Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Lassen Volcanic National Park - Twin Lakes

When hot air meets cold air, the volatile mix usually creates bad things like tornadoes, hurricanes, and presidential elections (different kind of hot air!). One of those bad weather things is lightning, and as July relinquished control of the calendar to August, a run of hot weather collided with cooler mountain air, birthing an epic spider hatch of lightning storms. Preceding the electrical storms, an extended heat wave had left the forests dry as an asthmatic skeleton's breath, just waiting for slightest spark to set the whole thing ablaze. A single lightning strike carries 100 million to a billion volts of current and when hundreds of ionized clouds equalize their potential (physics term!), the end result is a foregone conclusion: forest fires everywhere.

So many destinations!
In the North Umpqua River canyon and the in Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness, there were somewhere between 30 and 50 individual forest fires sparked to existence during the first storm. And to make things worse, there was a week or so of nightly lightning light shows, kicking the total of fires close to 100 but at that point, who's counting? Naturally, there was not going to be much hiking going on in the Umpqua National Forest with every trail either on fire or about to be on fire.

Some of that afternoon rain
There wasn't going to be much hiking to the north of us either, the Mount Jefferson and Three Sisters Wildernesses were similarly alight. And forget about the Siskiyous, too: the Red Buttes, Applegate Lake, Kalmiopis Wilderness, and Grayback Mountain areas were all going up in smoke as well. So, where can an incredibly handsome hiker go hiking when all the usual suspects are in fiery off-limits? On this weekend, the answer lay out of state, in California.

Boardwalk in Dersch Meadows
When I called Lassen Volcanic National Park to inquire about fire conditions, the ranger said there was a large fire burning to the north but the air in the park was "only" hazy. Looking out the window where the air was acrid and dirty brown, merely hazy sounded pretty good. "Hazy" is the new "blue sky" in this summer of smoky discontent, apparently. The air was bad in Roseburg, but then again, there was Grants Pass with air about 10 time worse than Roseburg's. And Medford? Yikes! Medford's air was virtually solid and visibility was limited to less than a mile as I drove south to California. 

Here the gray is from rain clouds,
in southern Oregon it is from smoke

Lassen Volcanic National Park is about a 6 hour drive from Roseburg, so it was late afternoon when I finally started hiking after obtaining my backpacking permit at the Hat Lake ranger station. The ranger issuing the permit warned me about recent bear activity at Upper Twin Lake and about lightning in the afternoon. As I started, storm clouds had already rolled in and thunder rumbling was a constant aural backdrop to the sounds of my labor as I walked.

Lassen Peak and Summit Lake

The hike begain at green Dersch Meadows and the mosquitoes came by to say hello. Most mosquitoes were dispatched with some perfunctory mosquito slapping, the unneeded tube of Deet remained ensconced in my pack for the time being. In just under a mile, the trail sideswiped Summit Lake, a popular spot with a large campground next to it. From the treeless shore, there was a nicely dramatic view of snowy Lassen Peak brooding under the dark clouds.

Uphill in the rain...whee!
After making a left turn at a trail junction by the lake, the route briskly headed uphill through stunted trees and low-growing kinnickkinnic ground cover blooming away. I was feeling walky and actually enjoyed the uphill hiking. The path eventually topped out on a level bench and as usual, the level hiking was enjoyed more than the uphill stuff. The day had gone quite dark with an impending storm hovering overhead. And then the rain started and before long, I was backpacking with my raingear on. Maybe my Oregon is showing, but I really enjoyed the rain after the protracted heatwave back in Oregon.

Pollen coated the rain puddles
After dropping down the backside of that level bench, the trail passed by scenic Echo Lake and several other smaller nameless lakes and ponds. The ground was carpeted with the fine yellow dust of pine pollen and the puddles on the trail were coated with a film of pollen. While thunder rumbled incessantly, I saw no lightning strikes, and I was grateful for that.

Upper Twin Lake, from my campsite
I strung my hammock up on the narrow forested isthmus separating Upper and Lower Twin Lakes. The ranger said they had received reports of bears looking for food from campers but the only intruders I spotted were chipmunks darting frenetically on logs and tree trunks, and a family of deer with a fawn in tow. Just in case, I tied my hiking poles to a tree, but these deer seemed uninterested, unlike their thieving cousins in the Red Buttes Wilderness.

