Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Lucky Hike to Kings Creek Falls and Sifford Lake

Date: June 6, 2015
Place: Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Coordinates: 40.460630, -121.459358
Length: 4.9 miles
Level: moderate

Kings Creek Falls is a well known and loved trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park. It is obvious to anyone driving through the park by the traffic jam at the trailhead :-) It is a well-loved trail and rightly so. Following the pretty Kings Creek all the way to the waterfall and back is the most straightforward route, the one that most people take. And it is very beautiful, particularly during the wildflowers bloom peak. There are more options, however. Here I share my hike down to the Falls and looping back via Bench Lake and one of the Sifford Lakes.
My hike to Kings Creek Falls, Bench Lake and Sifford Lake, labeled yellow on a USGS topo map.
June 6 would normally be too soon for the wildflowers bloom peak. This year, however, following a 4th drought year in a row and abnormally warm winter with very little snow pack, early June was high spring for Lassen Volcanic NP.
That meant flowers. Lots of flowers. All along the trail. Starting right by the trailhead.
Purple Fawnlily (Erythronium sp.)
Right away there is access to the creek. On the way out, however, I didn't stop for too long. I wanted to get to the falls as quickly as possible.
Small White Violet (Viola macloskeyi)
I was blessed with perfect hiking weather. It was warm, yet not too hot. Everything around me was green and lush. A few snow patches on the ground still, much fewer than should be so early in summer.
Kings Creek cuts through a meadow
Also very early for the season: the spring bloom. At that point I already knew that by the time I'd returned there with my group  at the end of July that bloom will be over.
Lomatium sp.
I was glad that I was there to enjoy it, though. No complaints there!
Western Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.)
Less than half a mile into the trail the creek started cascading. The trail, however, remains fairly level as the creek dropped into a deep gorge.

So before long I was standing high above the water, gazing down to the whitewater in the deep gulch below me.

Not the falls yet, but an impressive cascading creek, cutting its way through the gray, volcanic rock and making its way down, down, down beyond the horizon.

The water flowing through Kings Creek eventually reach Lake Almanor, far in the misty horizon.

I spent some time at that viewpoint, looking around. A cute little squirrel observed me too.

The bloom scene only improved, with the manzanita shrubs carpeting the entire open face of the slope.
Manzanita (Arctostaphylus sp.)
Other flowers poked through the thick manzanita carpet. The indian paintbrush being the most noticeable.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja affinis)
As I remembered from my previous visits there, the trail continues directly along the creek, down to the falls. There is also the pack trail that meanders around the hill and descends on a milder slope. Normally, we would go down the direct trail, then loop back through the milder pack trail. This time I found that the direct trail has been closed because a part of it had collapsed. The only choice was to go down the longer pack trail. 
The pack trail down to Kings Creek Falls
To the color, there was added scent too: the sweet fragrance of blooming ceanothus filled the air as I made my way down.
Ceanothus sp.
Just looking across the thick layer of manzanita didn't reveal much. Looking closer at the ground, however, showed quite a few wildflowers peeking shyly from under the green shrubbery.
Hawksbeard (Crepis sp.)
Even when not too conspicuous, wildflowers have their way of attracting their pollinators.
Forest Clover (Trifolium breweri)
Even when almost hidden in the rock cracks.
Brewer's Monkeyflower (Mimulus breweri)
There were so many flowers there! Let's just say that I slowed down to almost a crawl on that trail going down to the falls.
Cinquefoil (Drymocallis sp.)
I break not only for flowers. New fern were rising from the moist ground, slowly unfurling their leaves in the air.
Unfurling Fern
Once down, almost at creek level, the trail crosses a small and very lush forest clearing. Grasses and rushes, interlaced with the boar leaves of mesh marigolds and the cone-like corn-lily spring sprouts covered the entire clearing.

There. too, were many blossoms. Most prevalent - the marsh marigold.
Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepalia)
But there was also a brighter color present: that of the Alpine shootingstar.
Alpine Shooting Star (Primula tetrandra)
The trail crossing the clearing was really muddy and I had to tread carefully on its edge, not to get deep into the muck and not to trample the vegetation. The sparkle of delicate threads attracted my attention, and I bent down to photograph a glistening spiderweb, woven over a hole in the ground.

