Hiking Mt Shasta

Notes by piero scaruffi | Travel resources | Other California destinations | Other California hikes
Mt Shasta (4,322m) is the highest peak in northern California and the fifth highest in California. Here i only list the routes that can be done without ice equipment (in the appropriate season). At least one (Clearcreek) can be done safely without crampons in the right season. Personally, i have never used crampons on Avalanche Gulch but i would recommend using them if you want to live a long life. I have done the Western route only once and i was fine without crampons, but, again, it all depends on how much snow/ice there is when you do it.

(Click to enlarge)

Southern (Avalanche Gulch) route

This is the most popular route, although neither fun nor spectacular. The trailhead is at Bunny Flat, about 20 minutes from Shasta town. The elevation of the trailhead (2300m) is relatively low, which means that you have a lot of elevation gain in front of you (almost exactly 2000m).

From the parking lot the trail (covered with snow till june or so) veers left towards Horse Camp (2600m, 3.5 kms), that has the last drinking water. This is the beginning of the "Oberman causeway", a more or less paved trail that eventually turns into a series of switchbacks leading to Helen Lake (3169m). You are unlikely to ever see any water in this lake: it is usually covered with snow. You are now in the middle of Avalanche Gulch. Above you are some red formations: Red Banks. To their right is a thumb-shaped rock which is appropriately called Thumb Rock. Your "hike" consists in going straight up towards Thumb Rock. If you don't wear crampons, use the footprints of previous hikers as steps to ascend this very long and steep staircase. When you have Red Banks in front of you, bend right around it and climb up the mildest of the many gullies: it coasts Thumb Rock to the left. You have to use your hands to lift yourself above Red Banks, and this is usually the gully that requires the least amount of climbing (but see below for more details and other options). The top of Red Banks turns out to be a slippery slope, but the scary part is over. If you are not wearing crampons and you survived so far, you're probably ok for the rest of the route. Use-trails take you to a mini-plateau in front of a hill: Misery Hill. Switchbacks take you to the top of this one, and finally you'll see the summit block in front of you. In between there is a glacier, but at least it's flat, and usually hikers have created a groove in the middle that you can easily traverse. At the end of this snow field on your left is the sulphuric area and on your right is the rocky summit, reached through five steep switchbacks.

By far the most difficult part is getting on Red Banks and then getting down from Red Banks. There are three main ways, and a lot depends on the snow/ice conditions. First, you can just head straight for one of the chimneys. If it's spring, they all have snow. If it's summer, it is likely that the easiest one to climb has no snow, and it requires easy class-2 climbing but beware of unstable rock. Second, you may coast Red Banks to the right till you get to Thumb Rock, then (keeping Thumb Rock to your right) turn left onto the glacier and walk about 50m until you can easily walk up Red Banks (needless to say, this is a bit scary because you are walking on a bergschrund, but this is probably the most popular route because it involves no rock climbing). Third, you can walk to Thumb Rock but climb the rocks on your left (at any point). I hiked this route in the summer when there is little snow on Red Banks: going up i used the first chimney with no snow, that felt easier and safer for climbing, and coming down i used the little hole at the very eastern end over Red Banks and then climbed down into the same chimney. Whichever route you choose it will be tough both climbing up and climbing down. Once on Red Banks, the trail is slippery because of very loose gravel. When walking down, walk backwards on every stretch that is very steep and slippery. Almost nobody can go all the way up and come down without slipping and falling at least once. Since the terrain is mainly a mixture of snow and gravel, you will not break any bones, but be prepared for scratches and bruises.

The published total hiking distance is 13 kms, but this is probably an exaggeration, since the elevation gain is 2 kms and your "trail" is basically the height of the mountain at a very steep grade.

Picture of Misery Hill in May:

Picture of Avalanche Gulch in May:

Picture of Misery Hill in August:

Picture of Avalanche Gulch in August:

On the way back, it is popular to glissade on your butt taking advantage of grooves made in the snow. Just make sure you know how to brake; and that the groove does not end suddenly against a boulder (the majority of injuries that i've seen). You may glissade straight down all the way to the fields above the parking lot (the trail would instead take you slightly right of it to Horse Camp).

People get seriously injured and/or die on this route every year. Do not take chances, whether you are experienced or not. Most mountains in California are a lot easier than Shasta. Experience on the Sierra does not count much on this one.

