Monday, September 10, 2012

Wood Between the Worlds: Crystal Lake and Horseshoe Lake

This is my second post about our camping trip to Juniper Lake on last Labor Day, September 1-3, 2012.

Those of you who recognize the reference to C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew are not mistaken - this is exactly how the forest of Lassen Volcanic National Park looks like. I got that impression a few years ago when we hiked the loop trail of Hat Mountain (sadly, now burnt) and once again on this trip, when we hiked to explore two of the smaller lakes adjacent to Juniper Lake. The serenity of the fir and pine forest and the clarity of these small lakes under the brightness and warmth of the lazy late summer sun worked together to give a truly magical feeling. Just slip the ring on and step into the lake and one is immediately transported to an enchanted world.

Crystal Lake.
Difficulty level - moderate.
We arrived Juniper Lake campground on Saturday before noon, just in time to claim the last remaining campsite. The weather was perfect: sunny and warm with very little wind, but a tad too cool for a dip in the lake. So after eating lunch and building our tent we decided to go on a short trail leading to another, smaller lake – Crystal Lake.
From Juniper Lake campground to Crystal Lake
We walked from the campground on the dirt road that goes along the eastern shore of Juniper Lake and after a few hundred yards we found the trailhead to Crystal Lake. This trail is very short – only 0.4 mile long, but it’s all a sharp incline, to a total of 400’ elevation gain. Almost immediately the chicas started complaining and we had to stop several time for them to catch their breath. I assume that the overall elevation we’ve been at (6800’-7200’) contributed to their fatigue. 

Lassen Peak peeking from behind the trees on the trail to Crystal Lake
 After many prompts we reached our destination and all woes were forgotten. We stood by a small and clear mountain lake that sparkled like a gem nestled in the dark green of the firs. With renewed energies the girls removed their shoes and waded in the water.
The water was so clear and cool. It was irresistible.
The rocky cliff over the southern shore of Crystal Lake

 Crystal Lake is very close to a summit and no creek leads into it. Like many other such lakes in the area, its water is all snow melt. But though isolated, it does have fish, and people to go fishing there.
We sat there for a long while, enchanted by its quiet beauty.

Crystal Lake
The way down was much quicker and without complaints. We returned to our campsite for dinner and fire.
Crystal Lake is a lovely place with just a short walk leading to it. An easy family hike for an hour or so.  Definitely make the time to walk there if you’re in the area!

Mount Harkness, view from Crystal Lake.
Horseshoe Lake
Difficulty level: easy.
Labor Day Monday was our day to go back home, but I couldn't bring myself to leave the area right after breaking camp, so I convinced my family to go on another hike - to Horseshoe Lake. After eating breakfast under a raid of hungry grey jays, we drove 2 miles north on the dirt road to the trailhead, at the north point of Juniper Lake.
A grey jay, waiting to jump the breakfast table.

The trail is very obvious: clear and wide. Impossible to miss. It begins with a mild ascension through a fir/pine forest that soon opens up into large clearings carpeted with Manzanita shrubs. After a small plateau the trail descended back into the forest.
Mid-way to Horseshoe Lake
We didn't see many animals along the way, although we did hear many song birds. This cute chipmunk was posing for my camera a little bit.
It took us an hour to hike the 1.4 miles to the trail intersection by Horseshoe Lake. There is no direct access to the water there so we needed to decide which way to turn so we could get to the lake shore. After consulting the map we headed left (southward) and before long cut straight through the trees to the inviting shore and sat down to admire the view and to eat our snack.
There were little forest flowers where we sat. Cute spots of color.
An aster?  A fleabane?
Yellow monkeyflower
Horseshoe Lake is named that way because of its horseshoe shape. From where we sat, however, there was no way to tell the shape of the lake. It was no less beautiful though, and its calmness and the surrounding forest gave me once again an urge to slip on the magic ring and step into the water and into another world altogether.

At the south corner of the lake we spotted a red area. A close-up photo revealed little flowers sticking out of the water like tiny red snorkels.
Lake painted red

We were already pressed with time so we didn't go near these flowers. Instead, after having our snack and appreciating the scenery we turned and headed back to our trail.

When we returned to the Horseshoe Lake trail junction I noticed that the sign said 1.3 miles to Juniper Lake, and I wondered how this works if the sign at the Juniper Lake side says 1.4 miles. I had no one to ask though. We soon discovered, however, that the trail compensated for the missing 0.1 mile by the incline. Normally, this trail's incline would be easy, but for us it came a day after a pretty strenuous hike and our muscles were still sore. The adult quails did fine and so did the older chica, but for the younger one it proved to be too much. She was weeping miserably all the way back to Juniper Lake :-(
There are picnic tables right by the water. We took our watermelon out of the car (and it was still cold from the night), opened it and had a quiet, relaxed picnic by the water. After that we returned to the car and drove off, back to civilization.

I would strongly recommend this place to people who like camping in relative seclusion. That doesn't mean I would be happy to find a Yosemite-style crowd next time I go there ...
Sunrise at Juniper Lake


  1. Recommending this place to other people sort of defeats the purpose to those looking for seclusion.

    As someone living on the road that leads to Juniper Lake, just thought I'd point that out.

    1. I agree with you. However, I very much doubt that hoards of people will crowd the place based on my recommendation. Even at full capacity (which it was when we were there) the place is very quiet and secluded.
      You live in an enchanting place. I hope it keeps its charm for many generations to come.

  2. Thanks so much for posting! Would you think you could get a small tent trailer in there?

    1. My pleasure :-)
      As for trailer, the campground site: doesn't specify trailer length. I believe the campground is accessible but it is best to contact the park's authorities about that. There's no potable water there, though, so be sure to bring enough with you or a filter to treat the lake water. Have fun camping!