After I crossed the clearing I joined with the direct trail that was blocked above me, and continued a few hundred yards down to the observation area of Kings Creek Falls.
Already from a distance I noticed some colors that didn't fit the natural scenery: bright-colored climbing rope and belts were tied to a large tree on the opposite side of the creek. At first I thought that maintenance work was being done there, but as I approached I saw that it was three young people doing tight-rope walking back and forth across the creek.
Tight-roping in nature
 I sat there and watched them for some time. As much as I admire that kind of physical activity, I wasn't all that happy not to have the falls without this in the foreground.

In previous visits there I used to scramble down a steep makeshift trail to the bottom of the falls. This time I was content to stay at the observation area above. But then nature intervened, gravity did its thing and the shader of my lens dislodged and fell all the way down to the creek. I probably should have called it a goner, but I could see the plastic ring shining back at me, lodged between a branch and a rock at the edge of the water. Leaving it there would have meant littering. I sighed and started the careful scramble down the rocks, all the way on my behind. (The pants survived).
After retrieving the shader I took a moment and photographed the falls from the bottom, this time with no humans in the frame.
Kings Creek Falls
It was easier going back up. I said goodbye to the sky athletes and continued down the trail. I didn't plan to take the group any further than the falls. That trail alone would have been plenty for a group of families with young children. I, on the other hand, had plenty of time on my hands on this prep hike, so I decided to widen my acquaintance of the area by adding the Sifford Lake loop to my personal hike.
As I descended further down the Kings Creek Trail I noticed a few patches of snow on the ground. When I returned to Lassen Volcanic NP a month and a half later, there was no snow anywhere except for a few small patches hight up Lassen Peak.
Snow patch downstream of Kings Creek Falls
About half a mile east of the falls the trail crosses Kings Creek and continues southeast. At that point I was all alone on the trail. I walked at an easy pace, enjoying the view that was familiar yet new to me at the same time.
Soon I was walking below rocky pillars that reminded me of ancient people leaning on each other. A dark gap between two of those pillars looked like a cave that mitt suit a bear, but as hard as I stared at it, with and without my binoculars, I could detect nothing there but darkness.

A slope of rubble was between those pillars and the trail, and at the bottom of the rubble, a patch of bright pink-floering shrubs: the purple mountainheath.

The trail was curved right in the midst of the mountainheath, allowing me to get a very close look at those pretty flowers.
Purple Mountainheath (Phyllodoce breweri)
In abundance were also the familiar forget-me-nots. Pretty and delicate, but not native to California.
Common Forget-me-not (Myosotis scorpiodes), non native.
A familiar smell from a bump in the damp caused my to stop and scrape the dirt off with my foot. An amanita! The only mushroom (save for bracket mushrooms that grow on dead trees) that I've seen in the entire hike!

The map indicated that my trail would take me to Bench Lake and I had planned to have my lunch break there. When I arrived at the lake's location I stood there gaping for a long minute at a parch-dry basin that used to be a forest pond.
The California Drought.
Bench Lake
But it was lunch time after all, so I sat there and ate quietly, and then I laid back and closed my eyes, hoping to get a few minutes' nap. I didn't fall asleep, so I reopened my eyes and stared at the pretty sky and practiced nephelococcygia. (That's finding shapes in the clouds - a fancy word I learned recently on one of those silly online quizzes).
Sky Kittens, playing
It was getting windy and the temperatures started to go down. Rested, I got back on my feet and went on with my hike. A young couple, both in skimpy clothes (but no goosebumps), and very little water, came upon me fast from behind. They had no map and asked me if I knew where there would be the turn to loop back to the trailhead. I didn't tell them what they had already figured out, that one shouldn't go hiking without proper preparation and enough water, but I do think it is important to emphasize it here. I did, however, pull out my map and showed them that the turn should be coming up a just a quarter mile away.  They thanked me and continued on at top speed. I lumbered heavily in their wake.
The open pine forest south of Kings Creek Falls
That turn, as it turned out, also leads to a lake that on my map was labeled as one of the Sifford lakes. Going to that lake would have meant another mile back and forth extension of my loop hike just to see that one lake. I had wanted to see that lake, but I after the disappointment of seeing Bench Lake dry I had second thoughts.
I debated with myself for a few seconds, and then I noticed a pretty, yellow composite growing near the trail leading to Sifford Lake, so I went to photograph it. Then, of course, I was already on my way to the lake.
California Groundsel (Senecio aronicoides)
And I was very glad I did, because the lake was full to the brim. Why this one full and the other dry? I have no clue. Perhaps the bottom of Sifford Lake is less porous? I truly don't know.
Sifford Lake
It is a very small lake. More like a pond. So, naturally, I walked all the way around it. On the other side of the lake, though, I made a stunning discovery: the lake is located near the edge of a sheer cliff with a deep valley way, way down, below.
Talking Rock
I was glad no one of my family was there to see how close to the cliff edge I was standing, nor was there to try and stop me from looking down.
I was looking right at Devil's Kitchen.
There are five geothermal areas in Lassen Volcanic NP. The best known ones are Bumpass Hell and the Sulphur Works areas. The other three are less known and are accessible by long hikes that are much removed from the main park road. Devil's Kitchen is one of them, and I am already planning to hike there on my next visit to Lassen Volcanic NP.
(A later edit: the plan fulfilled :-)
Devil's Kitchen
Last June, though, I had to settle for just viewing Devil's Kitchen from far above. And that was fine too.
Less fine was that the wind had picked up and the clouds were covering more and more of the sky.

