My first attempt to hike Cinder Cone this summer did not go as planned, as I ended up getting stuck in the snow before even arriving at the trailhead (you can read about it here). After a summer full of other hiking and exploring, the time had now come to finish what I had started.
With less than a thousand foot elevation change and clocking in at around a 4 mile loop, the hike seems like an easy task. It almost takes longest just to drive out, as it is located in the far northeast corner of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Still, the drive is well worth it.
We were afforded a spectacular view of the changing colors. After driving through the browns and blacks of the dusty forest, we came upon a few brilliantly yellow groves of Aspens. This gave us an excuse to get out of the car and do a little exploring before the actual hike. Every time the slightest breeze blew, the leaves fluttered in the most gentle serenade we’d ever heard.
We followed the drive to Butte Lake and the associated campground. The air at this elevation was cool and a slight breeze blew. We parked in the area with around 6 vehicles, packed up some snacks, water, and sunscreen, and started the hike.
The beginning of the hike is level and well-shaded, weaving through the forest. We weren’t hiking on solid ground though, per se. The whole floor of the hike is comprised of ashy, sandy granules. Evidence of the area’s geologic past surrounded us, from the base of the trail to the tall piles of black rock beside us that marked the western boundary of the Fantastic Lava Beds. From the side, it almost looks like an impenetrable castle, a wasteland where none would enter.
After we had left the side of the Fantastic Lava Beds, we could see the ominous outline of the roughly 750 foot Cinder Cone. It rises out of the land like a forlorn giant, the few scattered trees on it’s edges in stark contrast to the forest we were leaving.
The hike up to the top is, to put it plainly, annoying. It is steep, and with each step we sunk a little. There was no shade here, however the breeze served to cool us down. If you’ve ever walked up a sand dune, you know the feeling. You can feel it in your thighs, a testament to the workout you are now getting. It looks deceptive too, where you can’t quite tell how far you’ve gone and how far you have left to go.
And then all at once, you’ve crested the top. It may have been a little bit of a challenge, but the expansive 360 degree views are worth it. The skies were clear and blue, and the wind blew even stronger at the top. We walked the trail at the top, and took in the views of Lassen Peak, the Fantastic Lava Beds, Painted Dunes, Butte Lake and Snag Lake.
The black expanse of the Fantastic Lava Beds look as inhospitable as a lunar landscape. The Painted Dunes with their scattered trees seem almost a haven surrounded by the rock.
The still landscape around us seemed almost flowing, as if we could see the basalt flows spreading over the land and subsequently drying. The crater in the center of Cinder Cone, too, seemed like something from another world.
The hike down was infinitely easier. Once we found our rhythm, we were basically falling with style and it took us a quarter of the time to go down than to go up.
Before we left the area, I felt I had to take a dip in Butte Lake. We approached the boat ramp, and just dipping our feet in we could feel the cold water.
It was bitterly cold, but invigorating nonetheless. We did spy a large crawdad that scurried out from its hiding spot as I gingerly stepped in the water. I got in long enough to dunk my head, chilling myself thoroughly. I hopped out, grabbed my towel, and dried off as much as I could.
We were sufficiently cooled off. The hike to Cinder Cone can be challenging, and can test the spirit. The views at the top are absolutely worth it. Definitely bring sunscreen, as the lack of trees can leave the hiker exposed. I feel like this is a miniature sufferfest, where hikers can test their endurance and patience. However, this corner of Lassen is incredibly beautiful and the language of volcanoes is clearly spoken. If you haven’t checked it out already, add this to your bucket list. Just be prepared to empty your shoes of ash, and bring a camera.
Ryan has been wandering the PNW since 1993. Follow his blog at peaceloveandabowlofrice.wordpress.com