By Chip O’Brien
You might do it for the exercise. You might do it because it’s something you see almost every day. You might do it for the beauty. You might do it for the views. You might do it because it’s so close. You might do it because you’ve never done it before and you’re sick of asking yourself when are you finally going to hike up Shasta Bally?
Today may not be that day, but think of this piece as a little bowl full of “Hiking Shasta Bally” seeds for you to plant. Here… take one. The hike is just shy of six miles each way (the second six, ahem, far easier than the first), and at the top you will be standing (crawling?) at 6,200 feet. The name “bally” is one of the few terms from the Wintun language still in local use today. It meant “bare or bald mountain” and was used to name several peaks to the east of the Trinity Mountains.
Don’t waste your time asking mountain climbers why they do what they do, even though this is a mild hike compared with real mountaineering. Climbing Shasta Bally is a bit harder than climbing Lassen Peak, but not nearly as tough as climbing Mt. Shasta. People in reasonably good shape who are up for a challenge should give it a try. Mountain bikers flock to Shasta Bally and even organize races on the mountain. “Because it’s there” is certainly reason enough to go, and it can provide you with a day close to home that you will remember for years.
Climbing Shasta Bally is a bit harder than climbing Lassen Peak, but not nearly as tough as climbing Mt. Shasta. People in reasonably good shape who are up for a challenge should give it a try.
A great place to start is Sheep Camp, part of the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area run by the National Park Service. What these fancy titles really mean is that you will have to buy a parking permit at the Visitors Center on the way in. From there drive 4.2 miles into the park and hang a left at the Brandy Creek Camp Road, also marked for Shasta Bally. From there it’s another 2.6 miles to Sheep Camp, which, by the way, is not a terrific place to leave valuables in your car. From Sheep Camp just follow the dirt road up the mountain. It’s really almost impossible to get lost.
I hate carrying water in a daypack, so I go to great lengths to super-saturate my body with water before I hike. I also keep gallons in the car for when I return. There are several springs on the way up and one of these days I plan to bring a water filter with me. It’s never wise to drink unfiltered water no matter how pristine it looks or where you find it. After chugging all I can hold for at least an hour before starting the climb, I typically carry only a quart Nalgene bottle with me along with lunch and high-energy snacks. I also always bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, camera and walking stick.
Parts of the hike are in deep forest that sees very little sunshine. Hiking alone and knowing with the knowledge you are sharing the mountain with bears and mountain lions makes you think. I’ve never felt I was in any real danger, but then I also always sing a loud, happy song or whistle while I walk, which is probably sufficient to repel almost any creatures in the vicinity. It is common to spot bear and lion tracks on the road, and I recommend learning how to identify them as such. Neither black bears nor cougars are typically known to be aggressive toward man and will likely flee the area if they catch wind of you, or your singing.
Hiking alone and knowing with the knowledge you are sharing the mountain with bears and mountain lions makes you think.
One time I decided to do a little bushwhacking from the part of the road I was on, figuring that if I just went uphill I was bound to hit the road again up above. I got horribly lost; in fact I’m still up there. Seriously, I wasted a lot of time and brought home a scorching case of poison oak. I remember hearing some noise like a cat climbing a tree in the woods, and got a little unhinged by that. I also found a clearing with the remains of what looked like an old homestead on it, but I would never recommend doing what I did, leaving the safety of the road, that is.
Parts of the climb are surprisingly steep, which is I suppose why they call it a “4-wheel-drive” road. Once you begin approaching the tree line, the elevation above which trees do not grow, the views really come into their own. Just because there are no trees does not mean it is devoid of vegetation. Trees are replaced with huge, dense Manzanita bushes all the way to the top, which is pretty open.
From the top you can see for many miles in all directions, and it’s a great spot for lunch and to spend some time. There is a small city of buildings up there, most with antennas of various shapes and sizes. I once got to meet one of the guys who lived up there, and he told me they traded off most of the year two-weeks on, two-weeks off. The guy’s job was to sit inside and watch a line of TV screens to make sure the signal was all right. He evidently had the skills to do some repairs if needed. Most of the times I’ve climbed the Bally I was alone and seemed to have the mountain to myself. Cell phone reception can be spotty down below, but once you get about the tree line it’s fine.
This year might not be like a lot of other years. In years past it was impossible to avoid hiking on snow until about May, and there have been times when the depth of the snow prevented me from going further. The only reasonable way to do it in the heat of summer is beginning around dawn and getting down before it really gets hot. I think of springtime as the ideal time to hike the Bally, especially when the dogwoods are in bloom down below.
Ultimately everyone has to find his or her own reasons for hiking Shasta Bally. You might even end up doing it because I have, and you haven’t.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine