Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Summit Achieved: Lassen Peak

As high as the crow flies.
Date: July 29, 2015
Place: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mineral, California
Coordinates: 40.474790, -121.505960
Length: 5 miles up and down
Level: strenuous

There is beauty in every Nature hike I take. But there are also those trails that are simply 'WOW' in every meaning of the word. And the trail going up Lassen Peak is such.
The sign post at the trailhead depicting the trail
I hiked that trail 13 years ago in my pre-chika days, and I've been waiting for an opportunity to hike up it again. Last week, following a group camping trip to Lassen Volcanic NP, I took that opportunity. After the group was done and on their way home I stayed one more day with my chikas and a family friend visiting from overseas, to go up Lassen Peak.
Our hike, as captured by my GPS
The trailhead is at 8,500' elevation which, by itself, could pose some challenge to people just arriving from sea level. We, however, have been in the park for the previous 4 days and were ready to push altitude a bit further.
Starting up between groves of Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)
The beginning of the ascend is fairly mild. We were going up long stretches of not too steep switchbacks. At that time we didn't feel the need to rest but if we would have, there would have been plenty of nice, shaded spots to sit under the mountain hemlocks. 
The bottom section of the trail has 'the eye' in view. This rock formation is one of Lassen Peak's signature sights, commonly observed from Lake Helen, below.
The 'Eye'.
My younger chika kept complaining that the mountain was staring at her. I reassured her that Lassen is a gentlemountain 
All too soon the switchbacks became shorter and steeper. We were quickly gaining altitude.
This, of course, gave us clear view to the entire southwestern side of the mountain.
Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) lining the terrain creases
While the wildflowers of Lassen Volcanic NP normally peak at the end of July, this year, due to the continuous drought and the abnormally high temperatures, the bloom season was mostly over throughout the park. The only exception was Lassen Peak itself. 
The Peak, normally covered with snow until early summer, was alive and bursting with wildflowers everywhere.
Pale Mountain Monardella (Monardella odoratissima ssp. pallida)
At lower elevation the vegetation was more dense and decorated the slopes with multiple colors.

The most dominant of the wildflowers there was the satin lupine. It was everywhere along the trail. 
Satin Lupine (Lupinus obtusilobus)
Blooming lupine carpeted the slopes in large patches, brightening the rusty-gray rocks. 

Further from the trail, the lupine patches were so big they covered large sections of the southern slope with bright purple. It really was an amazing sight to see!

As we got higher we got above the hemlocks and also got more view. Lake Almanor afar, southeast of the park, looked very inviting. It is a fine recreation place for lowlanders :-) 
Lake Almanor
A few more steps and a turn around the corner we found ourselves in line with Brokeoff mountain to the southeast. Brokeoff mountain, an old relic from the ancient Mount Tehama that towered over the Lassen area some 30,000 years ago, is the second highest peak in the park. There's a trail going up there too, but I had to leave something for my next visit there.
Brokeoff Mountain, 9236'
Another switchback and we were once again facing the southeast and looking down at Reading Peak. Peaking at 8.714' it still looked like a minor hill from the heights of Lassen.
Reading Peak, 8,714'
Zooming my lens behind Reading Peak I focused on Kings Creek Meadow. This meadow lies right by the main park road and is a favorite place for me to stop and enjoy the view.
Kings Creek Meadow
As we ascended the switchbacks became even shorter and steeper, and we got shorter of breath. Lightheaded and heavy footed by the thin air, I found myself using my camera more and more as an excuse to stop and catch my breath. Elder chika and our visiting friend took off and walked up with no apparent strain, while younger chika and I lagged behind, taking frequent breaks and photographing the same views from different altitudes. One of these view shots to the southwest shows a small cinder cone not far from the town of Red Bluff. Apparently it is on private property.
A cinder cone southwest of Lassen Volcanic NP
THE Cinder Cone, which is within the park and is the most beautiful cinder cone in existence comes into view when we switchbacked to face the northeast. A small and inconspicuous gray butte below Prospect Peak, Cinder Cone is a not-to-miss attraction in Lassen Volcanic NP. There's no other place in the world like it. 
Prospect Peak (left) and Cinder Cone (below prospect Peak, to the right)
The photo above also shows the extent of the big fire that consumed the proud conifer forest of the park two years ago.  
Making it round the corner again and we were eye to eye with 'The Eye'. Another switchback, and it has sunk below the horizon.
Seeing eye to eye
Lake Helen, now way down below, remained within direct eyeshot throughout the ascend, just getting smaller and smaller.
Lake Helen
At that elevation, we were in pine-dom. Not that anywhere else would these pines be considered trees. Shorter than chaparral bushes and gnarlier than the most mastered bonsai, the whitebark pines stretch low over the slope, hugging the rocks with all branches.
Whitebarck Pine (Pinus albicaulis)
These pines provided the last shade along the trail. From then on, for the final 1000' of trail, we were completely exposed to the sun.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.
Bove the pine level there were lupines no more. And no more carpets or patches of anything. But the heights were hardly barren: cushions of colorful wildflowers were nestled against heavy rocks, spilling from between the cracks and peaking from underneath the boulders. Some, like Fremont's Groundsel, I already met at the lower part of the trail.
Fremont's Groundsel (Senecio fremontii)
And some where completely new to me. 
Ball-headed Gilia (Ipomopsis congesta ssp. montana)
Some were new species of an already familiar genus.
Mountain Phacelia (Phacelia hastata)
And I've also seen endemic plant species: they grow only on Lassen Peak and nowhere else in the world. I wonder if seeds of these plants are collected and stored somewhere. After all, the next eruption of Lassen can easily wipe out those species. (What undoubtedly happened on Lassen's last eruption a 100 years ago. I wondered how many plant species were lost there that no one would ever know had ever existed.)
Alpine False Candytuft (Smelowskia ovalis). Endemic to Lassen Peak
Quite far up, away from the rest of it's species, I spotted a tiny whitebark pine tree, less than 1' tall, hiding from the elements in a rock crevice. 
Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis)
A movement among the rocks caught my eye. I set the camera on sequential photos and shot a sequence of which a couple turned out ok. 
It was two butterflies fluttering in courtship over a groundsel plant. While not the famous tortoiseshells that swarm the peak seasonally, I was still very happy to see them.   
Western White Butterflies + Shadows.
Alpine plants are small, sparse, and beautiful beyond measure. The contrast with the bare volcanic rocks enhances their beauty even more.
Penstemon sp.
The high elevation of Lassen is home for more than one species of penstemon. I wasn't able to approach all of them to get a detailed photo, but I enjoyed appreciating them from a distance too.
Davidsons' Penstemon (Penstemon davidsonii)
One of these penstemon plants was the 'Mountain Pride': familiar to me from the Sierra Nevada heights as well.
Mountain Pride (Penstemon newberryi)
Leaving the trail to roam on the rocky slopes is strictly forbidden there: that causes serious erosion damage and scars that can take decades to heal. That makes a good zoom lens particularly useful fo photographing plants from a distance.
Nevada Dustymaiden (Chaenactis nevadensis)
The trail up Lassen Peak isn't very steep or long, nor does it contain any particular structural challenges. But the altitude is a serious slow-down. Despite having been acclimated to 5,000'-8,000' in preceding days, I still felt short of breath and light-headed, walking slower and stopping more frequently as we got higher. When we finally made it to the official end of trail I was surprised to see that the summit was still in some distance. 
The trail ends at the edge of Lassen's crater, with an observation area furnished with information signs. The highest point towered to the east: not much higher but after the big ascend it seemed like a mini-Everest. 
But we didn't make it all the way to give up on the summit, so after a little rest we were on our way to the tip.
Lassen Peak: Summit
Going up the last bit to the summit means scrambling through a pile of volcanic rubble. There is no one specific trail leading there but rather, several makeshift trails. A couple of times we had to backtrack and try another way, and whenever we did that, some of us (me included) had to butt-scoot down.
A peak pile of rubble. View to the northeast.
But we did make it to the summit eventually. Up to the tallest rock. We took turns taking photos there (which I am not posting here). Then we descended a few yards and sat down for lunch and to appreciate the place. 
Pillars of lava. View to the west.
Mount Lassen, or Waganupa, in the language of the Yana people who used to live in Lassen's area before being massacred by the European-descent settlers, is a lava dome volcano. Lava dome: meaning the volcano was built as viscous lava pushed up and solidified en-locale rather than in layered flows. 
From where we sat at the peak we had a terrific view of the entire crater, showing the lava plug of Lassen last eruption at 1917.
The Crater
Far to the north, floating over the horizon: Mount Shasta, the tallest volcano in California. My elder chika desires to go up there next and, considering the ease in which she ascended Lassen Peak, I'd say she's all ready :-)
Mt. Shasta
We were hardly alone at the peak. Numerous other hikers were there having taken advantage of the beautiful day, and they too sat at various spots on the rubble and ate their food. Little golden-mantled squirrels sneaked between the rocks, seeking invitation for lunch. It is forbidden to feed wildlife in the park (and highly discouraged in other places as well), and I'm happy to say I saw no one feeding them. But that did raise the question of what do this squirrels eat up there? 
Golden-mantled Squirrel
Beside squirrels there were some flies buzzing around us. That was a good enough reason to finish eating quickly and pack everything.