The storm broke up as the day ended
After an hour or two of steady rain, the storm finally ebbed and the cloud cover broke up. The sun was sinking behind the mountains, lighting up the dissipating clouds as soft breeze ruffled Upper Twin Lake's surface. I sat next to the lake, eating my dinner and taking pictures, life was good as the day ended.

Ducks swim away from me at Lower Twin Lake
Day 2 started out with a mild headache and I definitely did not feel walky like the day before. But hiking slowly along Lower Twin Lake in the morning is the way hikes like this should go. The lake was like polished glass and the blue sky and small puffy clouds reflected photogenically upon the lake. At the far end of the lake, round Fairfield Peak presided over the lake scenery.

I was on a short section of the Pacific Crest Trail
At the southeastern corner of the lake, I grabbed a piece of of the Pacific Crest Trail that ambled through a thin forest with green grass growing underneath. I'd only be on the venerable PCT for about a half mile as my route peeled off the PCT and headed toward Rainbow Lake. After the trail junction, it didn't take very long for the path to leave the forest and enter an old burn zone.

What Oregon will look like after this summer 
There were no live trees here, just acres and acres of a somber tree graveyard consisting of snags arrayed against a blue sky. There was no shade and the sun mercilessly hotted up the day. It was around here that my mild headache went up to whatever the next level up from mild is. The tedium of walking through the dry burn zone was broken up by Rainbow Lake.

Scenic little Rainbow Lake
After bushwhacking to the lake's shore and snapping some photographs, I continued on a switchbacking trail up a fire-denuded ridge that had a nice view of the tip of Lassen Peak. Now my headache had become an issue, it was almost migraine-ish, so I beat a retreat back to Rainbow Lake and plopped down in a shady spot to sleep it off.

Here comes the afternoon storm
Several hours later, I woke up somewhat replenished, my headache was back to being just mild. Shouldering my backpack burden, I headed back to Lower Twin Lake but the campsite there was full of recent bear scat, this must have been where the bear activity I had been warned about had taken place. I continued on toward Upper Twin Lake but like clockwork, the afternoon rain clouds had darkened up the day.

Lower Twin Lake in the afternoon
Progress was slow around Lower Twin Lake because the scene was delightfully moody and brooding. Gloomy clouds imparted their darksome air to Fairfield Peak reflecting upon the eerily still lake. Much photography and not so much hiking ensued.

Large thunderheads in the distance
The rain and hail started when I arrived at Upper Twin Lake and I didn't feel like setting up camp in a downpour so I just kept on walking. Despite rain falling from the dark clouds, there were patches of blue sky all around,  the windows in the clouds offering views of massive thunderhead clouds surrounding the lake basin. With all the thunderheads proliferating on the east side of Lassen Peak, it'll truly be a miracle if this area does not get set on fire before the summer ends.

Echo Lake, when it was hailing
After passing Echo Lake, another long climb took me up to the level bench with its nice view of Lassen Peak. The rain finally let up as this 10'ish mile hike (not bad for a guy with a headache) was put to rest by offering myself up to the mosquitoes emanating from Dersch Meadows. While I couldn't get my boots off fast enough, because of the mosquitoes, the lack of wildfires and smoke made this a thoroughly enjoyable sojourn.

Heatwave? What heatwave?
For more pictures of this hike, please visit the Flickr album.


  1. You hiked in rain! I've almost forgotten what rain is like. Sigh...right now two of my favorite trails are on fire. :( I'm so ready for another snowpocalypse!

    1. I'd be ecstatic if just two of my favorite trails were on fire! We really need a good storm to put out all the fires

  2. Wow rain.....would take that right now!!! Lakes remind us of the Four Mile Lake area....oh to be hiking there right now.......smoke is way bad here in medford alright.....can't even go outside!

    1. Yeah, the two times I've been to Medford since the 2017 Firenado started, Yikes! How do you guys survive in all that smoke?