Rounding the last curve on the decent into California from Oregon, it is hard to miss a view of the massive volcano towering high above the horizon. Standing at an impressive 10,000 feet above its base, Mount Shasta offers an approach hike through a red fir forest followed by a steep ascent above tree line to the popular base camp at Helen Lake. The hike presents views of Mount Lassen to the south, the snowcapped California Coast Range to the west, and spectacular views of the volcanic ridges flanking the snow covered Avalanche Gulch.
In the early spring months the snow covered trail departs from the parking lot at a mild grade as it winds up the gulch through the lichen covered alpine fir forest. The route is well worn by the hundreds of footprints in the snow that lead the charge through the winding gulch. Above tree line the gradient of the trail intensifies as the summit grows near.
For those seeking a non-technical day hike, Helen Lake is a popular turnaround where a forest service ranger greets climbers, checks permits, and provides valuable updates on the snow conditions leading up to the summit. Privacy pits are established at Helen Lake for those in need of a restroom break or just seeking a chance to experience the human waste bag, target included, that is issued along with the permit back in town.
The ambitious climber can use Helen Lake as a basecamp. The name is misleading as there is no available water source, so be prepared to melt snow for drinking water. An early morning start is likely to present the climber with solid, icy snow that requires the use of crampons and an ice ax. Kicking steps up the steep snow as the Red Banks creep into view, one comes closer to the steepest stretch of the climb. After following the ranger's directions to either climb up one of the Red Bank's chutes or to wrap around near the thumb on the right, you'll reach the moonscape of the false summit. An easy but exhausting climb past the active sulfur spring to the 14,179-foot true summit presents panoramic views of the surrounding valleys and mountains, and the feeling of standing on top of the world excites even the most exhausted of climbers.
Descending the mountain offers opportunities to glissade down 2,000 feet below Red Banks, right to the vestibule of your tent. A second night at basecamp may be desired by some, but many choose to pack up camp and enjoy the downhill hike back to the parking lot.
On the climb up to Helen Lake be sure to stay alert and be on the lookout for snow and rock fall coming off of the ridge to the left as you make the final approach into basecamp. Check snow and avalanche conditions with the friendly staff at the ranger station in Shasta City before you set off on your adventure, and keep informed by speaking with the ranger stationed at Helen Lake. Enjoy the last drop of warmth from the sun as it sets beyond the horizon at basecamp and enjoy the ever changing cloud formations during your summit experience.
Note: For more climbing information contact the Mount Shasta Ranger Station (530.926.4511) and/or Mount Shasta Ranger Station Avalanche Report (530.926.9613). Wilderness/Climbing Permit required for travel above 10,000 feet; $20 for 3 days or $30 for an annual pass.