Outside magazine, August 1996
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.