By Ryan Loughrey
Covered in a thick blanket of snow, Heart Lake virtually disappears in the winter. Familiar summer landmarks are transformed into barren beauty, and the relatively easy hike becomes more of a trudge. However, the views of Castle Lake and beyond are phenomenal as always.
As of last weekend, the road to Castle Lake was completely clear of snow, although it was piled high on either side. A bicyclist could ride up to the lake, with enough stamina and the proper clothes. The whole Castle Lake area is draped in a mystical shroud, as if there are two different lakes – one a popular summer swimming hole, and the other a frozen desolation.
Whereas I’m used to the parking area being full, with cars stopped at every wide spot along the road, when we drove up to the turnaround that serves as a parking lot there were only three other vehicles.
As the day progressed, a few more cars arrived, with most visitors stopping long enough to walk to Castle Lake, snap a few photos, then head back to the warmth and comfort of the car. I’ll admit – I do this from time to time too, just check on the lake, make sure it’s still there and still as beautiful as always. I’ve only ventured to Heart Lake twice before, but I can attest that as unforgettable as it is in summer, it is just as remarkable in winter.
Castle Lake was deceptively frozen over. We spied tentative footprints in the snow where adventurous souls had stepped out to literally test the ice. The warmth of the weekend had begun to melt it, and none of the footprints made it more than a few yards from where shore normally was.
We watched as a few groups started the hike up to Heart Lake. A few brought snowshoes, and as we started our hike we saw one woman with skis coming back to her car with her dog. That woman, whoever she is, knows how to live.
We put on our best boots, snow pants, and packed our backpack with layers of clothes, food and water. As we began the hike up, we saw one group of younger men on their way down, one without his shoe (his wet tennis shoe seemed to be in his hand). They had begun the hike, not realizing how much snow was on the trail and just how deep said snow was.
Honestly, we didn’t know how deep it was either. As we hiked up the hill, we began to warm up. I brought with me my heavy jacket and gloves, but found the hike to be relatively strenuous enough that I began to peel layers off almost immediately. We passed one lady on the hike up that was doing the same.
The snow was thick enough in parts where we could step and stay on the surface, but about half the time we stepped cautiously, only to sink down into the snow up to mid-calf. The sun of the day also probably didn’t help, causing the snow to be slightly slushy in places.
We followed the trail of footprints that made up the path, and at times tried to step in their footprints since they had already broken the snow. We saw the footprints of children and dogs, and were slightly envious that they didn’t have to sink with every step. I’m sure we were an interesting sight to behold, with thick boots and snow pants and light t-shirts with a healthy amount of sweat.
After only 45 minutes (it felt longer) and roughly a mile and a half, we arrived to the viewpoint we were coming for – where we could look in one direction and see the snowy area where Heart Lake was and in the other direction we saw Castle Lake in the foreground with the valley and Mt. Shasta off in the distance. The view was only made sweeter by the sweat we broke to get to it.
The day was perfect too – the slight breeze only helped to cool us off, and the although the sun prompted us to wear sunglasses, the snow was not so blindingly white to cause problems. We walked along the rocky ridge where I had sat and watched the sunrise a half-year ago. Somewhere above us, we heard the voices of (I presumed) the snowshoers. This would be the perfect place to break out some skis and head downhill.
It is hard not to feel small in this landscape. For all our exertion, we were just two tiny figures in a huge, sprawling landscape with trees and rocks dotting up out of the snow. I felt an almost a strange feeling of gratitude to live so close to something so beautiful.
As with most hikes, the way down was much easier. Especially since part of it was spent trying to see how far we could slide on our butts (not far). We followed a different set of footprints down (they all were going to the same place) and could see the indentations on the side of the trail where someone had been using ski poles to help them keep their balance. We had no such items, just our hands to break our fall.
It was not too late on our way down, but we only passed one person – seated at a rocky outcropping overlooking Castle Lake. She looked like she may have been drawing, or may have simply been meditating.
Once we got to the car, the first thing we did was shed our snow pants and socks which by now were damp and cold. We changed into dry clothes, and headed down the hill. The north state has so many snowy gems that can be a little challenge to get to, but I think this deters those who would not treat it with as much reverence as I think it deserves. Such a short distance from home – but such a great adventure.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine