Welcome to the Power Vortex

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1996

Welcome to the Power Vortex

Way up in the wilds of northern California, a harmonic convergence of high peaks, spires, whitewater, and singletrack
By Andrew Rice

When seemingly all of urban California is heading for Sierra Nevada retreats like Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and Kings Canyon/ Sequoia to form ant trails through the mountains, you'd do well to point your car northward and just keep going. A mere hour longer than it would take you to drive to Tahoe from the Bay Area, you'll hit California's "other" mountains--the Trinity Alps, Siski-yous, Klamaths, and Cascades--where the population is so sparse that rustic Trinity County doesn't have a single stoplight or parking meter. Instead, these mountains have seven million dense forest acres, one of California's highest peaks, one of its unruliest rivers, and a palpable enough "power vortex" surrounding Mount Shasta to keep you lit up for a week. Use the town of Mount Shasta, a magnet for New Age converts and an easy 290-mile drive from San Francisco via I-5, as a base camp, or roll into almost any campground in the region with no reservation, and spend the days hiking, climbing, biking, fishing, or running rivers in solitude.

Avalanche Gulch, Mount Shasta
There are taller mountains in the state, but none more beautiful than 14,162-foot Mount Shasta, which holds a strange draw for climbers of all abilities. It stands alone, a cone-shaped dormant volcano rising 10,000 feet above the town of Mount Shasta and the surrounding plain, giving you from the summit a spectacular unobstructed view of most of northern California. In a good snow year the mountain gets more than 400 inches, so even in late summer it's possible to climb it in one long day and then zip down Avalanche Gulch on skis or your backside. It may look like a cakewalk, but be forewarned: More than half the people who attempt the summit every year get turned back by weather or exhaustion.

To make the whole climb in one day, head out in the middle of the night and take county road A-10 about 11 miles from the town of Mount Shasta to the Bunny Flat trailhead; then walk just under two miles to the Sierra Club hut at Horse Camp. Alternatively, to get an earlier start, you can camp in the nearby trees (the hut is open only for emergency shelter). From here, at treeline, it's only 4.1 miles to the summit, but it's a climb of more than 6,000 vertical feet, so count on ten to 12 hours to make it to the top.

Hike up the broad gulch behind the hut to Lake Helen, at 10,400 feet, another good overnight spot for a two-day trip. Here you face the most difficult part of the trek: For the next 3,000 feet, Avalanche Gulch climbs at a 35-degree angle (it seems a lot steeper). Next the route threads through the Red Banks, a huge volcanic outcropping at 13,000 feet, and then it's a fairly simple hike up Misery Hill and along a narrow ridge to the summit snowfield. Several summit pinnacles are apparent--the true 14,162-foot summit is the one on the right (east) via an easy scramble over rocks. After signing the summit log you've got 6,000 to 7,000 vertical feet of snow waiting below for you to glissade or ski down. What took ten or 12 hours to get up might take you two to descend.

Weather and snow conditions on the mountain can vary widely within a single day. Bring plenty of layers, including a waterproof bib and jacket for the glissade home. You won't need a rope, but an ice ax and crampons are essential. The Fifth Season (916-926-3606) in Mount Shasta rents both for $16 for three days. The Mount Shasta Book, by Andy Selters and Michael Zanger ($14.95, from Wilderness Press, 510-843-8080), gives easy-to-understand descriptions of other Shasta climbing routes (such as the six-mile Hotlum-Bolam trail, which follows a ridge over Hotlum Glacier) and includes a great topographical map of the mountain. Shasta Mountain Guides runs two-day climbing and skiing trips for $235 per person, including tents, food, and climbing gear. Call 916-926-3117 to reserve a spot.