When we were done eating and resting, our friend took off to check out the other side of the crater, while me and the chikas butt-scooted down into the crater to find a snow patch for them to play with. 
It was sad to see Lassen Peak so naked. It should have much more snow on, even at the end of July. Still, there were a few patches, here and there.
Peak Snow
The chikas went down to one snowy crevice and played there for some time. They worked hard to get to the summit, they sure earned some fun time!
Peak Snowplay
Meanwhile I sat in a higher place and examined the rocks more closely. Even after nearly a century since the last eruption, the rocks inside the crater were still completely barren. Not even a hint of lichen. I liked the glassy look of the grainy basalt.
Left to cool off: lava rocks
The soil itself, however, was already inoculated with plants. Right up to the peak itself.
Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna)
High altitude conditions are harsh. Extreme temperatures, high winds and strong, direct radiation make for small, hardy plants. Often succulent and hairy, and sheltering under rocks. The alpine bloom season is pitifully short, and it takes perfect timing to see certain blooms. 
In that sense I was very lucky: while everywhere else in the park, at lower altitudes, peak blooming was already over, up at Lassen Peak it was at its peak. 
Except for the Draba.
I saw them scattered over the peak: little, succulent rosettes with no inflorescence stalk.
Mt. Lassen Draba (Draba aureola)
And I've also seen already dry pod stalks. At the time, I didn't realize that the rosettes and the pods belong to the same species. That I had caught the 'before' and the 'after' of the Draba's bloom. It was after inquiring with the California Native Plants Society that I learned about this plant. This species of Draba in particular: the Mt. Lassen Draba, which grows only in very few places, and is a rare and endangered species.
Mt. Lassen Draba (Draba aureola)
Another peak flower I had difficulty identifying was the local variant of Jacob's Ladder. As I have learned too, everywhere else this species blooms in purple. On Lassen Peak, however, it is white.
 Jacob's Ladder (Polemonium pulcherrimum var. pilosum)
We spent a good hour up on the peak. After the chikas had their fill of snowplay, our friend returned from his crater exploration, and I had photographed all the plants within sight, it was finally time to go back down.
The Trail
Not surprisingly, it was much easier and faster going down. I literally felt my lungs expand with each step down.
It's all downhill from here
Although we were going considerably faster, we stopped still to appreciate plants and other sights we had missed or just skipped on the way up.
Shasta Knotweed (Polygonum shastense)
I felt high. Giddy for having hiked to the summit of Lassen Peak, and for seeing it wearing its best spring colors.
Shasta Buckwheat (Eriogonum pyrolifolium var. pyrolifolium)
With renewed energies, and not eager to say goodbye, we took the time to check out the interesting rocks near the trail.
The hole in the wall
And also those further away from it. 
A sign on the first switchback from the treailhead warns hikers not to make shortcuts and to not leave the trail for any reason. Doing so erodes the surface and damages its fragile ecosystem. The sign goes to warn that if shortcutting continues, the trail will be closed to hiking unless with a designated guide.
So if you'd like to check out a further rock formation, make sure to bring along your zoom lens!
'The Chute'
Some interesting sights, however, we met right there on the trail. A trio of men making their way up sat aside to catch their breath. I was duly impressed by the chest decoration, of one of them, depicting the 'good and the evil fighting over his heart'. He graciously allowed me tho photograph his body art. To maintain his privacy I cropped his face out of the photo. Dude, if you happen to see this blog post: thanks again for sharing your story and your image!

Down, down, down. Back to the line of whitebark pines.
Stopping here and there to appreciate these gnarly, weathered trees.
Whitebark Pine
They're beautiful even when dead and bone-dry.

Back to 9,000' and to the mountain hemlocks The lower slopes of Lassen Peak are mildly graded and we could see deer gently grazing between the trees below, too far even for my zoom lens.

The sun was descending to the west and I took the opportunity and photographed it peeking behind a small group of hemlocks. I tried prompting my chikas to get down before the visitor center closes, promising them ice cream. But then again, we weren't all that much in a hurry to leave this magical place. It was just the thought of the 5-hours drive back home that was still ahead of me that day.
Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana)
Down, down, down. Even without prompting, we soon found ourselves on the final switchback, making the turn to the parking lot. The mountain's 'Eye' looking benevolently down on us.

We made it down before the visitor center's closing time, but we lingered long enough in the parking lot to have missed the ice cream. (Not to worry: the chikas got their reward in Red Bluff). 
It was a long expected and perfectly done hike. It took us 3 hours to get from trailhead to summit, one more hour of peak exploration on top, then 2 hours to get back down. All and all - six hours of great hiking, sight-seeing and basic mountaineering :-) I totally recommend this hike to any fit visitor to the park. It's well worth the time and effort.
Wildflowers, lava plug and spectacular views. At Lassen Peak summit.

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying the wildflowers!


  1. That is one challenging and rewarding hike...
    The views are magnificent

    And the tattoo picture was very surprising :-)

    1. It's a very rewarding hike! One I've been wanting to do (again) for a long time, too. And yes, the tattoo photo isn't one you've might expected of me ... I don't know if I can classify it under wildlife encounters, but it is a pretty sight I saw on the way :-)

  2. such an amazing place, especially with the alpine vegetations
    and the views...
    amazing. I really admire you all for going all the way to the summit!

    1. After camping at Lassen Park for 4 nights in a row you would have been up to go up the peak too :-)

  3. Thank you for this blog post. I was trying to figure out the name of a flower that I initially thought was Lassen Peak Smelowskia. Turns out, it was Jacob's Ladder.

    We love camping and hiking at Lassen National Park. It's such a treasure.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Yuko! Lassen Volcanic NP is my favorite California park, I too visit it as frequently as I can!