comrades hiking on Prospect Peak.

What came up must go down
If anything, the trail dropping down the backside of Cinder Cone was even steeper than the trail we had come up on. But it was definitely easier coming down and I virtually flew on the descent, stopping to rest in the shade of a lone pine, where I waited for Joe and Helen to arrive; they were a lot more cautious coming down than I had been. Resting in the shade was a backpacking couple from the Bay Area and they were snacking before attempting the climb up. I can't even imagine the agony of toting fully laden backpacks up Cinder Cone, and my thoughts and prayers were with them.

Joe and Helen pick their way carefully down the trail
The trail behind Cinder Cone was definitely more scenic than the trail approaching the perfectly symmetrical cone. It skirted the Painted Dunes and we got a close-up eyeful of the perfectly and naturally groomed rolling dunes. It was "look but don't touch" here and we stayed on the designated path like you are supposed to. Unfortunately, Joe twisted an ankle in the soft soil and he would be slightly gimpy the rest of the day.

The Painted Dunes, from up close
From there, it was a seemingly interminable trudge through that <lots of bad words> volcanic ash under an increasingly hot sun. There were more hikers on the trail by now and we could observe one family making very little progress up the cone. In fact, they just sprawled on the trail in exhaustion every time they stopped, which was often. My thoughts and prayers were with them, too.

Hiker-caused dust devils
Speaking of exhausted hikers, we found the "Prospectors" resting on a log after their hike up to Prospect Peak. Apparently it was a lot like our hike up Cinder Cone but longer. Katchan, though was still feeling walky so he cheerily headed up the trail, earning the Golden Boot Award for being the only hiker of our bunch summitting both Prospect Peak and Cinder Cone.

Butte Lake, at the end of the hike
While we waited for Katchan to return from his second hike, several of us went for a restorative dip in the cool waters of Butte Lake while eagles soared over the lake. Yellow jackets and flies buzzed around but they pretty much left us alone, our tired leg muscles offering no appeal to the insect marauders.

Cones, of the non-cinder variety
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Cluster Lakes Loop

I just love Lassen Volcanic National Park. It has lakes, mountains, a volcano, grassy meadows, and miles and miles of beautiful hiking trails. What's not to like? After visiting the park last year, I returned to Roseburg waving my hands like some wild-eyed zealot extolling the virtues of the One True Park. Apparently, all that fervent proselytizing was to some avail, because eight other hiking disciples and converts joined me for a long weekend of hiking fun at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

So many choices, and all involve lakes!
This year, our first hike was probably the toughest, if only for its 12 mile length. Last summer I had hiked the section of trail that ambled next to beautiful Twin Lakes and a part of the current trek would follow in my footsteps past the Twin Lakes. The route on this day would also incorporate a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (or PCT as we like to call it) and return through a burn zone past a series of scenic little lakes.

Lassen Peak rules
With all the lakes encountered on this hike, it should come as no surprise that we began at Summit Lake. Initially, the path went past a series of trail intersections (I did say Lassen Park was full of trails, didn't I?) before charging briskly uphill through sparse trees and thick mats of low-growing kinnickinnick bushes. The expansive view quickly opened up to massive Lassen Peak, the park's centerpiece, and nearby Reading Peak. 

One of many small, nameless lakes
Fortunately, the climb was short in duration, eventually leveling out atop a scenic bench before dropping down to the lakes. At first, there was a series of small nameless lakes reposing below rock piles formed by the surrounding mountains. Echo Lake was the first encountered lake worthy of a name and at first look, was quite pretty and charming. But given the context of all the other lakes hiked to on this hike, it was actually fairly nondescript by comparison.

Upper Twin Lake
In my opinion the Twin Lakes win the Most Scenic Lake(s) prize. They were the largest of the bunch and Lower Twin Lake had the extra bonus of having Fairfield Peak looming at the end of it while sunlight sparkled on the lake's surface like so many glistening diamonds. Our walking pace slowed up somewhat as most of us had cameras and were using them: the scenery just demanded appreciative photography.

Katchan is overjoyed to see a ranger station

The PCT broke away from the Twin Lakes and we hiked north on a small piece of the long-distance trail. A point of interest was the backcountry ranger station which was closed. A sign there advised that bears are attracted by odors and I thought that was inconvenient, seeing as how we were all going four days without a shower on this outing. Good thing I didn't eat spaghetti the evening before, if you get my smelly meaning and enough said about that.

Lunch at Feather Lake
Once we turned onto the Cluster Lakes Trail, the forest disappeared entirely, replaced by miles and miles of ghostly white snags, the skeletal remains of a forest that had been incinerated in a wildfire about five or six years ago. The day was beautifully sunny yet still cool; the hiking was quite pleasant as we trod up a gentle slope. After several miles, we stopped for lunch at idyllic Feather Lake which had no feathers at all but did have a nice beach and lots of dead trees surrounding it.

The trail did a walk-by of Silver Lake
After a luxurious lunch and laze, we resumed hiking and less than a mile later, we came unto Silver Lake, with a partial view of Lassen Peak. And less than a mile later, we passed by the Cluster Lakes, the blue waters visible behind the white tree trunks. See a trend? Yup, we visited a lot of lakes as we circled through the Lassen Park backcountry. 

Watch out for falling trees
However, the longest stretch of lakeless hiking occurred as we left the Cluster Lakes. I was bringing up the rear, as the day had warmed up and the sun was sucking the energy right out of my legs. A small tree falling about twenty yards behind me got me walking a little bit faster for a mile or two. I caught up to Penny and Peggy and was telling them about the tree and right on cue, we heard the crash of another tree meeting its demise somewhere in the forest.

Big Bear Lake
We had two bear encounters on this hike. That's right, we visited Big Bear and Little Bear Lakes. Little Bear invited a foot soak and wade as we took a break from the increasingly hot work of hiking through a shadeless forest. A long climb awaited us after the lakes, a daunting task when legs were cooked noodle soft by the constant heat.

Little bears at Little Bear Lake
After passing a small nameless lake with some nice backpacking campsites, and after climbing the last hill, we returned to the level bench overlooking Summit Lake. Katchan, as his wont, had left us all to eat his dust as he sped down the trail. He doubled back and met us as we were descending to Summit Lake and he was bearing gifts: a large bottle of Gatorade. It tasted awesome and made all the hiking worth it. All life should be like an ice cold Gatorade after a 12 mile hike.

All in all , another great hike
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.