Whitewater Rafting
Klamath and Trinity Rivers
The Klamath, which runs in a long arc from about 60 miles north to about 80 miles west of Mount Shasta, was one of the first rivers in California to be given National Wild and Scenic River status. After your first rapid you'll understand why. Draining the Marble, Scott, and Salmon Mountains, the Klamath runs through a forested canyon filled with Class III and IV whitewater. It's the quintessential pool-and-drop river, perfect for families and beginners but still challenging enough for more advanced rafters. Besides plenty of otters and turtles, you'll see eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, deer, and possibly black bears--and by mid-July both the weather and the river are warm enough that you'll be comfortable wet or dry.

Private parties can run any section of the Klamath without a permit, though the Class IV Ikes rapid is sometimes closed for American Indian ceremonies--for information, call the Happy Camp Ranger District office at 916-493-2243. The most popular stretch of river begins in the small town of Happy Camp, on California 96, and ends at any of many campgrounds and access points in the 35 miles between there and Ishi Pishi Falls. Turtle River Rafting Company (916-926-3223), out of Mount Shasta, runs one- to five-day Klamath trips for $86 to $528 per person.

Thrill seekers on the hunt for a more intense whitewater rush should seek out the Class V-V+ Burnt Ranch Gorge, on the Trinity River, southwest of Mount Shasta and 32 miles west of Weaverville on California 299. The first mile and a half starts slowly, with gentle Class IIs and IIIs--but the gorge soon narrows between tall stone walls and the river gradient steepens. From Pearly Gates, the first big drop, until you exit eight miles later, this segment of the Trinity is one of the toughest commercially run rivers in the country. Huge waves, backwashes, and several six- to ten-foot drops, such as Lower Burnt Ranch Falls and Auto End-On (both Class V rapids), test even the most experienced paddlers. Beyond Limits Adventures (800-234-7238 or 209-869-6060) runs one- or two-day trips for $189-$289. Be prepared to prove your skills in advance.

The McCloud River
All that snow on Mount Shasta feeds a huge network of underground rivers and springs that eventually bubble up near the old lumber town of McCloud as the cold, clear McCloud River. This whitewater run, heavy with deep, turquoise pools, is heaven if you're tired of sharing your eddies with lumbering raftloads. Commercial rafting isn't allowed on the McCloud, so you can play-boat for hours without worrying about being mowed down.

The put-in is at Fowler's Campground; from Mount Shasta, head east on California 89, go 5.5 miles past McCloud, and then turn right at River Loop Road and follow signs. Here you have two options. If you like heights, put in above Lower Falls and start off with a ten-foot drop into a deep pool. If that doesn't sound appealing, it's just as easy to put in below the falls at Pine Tree Hollow. The first two miles of the McCloud are more creek than river, but Big Springs, a dramatic hillside gusher that cascades down mossy rocks, quadruples the size of the river and the real fun begins. Nearly constant Class II-III rapids carry you the next four miles to the central compound of the Hearst family's 60,000 acre Wyntoon Estate, with weird fairy-tale architecture and a granite castle at river's edge. A couple miles more and the river ends in McCloud Reservoir; paddle three miles west to the take-out at the Tarantula Gulch boat ramp. Call Pacific Gas & Electric at 800-743-5000 for information on water flow.

Mountain Biking
Mount Shasta Loop
and Otter Bar Lodge
If there's a silver lining to the destruction wrought in the northern mountains by a century of mining and logging, it's the incredible network of flume trails, logging roads, and ore-car grades that were left behind when the boom ended. You could ride a new trail every day for a decade here and never repeat yourself.

The ultimate ride in these parts is the 63-mile loop around Mount Shasta that begins and ends in the eponymous town. The route is relatively flat with only one serious climb, but don't go into it ill-prepared: It's long and can be very trying. The microclimates around the mountain are so varied that you can leave in warm sunshine and get snowed on when you reach the other side. Much of the ride is on Forest Service roads that may be in use, so be on the lookout for the occasional logging truck. The loop takes you from evergreen forest to an eerie volcanic moonscape and then through a long stretch of high desert in the mountain's eastern rain shadow. Though the climate is dry, a few small streams drain the mountain; to save on weight, bring a water filter instead of lugging extra jugs. You won't see civilization again until you pedal back into town, so bring a full tool kit, plenty of spare tubes, and a lot of food.