Avalanche Gulch is the most popular route to the top, but hardly the prettiest: there is literally nothing to see other than snow and rocks. There is nothing but snow all the way up the Avalanche Gulch route (no lakes, no waterfalls, no creeks, no wildlife). Mt Shasta itself (viewed from the freeway) is an impressive view, but once you are on it, the view is pretty much the same all the way to the top. In the summer see the Clearcreek route below (safer and prettier).

My directions to Mt Shasta town from the Bay Area:

  • Berkeley to Vacaville: 80 kms (45')
  • Vacaville to Williams: 100 kms (1h)
  • Williams to Red Bluff: 120 kms (1h)
  • Red Bluff to Redding: 50 kms (30')
  • Redding to Mt Shasta: 110 kms (1h)
  • When you take the exit for Mt Shasta town, eventually you have to turn right into Lake St and then left into Everett Memorial Hwy to reach the Avalanche Gulch's trailhead at Bunny Flat.
You have beautiful views of the mountain from the highway before entering Mt Shasta town.

As of 2013, you can still self register at the "Bunny Flat" trailhead. It tells you how much to pay for the hike to the top.

Details (in parentheses the 2003 and 2006 intermediate times)

  • Bunny Flat trailhead (2300 m)
  • Horse Camp (2600m, 3.5 kms), last drinking water (30', 41')
  • End of causeway (x, 58')
  • 50/50 Flat (1h 30', 1h35')
  • Helen Lake (3169 m, 3hrs, 2h50')
  • Head straight up Avalanche Gulch to Red Banks, but bear right of the "heart" as if aiming for Thumb Rock (usually, you can see a groove for glissading: just follow it up)
  • Thumb Rock (3962 m, 5h30', 6h5')
  • Top of Red Banks (x, 6h55')
  • Top of Misery Hill (4200 m, 6h45', 7h38')
  • Summit glacier (4200 m, x, 7h50')
  • Summit (4317 m, 7h 6', 8h6')
  • Coming down takes about 4 hours: 45' to Thumb Rock, 30' to the bottom of Red Banks (this usually takes a while because it's so dangerous), 1h to Helen Lake, 1h15' to Horse Camp, 30' to the parking lot.

Eastern route (Clearcreek)

In the summer, when the snow has melted and loose rocks are not a chance but a certainty, the rangers recommend a different route than Avalanche Gulch: Clearcreek. This ascends the southeast slope of Mt Shasta. The elevation gain is bigger (because the trailhead is lower) and the route is longer. This route also affords the most scenic views of Shasta (especially the ones overlooking the Mud Creek Canyon and its Falls)

The drive to the trailhead is an adventure in itself. From I-5 just south of Mount Shasta take highway 89 east to the town of McCloud and continue for about 5 minutes. Then turn left into Pilgrim Creek road, or road #13. After about 8kms, turn left onto dirt road #41N15, Widow Springs Rd and follow signs for "Clear Creek Trailhead". The signs are big. You will go through one major junction and will make only one real turn: a left turn after that junction. This dirt road gets increasingly bad after that left turn (3kms from the trailhead) and it's very sandy at the end. Low-clearance cars are advised to park just 100 meters before the trailhead to avoid the last super-sandy ramp (there is a convenient opening to the left).

I don't know where the official trail ends and where the use trail begins: de facto, there is a trail all the way to the top. The trail is an almost straight line from the parking lot to the summit of Mt Shasta, with a constant elevation gain. There is only one major turn: a right (north) turn after Clearcreek meadow. The trail begins in a forest and after 20-30 minutes follows the northern ridge of Mud Creek Canyon. On the left side there are great views of Shasta on top of the canyon. The trail eventually reaches the meadow and crosses it diagonally. It then climbs and turns right (north) around the rocky wall that creates the western border of the meadow.

That is the worst part: the trail is very sandy. Going up is hell. Coming down is a breeze. To the left one sees a prominent striped cliff (do not head for it, just use it as a reference point as you are going straight up). Once the "trail" reaches its elevation, the "milestone rock" becomes very visible.

Head for that stone and stay to its left. The trail leads to the bottom of the fort-like red rocky formation that towered all the time over your head. Climb that "Fort" whichever way is easier (the rocks are a lot more stable than the gravel, of course).

At the top of this Fort, there is a sloping plateau. The trail coasts its eastern edge and leads rapidly to the top of Misery Hill. From there it's a short distance to the summit plateau. Usually in the summer you can walk high enough that you never touch the ice/snow. When you are under the summit block, you need to pass it and then climb it from the west, either following a sandy trail or simply scrambling up the rocks. The summit register is not on the highest peaklet but between the two highest peaklets.

  • Clearcreek trailhead (1975m)
  • Ridge of Mud Creek Canyon 25'
  • Clearcreek meadow 1h 10'
  • stripes 4h 10'
  • Milestone rock 5h
  • Bottom of fort 5h45'
  • Top of fort 6h15'
  • Top of Misery Hill 6h40'
  • Bottom of summit block 6h50'
  • Summit 7h
  • Clearcreek meadow 9h
  • Trailhead 12h20'


There are several variations on the Clear Creek route: following the Wintun Ridge from the Clearcreek trailhead, or following the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge from the Brewer Creek trailhead (near the Clearcreek trailhead), etc.


Western route (Cascade Gulch)



This is often described as an "easy" route but i am not so sure. It is certainly longer than the previous two. It can be made easier in the summer when most of the snow is gone. It starts from Bunny Flat just like the Avalanche Gulch route but a trail (marked "Hidden Valley") from Horse Camp leads you left (west) towards Hidden Valley (2800m). Any valley you meet is not Hidden Valley unless it looks really impressive. Without crampons it shouldn't take you more than 2 hours to get to Hidden Valley on a maintained trail (that gets very sandy and loose near Hidden Valley: mark the territory because on the way back it is not clear at all where the trail is). There is running water at Hidden Valley (and there is at Horse Camp). From here you can see Shastina Peak (the prominent peak to the northwest) and aspects of Shasta's west face (to its right). In between there is an obvious gulch (Cascade Gulch), always icy. Cross Hidden Valley to northeast and face the ridge in front of you (north) that has a number of chutes. Cascade Gulch proper is the one with the most snow and ice that leads straight to a saddle way up on the mountain. To its left is the most reasonable chute to climb. If you don't like sandy chutes, aim instead for the class 2-3 ridge to the right of Cascade Gulch (class 2 climbing).

If you did the chute, you need to find a way to cross Cascade Gulch where it is not too steep and traverse to the ridge. If you did the ridge, you are in the right place. Climb this ridge (quite easy, class 1-2) to the very tip. Where it dead ends, cross the snow field to the right/east and ascend the next ridge. You are still on the right of Cascade Gulch. Ascend this ridge to the end and you'll enter the gulch that is topped by two prominent red fangs.

Head for that chute. This is probably the trickiest part because there is always snow inside this chute. When it is safe, climb the wall to your left. If it is never safe, ascend to the top (the snow should be soft by the time you get to this point or coast the walls where there is usually safer terrain) and skirt the left fang until you emerge at the top of it. Either way you should end up above the saddle where Cascade Gulch ends. Now you can also appreciate how steep Cascade Gulch is. On the other side is a glacier, the Whitney glacier, luckily relatively flat. Usually you can see a groove made by hikers that traverses the glacier. On the other side of the glacier the imposing "mountain" is Misery Hill. The real summit is behind it, slightly to the left/west. Cross the glacier and climb Misery Hill trying to move slightly to the right. You will eventually hit the trail that is coming up from Avalanche Gulch (mark the territory to remember where you came from). Ascend Misery Hill, cross the summit glacier and climb the last three switchbacks to the top.
  • Horse Camp: 50'
  • Hidden Valley: 2h15'
  • Top of Class 2-3 ridge: 3h30'
  • Top of Class 1-2 ridge: 4h30'
  • Fangs: 6h
  • Saddle: 6h30'
  • Misery Hill: 7h30'
  • Summit: 8h
This picture shows both the suggested ascent route and the possible descent route (if you are not afraid of sliding down on loose scree and soft snow):

Other routes

Other hikeable routes in the summer (class 3 or less) include (these are not instructions for people climbing with crampons):
  • The Green Butte Ridge to the right of Avalanche Gulch: start at Bunny Flat but ignore the trail and head up the gulch and find a safe way to climb the ridge to your right. This ridge eventually merges with the Sargents Ridge. (Personally, having done it once, i think this is a pointless route: just use the Sargents Ridge route).
  • The Sargents Ridge. This starts from the highest trailhead, Old Ski Bowl, about 5 kms past Bunny Flat (N41.36174, W122.21092). The road is open only after July first (as of 2013). Just follow the ridge from that trailhead and you will pass a false summit (N41.384876, W-122.193897), Shastarama Point (3384m). Sargents Ridge meets Green Butte ridge at about 3600 meters of elevation. Up to here it's easy. Now head for the prominent cliff (Thumb Rock) and pass it on the left. Now you need to climb on top of Red Banks and you have the same quandary as those coming from Avalanche Gulch: use one of the chutes of Red Banks or go around it over the bergschrund. Either way you are now on top of Misery Hill. Follow the instructions above for the Avalanche Gulch route.
  • Whitney Glacier via North Gate. Take Highway 97 easy from highway 5 and turn right 20 minutes later onto Military Pass Rd. The route from here to the trailhead is dirt road, and it gets progressively worse. After about 8 kms, turn right into Andesite Logging Rd and continue about 6 kms to the North Gate trailhead. Here is a description of the "hike" provided by a Shasta ranger: "The Whitney Glacier is the largest/longest valley glacier in California. From the North Gate trailhead ascend the approach trail up the Hotlum/Bolam drainage to an altitude of about 3,000 meters, then start a cross country traverse westward following the 3k contours across a couple drainages. There is a large flat plateau at the toe of the Whitney/Bolam ridge (elevation 3,170m) that is often used to camp. Watch for rock and debris peeling off the steep sections on the flanks of the main peak and also Shastina; in other words, the center line up the glacier is safer than along the edges." (Catch: the center line is always covered with ice/snow, the edges are often free of snow/ice in the summer). Note: the Bolam Creek/Whitney Falls trailhead is not recommended for this route because it is low in elevation (1,700m) and involves major bushwacking through manzanita forests.

If you ask the rangers which one is the safest for "hiking" (with no crampons), they will tell you that none of these should be attempted without crampons. So, hikers, take your chances...

  • Pictures and maps of these hikes
  • View from Mt Shasta (video)
  • Mt Shasta home page
  • Tourism around Mt. Shasta
  • Mt Shasta weather
  • Mt Shasta advisory

    Climate

    Mt Shasta (4322m), one of the highest mountains in California, is a glacier, so the mountain is snow-capped year-round, and the hike is chilly even on a sunny summer day. In July and especially August you are likely to find days when the temperature stays warm enough most of the hike, but the top will still require warm clothing.
    Best time to hike for people who use crampons is late spring (usually, end of May to second half of June, but it depends on how much it snowed), when the snow is not too icy but still holds the rocks together, and you can glissade down the slope of Avalanche Gulch on your butt! Later in the year the rangers advise against hiking up Avalanche Gulch because the danger of falling rocks increases dramatically.

    Warnings

    Shasta is 1,000km north from the most famous Sierra mountains. Thus it is a totally different kind of mountain. This is the Mt Shasta "hike" (Avalanche Gulch route):
    .
    You walk straight up on snow. Unless you are as irresponsible as me, you need crampons. There are snowstorms even in the summer (again, it is 1,000 kms north of the Sierra peaks, same latitude as the Alps) and avalanches. Most people start "hiking" before sunrise, which also means that the snow is icy. (If you don't wear crampons, consider a later start because you need soft snow not hard ice, but this means you have to hike really fast to get to the top before 1pm). All in all, Shasta is much more dangerous than the Sierra peaks. And i am the only person i know who has done it multiple times without crampons (i am not particularly proud of it, just a bad habit). Therefore, i wouldn't call it a "hike" at all.

    If it gets cloudy in the summer, remember that this is a bare mountain (not your typical Sierra hike with plenty of forests): you are the only electrical object on a mountain that is famous for lightning.


    Essential gear

    Wear a three layer clothing with something wind proof on top. Hat and gloves are a must.

    Above 3.400 meters it is recommended that you use crampons (spiked shoe which is tied on to your boots) and carry an ice-axe.

    Count on no water on the mountain above 3000m.

    There is lots of sun reflected by the snow.

    Long waterproof pants (to protect from sun and for the cold part) and a kayaking foam cushion (for glissading down on the snow) are useful.

    Gloves (no matter which season) are indispensable.

    Sunscreen is essential as the snow reflects light. You can get badly sunburnt even if you have a good hat.


    Permits

    As of 2013, you have to self-register at the trailhead and pay $20 if you want to summit.

    Camping

    As of 2013, you can pitch tent at the various trailheads for free.

    Rangers

    Unlike the Eastern Sierra mountains (that feature some of the most annoying ranger bureaucracies in the world), Shasta is blessed with reliable and experienced rangers. Every ranger has a vested interest in exaggerating the risks (if you get hurt, s/he's the one who has to rescue you), but i found the rangers on Shasta to know what they are talking about.

    Map of the southern trails


    (Map by College of the Siskiyous)

    Map of the eastern trails


    (Map by College of the Siskiyous)

    Map of the northern trails


    (Map by College of the Siskiyous)

    In the vicinity


    Highest mountains in the world


    Other California hikes