So I completed my lake circumvention and headed back to the loop trail I diverted from. And although I had increase my pace. I still paid close attention to the vegetation along the trail.
Davis' Knotweed (Aconogonum davisiae)
A sweet song captured me. Up until that point I hadn't managed to photograph any bird on that hike: they were all too elusive. Even this one was very far, singing its song atop a tall pine. It was a song sparrow, which is hardly visible in this photo. The cloud, however, is why I posted it here. A thick, heavy, raincloud that was striding fast across the sky, heading my direction.
I picked up my feet and hurried along.
A song sparrow calling the rain. 
The term 'local rain' as very true when it comes to Lassen  area. I have experienced it there more than once: a heavy storm that affects only a small area, and whether I get wet or not is a matter of pure chance. Last year, at the Caribou Wilderness, I got soaked. This time, the rain cloud had passed me by.  By the time I neared Kings Creek again, the clouds parted enough to give me a nice glimpse of Lassen Peak, its coat of snow showing too much wear and tear for early June.
Lassen Peak
By the time I made it back to Kings Creek it was clear that this hike would stay untrained upon. So I took the time and lingered by the creek, contemplating getting wet anyway. I eventually did not. I wanted to hike another trail that day. So I crossed the little bridge and rejoined the main trail, this time taking it back toward the trailhead.

Even on my way back I kept my attention on the ground. And good thing too, because I found a few more wildflowers I had somehow missed on my way to the falls.
Dwarf Onion (Allium parvum)
Well, they were very small. Or just budding.
Pine Lousewort (Pedicularis semibarata)
Or it was just a better lighting that made for better photos on the way back. Either way, I had a great time finding all these flowers, and I haven't even posted all of them here.
Pine Violet (Viola lobata)
By the time I concluded my hike there where many more cars in the small parking pull-out. I have seen quite a few hikers on the main trail, heading down to the falls. The Sifford Lake loop though, was pretty much deserted. It is very beautiful, and makes a very nice addition to hikers with a bit more time on their hand, and it isn't difficult at all, so I very much recommend it. 

Driving back to the Loomis Visitor Center that's by Manzanita Lake and the northwest entrance to the park I took the time again and stopped next to a patch of lodgepole pine forest that had widely dispersed trees and a HUGE number of bright red snow plants poking through the thick pine-needle ground cover. These are parasitic plants that live underground, sucking the life out of tree roots, and show themselves above ground only when blooming. This summer there were so many of them, it looked like the entire forest had measles. I wasn't about to miss a close look at these magnificent flowers.  
Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)
When I arrived at the visitor center I got into a nice chat with the ranger there and shared my observations with her. When I was done she informed me I was very lucky indeed: that had been the last day before the park closed the access to Kings Creek Falls for the next couple of years, for maintenance work.

I stared at her in disbelief. Is that right? No access to the falls for two whole years?
She reassured me that the trail would remain open, there just won't be a view of the falls.

Yes, I was very lucky that day. My group, however, would have to wait out those two years before being able to see Kings Creek Falls. And now I had to check out an alternative trail for them. Having waterfalls in mind, that alternative turned out to be the Mill Creek Falls, near the southwestern entrance of the park.


  1. and we're lucky to see the pictures you shared...
    The flowers are beautiful - especially the Alpine shootingstar.
    The view from the cliff is stunning.

    And the sky kittens are cute :-)

    1. Thanks! I am very lucky to be able to go there and see theses sights!
      The sky kittens have gone to bed since :-)

  2. it's a lovely trail, and I know because you took us there 6 years ago :-)
    I remember we met the incredibly beautiful red columbine there :-)
    lovely pictures, and thank you for the reminder!

    1. The red columbine is incredible indeed. I didn't see them on this hike though. I think it might have been too early in the season for them.