By Ryan Loughrey
Castle Lake near Mt. Shasta is beautiful. Not only is it the deepest alpine lake in northern California, it’s an escape from the heat and easy lake access making it ideal for canoers, kayakers, or fisherpeople.
However, in a roughly two and a half mile round trip hike, Heart Lake is a secluded swimming hole that offers spectacular views of Mt. Shasta, Black Butte, Castle Lake, and way north in the distance, Pilot Rock in southern Oregon.
On the hot Saturday in Redding, Kiva, my adventure partner/girlfriend, and I decided to escape the heat and try to gain some elevation. I also had my large external frame backpacking backpack, and I hadn’t given it a test run this summer. It is large, bought from a garage sale, missing a zipper, squeaky, and an essential part of my summers backpacking treks. We also decided to bring our newly acquired crashpad in the hopes of doing some bouldering near Castle Lake (spoiler alert: we tried without much success. It was fun, but I learned I still have many more muscles to build).
When we arrived at Castle Lake mid-day on a Saturday, the first thing we noticed was how saturated with people it was. People had brought their small human-powered boats and kids and dogs and everyone wanted to enjoy this alpine lake.
We gathered our gear, decided to postpone the bouldering for the next day, and set off. I had never done the hike to Heart Lake, and didn’t really know what to expect or how long it might be. I knew it wasn’t an extraordinarily difficult hike, but it would be a good way for me to practice with my hiking shoes, backpack, and packing and unpacking all the gear to see what is really essential. The hike basically climbs in elevation, but becomes difficult when it forks without signage (one trail going to Upper Castle Lake, the other going to Heart Lake) and kind of disappears in all the scree of. We seemed to be following former creek beds, and passing small patches of snow that were resilient in the face of the sun. The local knowledge to find Heart Lake is “stay right” and we did our best to do so, but it does seem that the network of trails heads in the general correct direction until the trail becomes clear again. We took a few breaks in the shade, to get water and just give our feet a rest, and just as I was about to take a rest on a small summit when Kiva let me know the lake was just on the other side. The hike had not taken us long at all, and was only made difficult by the weight I had taken upon.
Heart Lake had several small groups of people, and hikers had already set up tents in all the prime spots. We walked (and gazed longingly at the cool water) past Heart Lake to a couple of smaller ponds, until we found a nice bowl shaped valley. The reason it seemed to be unoccupied was due to the fact that snowmelt had made the lowest parts into a defacto marsh. Still, we found a level spot at a slightly higher elevation and set up our tent. Our home for the night set up, we treated ourself to some good ol’ fashioned swimming.
There were several small groups around the lake, most seemed to be suntanning or relaxing. One group of teenagers seemed to be attempting to swim but were deterred by the cold. Kiva and I entered the water slowly, wading in until it got deep enough, and we summoned our courage and dove in. It was quite cold, but a satisfying cold after we had been sweaty from the hike up. The lake itself isn’t exceptionally large or deep, in fact we could see the bottom nearly the whole time (which speaks to its clarity). There was a large boulder on the other side in the sun, and so we swam across the lake and climbed on it. We lounged in the sun to heat up, and relaxed.
We also found that near where we had camped, there was a perfect overlook of Castle Lake.
We sat and watched as the shadows over the lake grew as the sun set behind us. Once it started to cool off, we cooked our dinners, sat and enjoyed our campfire, and stayed up long enough to start seeing the stars come out, one by one at first, then all at once. It cooled off in the evening but it wasn’t quite cold. It did, however, warrant wearing a sweatshirt and scooching nearer to the fire as it dwindled down. We sat with it until the flames turned to embers, and the embers to coal, then we retired to bed.
Our tent was nice, but neither of us had brought a sleeping pad so the result was we could feel rocks under the tent and had to roll about a bit to find the optimal locations. The next morning, we heard something potentially getting into our food, but when we looked with the light it was gone We speculated wildly, but in the end decided it was probably some small mountain rodent. I was kind of jittery after, and at one point I woke up to see an eerie light outside the tent. We wondered if it was pre-dawn hikers with bright lights, but we could hear no footsteps. Finally, we sat up to look and see, and it was in fact none other than the first traces of the rising sun. For some reason, because it was so faint, it made the inside of our tent look like it was bathed in an eerie glow. I tried to sleep longer, without much luck. I figured if I was going to be awake anyway, I would at least enjoy the sunrise.
I let Kiva sleep, and went to the overlook. I watched the sun creek and sprawl over the landscape, and bathing the clouds in a pink light. I did notice a lot of bugs were apparently waking up too, so I figured I would try to make a campfire. I gathered a little more wood, and by the time Kiva woke up I had a small fire going. As far as temperature goes, it was unnecessary. For some reason, heat seemed to settle in our little bowl and it was getting warm already. We made some coffee we had bought experimentally, it was a kind of one time use pour-over. The brand was Kuju, and it only required a mug and hot water. It was strong, but pleasant. We took down our tent, and headed down the hill.
Overall, we probably looked overpacked. The hike could be done in a day easily, and our oversized packs made a few hikers glance at us. Still, it was nice to carry everything and learn that for a short trip, my gear would be suitable. We had: a campstove, utensils, and a small pot, a tent and two sleeping bags, food, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, clothes including sweatshirts, flashlights, a UV pen that is supposed to sterilize water for drinking, and my camera equipment (and maybe a few beers, if it’s legal to drink up there. If not, we definitely did not have any). Oh, and a trash bag so we could pack everything out.
Castle lake is pleasant, and very sizable for large parties or aquatic crafts. However, I found Heart Lake to be more quiet, peaceful, and swimming is more enjoyable because it feels like the right to relax has been earned. It does seem to be gaining popularity, so if you are going to visit be sure to pack out what you bring in and be respectful of those looking for a peaceful getaway.
Park at Castle Lake. Follow the trail to the left of Castle Lake (east side) and it will wrap around Castle Lake. When it starts to disperse, stay right and keep an eye out for cairns that may mark the trail. Heart Lake is tucked away over a slight ridge.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine