Solo Backpacking in Lassen NP

It’s fair to say I’ve camped by myself a lot more than the average human. I’ve probably car-camped 50-100 nights at trailheads, on forest service roads, and in campgrounds. I’ve also backpacked solo more than most people, which is easy to say since most people have never and will never do it. Even among my really outdoorsy friends I can count on one hand the people I know who have done it. And I get it. I will not say it’s easy. But it is one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done. And every time I do it just gets better. I’m up around 5+ solo trips deep in the wilderness now, maybe more. This last one was probably the most exciting.

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I’d never been up to Lassen National Park, in northeastern California, and had been itching to go ever since a fishing trip with some friends was canceled months earlier. So, I went! I drove the 3.5 hours after work on a Friday, found a lonely forest service road with a few nice pull-outs and set up just before dark. I slept in the back of my car (a trusty station wagon) instead of the tent so I could get going early in the morning. And I’m really glad I did because I woke up at midnight to headlights shining directly at me. It still amazes me that I didn’t wake up sooner – by the time I was conscious a truck had pulled in and parked 5 ft away from me and two guys had unloaded a 4-wheeler from the bed. It was the second truck and second 4-wheeler that woke me up. I still have no idea what they were doing – off they went up the road at 12 AM, no hunting or other gear that I could see, and back they came around 4 AM, reloaded their ATVs and off they went. I woke up both times and wasn’t in the least bit scared, but it makes me wonder… I’m usually a light sleeper but apparently I can sleep through a lot in the woods!

Anyway, I woke up for good at 7 AM and got into Lassen NP even before the rangers were manning the entrance booth. I have an annual pass so no problem there. I drove a few miles in to the trailhead at Bumpass Hell and made some oatmeal before my hike. Bumpass Hell is an extremely volcanic active area named after the man who staked a claim on it. Mr Bumpass planned to profit off minerals and tourism there, but while leading an early tour, fell through the salt crust and ended up losing his leg to severe boiling mud burns. It’s a sobering, true story, but the site is incredible. One older couple got in before me but passed me on their way out so I had the whole area to myself. Driving past the trailhead the next day it was mobbed, so I’m extremely happy that I had a much quieter experience than most. The steam coming up in the cold morning, the incredible blues and golds, and surprisingly, the wildlife, all made for an awesome morning.

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After walking all the boardwalks and then watching a doe and 2 bucks munching on wildflowers, I was back at my car and headed all the way north out of the park and then back in another way. I stopped at the Ranger Station to get my wilderness overnight permit and assured the ranger that yes I had a bear can and yes, I know how to use it. She had some funny stories about campers trying to hang rental cans in trees…. belt and suspenders I suppose.

I was headed to Snag Lake in the northeastern part of the park. As I packed my bag in the parking lot I chatted with a group of three guys who were heading to the same place. I knew it was a big lake and wasn’t worried, and wished them luck as they left about 10 minutes ahead of me. I had a quick lunch of tuna fish, cheese and crackers and then set off myself. I didn’t think the hike would be too bad, and it wouldn’t have been, if it wasn’t for the sand. I don’t know why but I didn’t expect it. 12.5 miles in sand. It was the Lost Coast and sore ankles all over again. But it was GORGEOUS.

The most strenuous part of the hike I did first: summiting the Cinder Cone. I didn’t look up pictures beforehand – it just sounded like a cool thing to do. So I was surprised when, about a mile in, this appeared in front of me.

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The cone is only about 800 ft of vertical but it’s super steep and super loose sandy footing that every step hurts. Add a 35+ pound pack and it’s a workout. I was about a third of the way up, 2 miles into the hike, when I realized that I had somehow passed the group of guys that started before me. I’m not competitive, especially not in the outdoors, but for some reason that got in my head as I saw them starting up behind me. Do not let them pass. It was motivation I needed and I pushed myself hard. And I made it.

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A few of the people I saw up there actually congratulated me on making it up with a pack. I don’t really think it was worth all that, but it still felt good. I walked all the way around the cone, chased down a father and son that I had taken some cool photos of on the way up, admired the view of the lake, the “fantastic lava flow,” and the “painted dunes,” and then…. went back down the other side.

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If I did this hike again I would do it in the other direction, because the trail on the other side didn’t feel as long or as loose, but hiking down into the painted dunes was a treat.

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(By the way, I want to highly recommend Prana’s hiking pants!! I own two pairs, I’m actually on their website here: http://www.prana.com/women/featured/stretch-zion-family.html, last picture at the bottom.)

From there it felt a lot longer than I expected to hike along the edge of the lava flow (still in sand), down to Snag Lake (still in sand), and then half way around the lake to the far eastern side where I thought there would be fewer people (still in sand). But there were gobs of birds and deer to distract me, beautiful trees, and colorful sand everywhere. I took a long break once I got to the lake to soak my feet and was lucky enough to see a bald eagle being attacked by a hawk in mid-air, an unusual sight (both birds survived :).

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After I started setting up my tent next to a massive yellow jacket hive (eek!), I found a better spot protected by some trees, 100 feet from the lake, but where I could still hear the little waves lapping the stony shore.

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I took a delicious dip in the lake and then enjoyed dinner on the warm rocks watching the sunset.

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I was tired enough from the hike that I started to fall asleep around 9, but woke right back up as I heard something big walking along the beach, breaking branches and loud footsteps. The moon was almost full  and I didn’t have the rainfly on, so as I looked out I eventually made out the shape of a huge buck coming towards me. I had seen where deer had been sleeping under some aspens close by, but I was still surprised at how brash he was, and how much noise he was making. I sat up, watching him as he slowly walked by, maybe 30 feet away. Then I laid back down, still listening to his steps, and started to be more concerned as I heard him gradually circling my tent. The next time I sat up he actually charged me, stopped about 10 feet away and stomped the ground. I completely froze, and then when he didn’t come any closer I slowly laid back down so he couldn’t see me.

Three things were going through my head. 1) Can deer get rabies? 2) I’m so glad I brought the tent (I sometimes just cowboy camp in the open and the night was warm enough I almost did), and 3) If he’s being that loud, there must not be bears around. Score.

Eventually he circled around and away from the tent and out of earshot. I could still hear some occasional laughing from campers across the lake, which normally would be annoying but in this case was comforting, and after a little while fell back asleep.

The deer woke me up in the same way again at midnight, and 2 AM. By the third time I knew not to sit up, to not move and not look like a threat. I also didn’t care very much that early in the morning. I thought the deer must be rutting early and it was hormones making him super territorial, but I asked a hunter friend and found out they rut much later that far north. I still think the entire experience was very odd, but I’m also glad for it, and proud that I kept my cool and didn’t freak out.

Of course the morning was gorgeous, I packed up and didn’t see a single person for the first 4 miles. I got accidentally very close to a group of four doe, whistled along with flocks of juncos and sparrows, spotted two parties of toads (I have a special place in my heart for forest amphibians), and had the most delicious time.

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Eventually I got up to Butte Lake, where I started, and walked the whole length of the east side. The lava flow meets it on the west side, and the Cinder Cone just peaked out over the top. It’s always such a treat to be able to look back and see where you came from a different perspective.

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Eventually I started seeing people again: a sweet older couple riding their horses, who were shocked to see little me emerging from the woods all by myself, and two redheads I recognized from the day before at Bumpass Hell. I took a shortcut up and over the final hill and beat the horses back to the parking lot (and got to rub their noses). It was still before noon.

As I was throwing my dusty, sandy pack in the trunk I noticed an old cd that was tucked in a side box. In the stereo it went, and to my delight it was a mix CD I made for a road trip roughly 10 years ago. The Who, Sugar Ray, Shania Twain, and Tom Petty sang me home. It was a great trip.

3 comments for “Solo Backpacking in Lassen NP

  1. Janet
    October 22, 2016 at 6:28 am

    Thanks for taking us along on this wonderful trip! What a beautiful place! How do you manage to stay in such great shape and still work full-time? I never did figure that out!

  2. Bob Reynolds
    October 22, 2016 at 10:06 am

    It might be because Lassen is the first park that Linda and I explored together, but Lassen remains our favorite park of all – and it is great that you had such a great time. After we hiked to the top of the Cinder Cone, the wind blew my hat into the crater and I decided to retrieve it. No problem, except the inside of the cone is much steeper than the climb up and I had to crawl back out on my hands and knees. Just one of several lasting memories.

    If you didn’t yet visit the lava tubes in the park, or visit Birney Falls State Park just North of Lassen, they are also recommended. We hope you also find an excuse to visit Lava Beds National Monument in the far NW corner of CA for a very different experience – crawling through lava tubes underground with a hard hat. Captain Jack’s stronghold is also worth a visit to experience the fortitude of native people against the US Cavalry.

    As to your comment about experiencing nature, we protect what we experience, and it is concerning that the electronic age is replacing natural places for young people today. I was never charged by a buck, but deer are indeed very noisy when grazing and I vividly remember waking up in my sleeping bag and turning on my flashlight and seeing 12 eyes glowing back at me 15 feet away.

    Enjoy the West! Bob

  3. October 23, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Afraid my days of traveling alone are done. I was terrified of encounters with wildlife and humans as well. Reading about your buck experience brings back the amazing thrill of traveling solo though. Wish I was braver. Thanks for sharing Lassen.

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