The Mountain Biker's Guide to Northern California and Nevada ($12.95, from Falcon Press, 406-442-6597) has a good map and detailed route directions. For more information, call the Mount Shasta Ranger District office at 916-926-4511.

If you'd rather benefit from someone else's hard-earned experience, the mountain-biking guides at Otter Bar Lodge, on the Salmon River two hours west of Shasta via California 299 and 96, know their singletrack well. Primarily known as a kayaking center, Otter Bar focuses on biking when the river gets low in late summer and fall. One day you might pedal to the top of 6,000-foot Salmon Mountain. The next day you'll descend a twisty path to a secluded swimming hole. Otter Bar's sag wagon is never too far away if you get tired or take a hard wipeout.

Back at the lodge, a wood-fired hot tub and an outdoor shower are there to work out the kinks. The per-person cost of $1,290 a week at Otter Bar includes all meals, use of the lodge's front-suspension bikes, and optional kayaking on the Cal-Salmon River. Subtract $50 if you bring your own bike. Call 916-462-4772 for reservations.

The Pacific Crest Trail
Compulsive through-hikers, beware! From the Oregon state line to Lassen Volcanic National Park, the Pacific Crest Trail winds for more than 300 miles through the northern mountains--the Siskiyous, the Marble Mountains, and the Trinity Alps--before veering east through Castle Crags State Park and into the southern reaches of the Cascades. It's a chunk of trail that's smack in the middle of the PCT's march from Canada to Mexico. Most of this stretch is closed by snow until mid-July, and numerous patches will remain on the ground until September. One of the most scenic, best constructed, and least visited sections is the 18.5 miles from Scott Mountain Campground, off California 3 about 12 miles north of Trinity Center, to Carter Meadows Summit. The only problem: It'll leave you wanting to hike all 1,682 California miles of the PCT.

You're pretty far from anywhere here, so it's likely you'll spend the whole three or four days without seeing any other hikers. The trail follows a route through pine and fir forests mixed with lush meadows. Campsites are numerous at Boulder Creek Canyon, Eagle Creek Canyon, and the South Fork of the Scott River. Short side trails lead to East Boulder Lake, Telephone Lake, and several other lakes with good swimming and trout fishing (brookies and rainbows up to 15 inches). Backcountry camping permits are required for this section; you can pick one up the same day you hike. Call Klamath National Forest (916-842-6131) for information.

Rock Climbing
Castle Crags State Park
Some 170 to 220 million years ago, the Sierra Nevada and the Klamath Mountains were one and the same. Then, as things Californian are wont to do, they split. The Klamaths drifted 60 miles northwest while the Sierra stayed put. But they still have at least one thing in common: great climbing.

Castle Crags, 15 miles south of Mount Shasta off I-5, is the easternmost edge of the Klamaths, a dizzying collection of granite spires, domes, and crags. Despite its proximity to the highway, it's a relatively secret climbing spot where most of the routes remain unnamed. The only guidebook to the area has been out of print for years, and there are no published route maps of the crags. Climbs range from simple bouldering problems and hairball single-pitch routes to classics like the seven-pitch, 5.8 Cosmic Wall. Be prepared for off-width cracks and difficult protection placements.

When you're hanging there, take the time to look around. Mount Shasta is to the northeast, Lassen Peak is to the southeast, and straight down is the rugged canyon of the Sacramento River. The park has 64 campsites and two miles of Sacramento River frontage (with 12 primo riverside sites); call 800-444-7275 to reserve. Shasta Mountain Guides (916-926-3117) teaches beginning and intermediate classes here for $65 per person per day and also provides guides for more difficult climbs in the area.

Andrew Rice is the author of Outside Magazine's Adventure Guide to Northern California, to be published by Frommer's and available this summer.

See Also:
Sasquatch Phone Home
Conquering the Other Mount Shasta
Inns and Lodges: Traverse City, Michigan
Long Weekends: Whistler While You Play

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