By Frances Griffey
In Northern California, we’re surrounded by nature. Trees, mountains and wildlife flourish under the NorCal sun. But come nighttime, there’s a whole other world waiting to be explored. Under the light of the moon, the world becomes quieter and you notice and appreciate the little things like the cool breeze against your skin, leaves rustling in trees and birds flying overhead.
Undeniably one of the best places to appreciate nature by night is Lassen Volcanic National Park. But don’t just drive up there and watch the stars, hike beneath them. With the park open 24/7, full moon hikes at Lassen are becoming more and more popular, and for good reason. It’s hard to beat watching the full moon rise while standing on top of Lassen Peak. There’s something powerful in standing atop a 10,000-foot high mountain under the light of the full moon.
“Hiking during the full moon is one of the best ways just to have a beautiful experience in Lassen,” said Lassen Park Guide Greg Purifoy.
It’s important to be amply prepared for any hike, but especially one at night. You don’t want to get halfway up the mountain and realize you forgot a water bottle or reach the chilly peak and search your backpack in vain for a jacket that you didn’t pack.
On top of necessities like a water bottle (or two or three), you’ll need a protein-packed snack like trail mix or beef jerky, a warm but light jacket and a camera for documenting your progress and snapping pictures of the jaw-dropping scenery. You’ll also want some sort of light source like a flashlight (with spare batteries, of course). Purifoy recommends a headlamp to get you through the dark spots on the way down.
Long before stuffing your backpack with essentials, you’ll need to decide which trail to do. Pick one with few tall trees so you will have an excellent, unobstructed view of the night sky. I chose (and personally recommend) the Lassen Peak Trail, which is five miles round trip and, as it sounds, is the trail that takes you up to the highest point in Lassen Park – 10,457-feet-high to be precise. Other viable trails include Cinder Cone (four miles) and Bumpass Hell (three miles).
The start of Lassen Peak Trail is about a 40 minute drive into Lassen Park from the North Entrance and driving the windy road up to the trail is its own small feat. The sky was unusually cloudy for a summer day when I entered the park, raindrops splattered on my windshield and I almost thought I’d have to take a literal rain check on my hike. Luckily, the showers subsided by the time we got to the trailhead.
“It’s a great way to experience Lassen Peak,” Purifoy said of the full moon hike. “You can head up there around sunset and then watch sunset from the top of the peak. Usually it takes people between three and five hours to hike the peak so you want to give yourself enough time and plan it out that way. And then watch the moon rise.”
The sun was low in the sky when I embarked on my journey to the top. By the first switchback my heartbeat picked up its pace and my breathing was heavy. Throughout the hike up, small periwinkle-colored flowers hugged the ground and the grayish-brown gravely dirt crunched under my shoes. At one point, I stepped over a message left in rocks on the path by a past adventurer, reading, “Hi.”
I had to stop a few times to catch my breath, gulp some water or take pictures of the truly breathtaking and vast landscape stretching beneath me. In the dwindling sunlight, I could see nothing but roads, lakes and hills for miles. I almost felt like I was in a scene of Lord of the Rings. The picturesque and peaceful green Middle-earth was below and I was hiking Mount Doom (though I imagine Mount Doom to be a hotter, more treacherous hike).
It’s almost hard to believe that a serene sanctuary so full of nature exists just a short drive away from the bustling towns in the North State. The sprawling hills and valleys really do leave you speechless and give you a renewed respect for Mother Nature and desire to explore it more often.
Two-and-a-half-miles down and I’m standing on the peak, 2,000-feet taller than I was at the start. My body is grateful to finally rest a few minutes as I bask in the moonlight of my hiking achievement. This is what I came for.
It was windy – and I mean really windy. The nice gentle breeze that accompanied me throughout the hike intensified tenfold at the top of the mountain. The sun had already set but orange-pink hues still tainted the clouds on the West side of the mountain. To the East, the moon began its slow climb in the sky. Rising behind a cluster of clouds, the moon shone big and bright and I could see the shadowy craters scattered across its silvery surface.
There were only five others on the peak with me, who like me, were all taking photos and admiring the full moon.
Redding local Jim Gibson took his grandson up the trail for the first time. At the peak, Gibson said, “It’s gorgeous. You can see everything around you.”
Indeed, even under the blanket of night, the shadowy outlines of smaller mountain could be seen below and a sprinkle of lights here and there marked the existence of towns. Occasionally, the tiny headlights of cars moved on the streets below.
“It’s the highest point in the park so you’re getting fantastic views from the top, the best views in the area,” Purifoy said.
After the cold became nearly unbearable at the peak, it was time for the descent. As one would expect, going down a mountain is somewhat easier than going up it, although my legs ached slightly from the exertion of the upwards hike. I used a flashlight for a few minutes before realizing the light of the moon was actually bright enough to light the trail. Turning off my flashlight and hiking down in the natural light of the moon and stars, I felt more connected to my surroundings.
“The stars are particularly striking in the park and that includes the moon. So the night sky here is really beautiful and hiking Lassen during that time is a great way to experience the night sky,” Purifoy said.
Hiking Lassen Peak during a full moon is something special. It’s something unique that residents and visitors of NorCal have the privilege of getting to do.
“It’s a nice outing if you live in Redding or Shasta County,” Gibson said. “It’s a close hike to do [and] it’s not too strenuous.”
With less people on the trails in the evening, it’s a more intimate experience with nature.
If you haven’t done it, try it out the next full moon. It will bring this great mountain into a new light.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine