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TOP 3 PEAKS TO CLIMB IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
1) Mount Lassen, 10,457 Feet
This is a good introduction to mountain climbing. The Summit Trail is a 2.5-mile
zigzag of a hike that just about anybody with a quart of water can handle, yet it provides
access to one of the most spectacular peaks anywhere.
In Lassen Volcanic National Park, 50 miles east of Red Bluff, you can drive to the
trailhead at the base of the mountain. The trail surface is hard and flat, so you can get into a
nice hiking rhythm, and with a 15 percent grade, it isn't a killer. Most people take under
two hours to reach the top, about a 2,000 -foot elevation gain. In the process, newcomers
often ask themselves, "Why am I doing this?" When they reach the crest, they find out.
The view is superb, with awesome Mount Shasta 100 miles north appearing close
enough for you to reach out and grab a hunk of it. To the east are hundreds of miles of
forests and lakes, with Lake Almanor a surprise jewel; to the west, the land drops off to
several small volcanic cones and the Central Valley.
The peak itself is the top of a huge volcanic flume, and you can spend hours probing
several craters and hardened lava flows. Lassen last blew its top in a series of eruptions
from 1914 to 1921, which in geologic time is like a few minutes ago.
It's a prime first mountain experience. We met people of all ages and in all kinds of
physical shape. If you bring water, something a number of hikers curiously forget to do,
you'll make it. It's that simple.
2) Mount Shasta, 14,162 Feet
The true king of California mountains, this giant volcano rises alone 10,000 feet above
the surrounding hills in Northern California. Along with Mount Ranier in Washington and
Alaska's McKinley, it is among the most majestic and powerful mountains in the western
You feel that power every step of the way to the top. But to get there, you must have
the right equipment, and that means crampons on your boots and an ice ax, which makes
hiking up the glacier fields enjoyable rather than a slip-and-slide deal. The more snow there
is, the easier and more fun the climb.
The hike is a scramble of a trail across small rocks, then when you hit snow, it
becomes an easier walk with the help of crampons. The ice ax becomes important when
you reach Red Banks, a steep, massive, ice-bordered rock outcrop at 11,500 feet. You can
either climb the Red Banks Chute, a rock and ice-laden crevice, or circle around it.
The peak is astounding, a relatively small volcanic flume on which you can climb. On
clear days, you feel like you are on top of the earth, with hundreds of miles visible in all
directions. Steaming sulfur vents at the foot of the final 300-foot summit climb give rise to
the memory of John Muir, who spent an icy night trapped on the peak, hugging a vent to
Shasta is also a mountain of mystery, with tales of Lemurians and Yaktavians, elfin
creatures said to live in its interior. Even its creation is legend: In Native American lore, the
mountain was created when gods stuck a hole through the clouds and built a giant tepee
from the broken pieces.
The best strategy is to hike in to the tree line at 8,000 feet and set up a base camp at
Horse Camp, where a natural spring provides unlimited water. The next morning, start
walking by 4:30 a.m. and figure on seven to eight hours to the top. It's a seven-mile trip,
rising more than 6,000 feet in the process. Every step can be a memorable one.
3) Mount Whitney, 14,494 Feet
Here is the Big Daddy, the highest point in the lower 48. It's a long, steep hike from
the trailhead at Whitney Portal, climbing 6,100 feet in 10 miles. But a decent trail takes you
to the top, so no mountaineering equipment is necessary.
Whitney is located in the southern Sierra at the foot of Lone Pine on U.S. 395. It is a
giant rock cut by glaciers, not formed from a volcano like Shasta and Lassen, and the peak
reflects its origins, with sheer rock outcrops on the edge of dramatic, plunging canyons.
Nothing can prepare you for the lookout. It is absolutely astonishing. To the west is
the entire Western Divide, to the north are rows of 11,000-to 13,000 foot peaks, and to the
east the mountain drops straight down--11,000 feet in just 15 miles, to the Owens Valley.
The top itself is oval with a jagged edge, and has a little rock house to protect hikers from
The hike is a genuine heart-thumper yet is inspiring at the same time. It includes 100
switchbacks on the ascent to Wotan's Throne, and in the final miles, the ridge is cut by
notch windows in the rock. You look through and the bottom drops thousands of feet at
your boot tips. Some people try the 20-mile round-trip in one day, but that makes for an
exhausting rush. A better strategy is to hike in and set up a base camp at 10,000 feet,
getting acclimated to the altitude. The next day, you can hit the top and return, carrying a
minimum of equipment for the ascent.
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