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.


  1. I wanted to hike this cone when I visited Lassen 3 years ago, but ran out of time. Guess that means I need to go back!

  2. Cinder Cone is now on our radar as we did not get to hike that when we last went to Lassen NP. You taking the whimpy way out, unheard of!