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Butte Lake to Cinder Cone

Clay Duda on top of Cinder Cone.
Selfie! That’s me on top of Cinder Cone in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Butte Lake and “The Fantastic Lava Beds” can be seen in the background.

Treks into the woods are often hallmarked by the animals you encounter, from a majestic buck strolling along a ridge line at sunset to a mama black bear and her cub rambling down to the lake’s edge. But I’ll always remember this recent trek into a remote stretch of the Sierra Nevada Cascade Range for the animals we didn’t see.

In truth, it’s a trip that shouldn’t have even happened this time of year. During normal rainy season most of the land comprising the Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeastern California would still be covered in a few feet of snow, but with the state now entering a fourth year of drought large swaths of the forest mostly inaccessible this time of year remain open to the adventurous traveler.

If there is some silver lining to California’s worsening drought, that’s it for me.

Base camp on the shores of Butte Lake. March 14, 2015.
Base camp on the shores of Butte Lake. March 14, 2015.

My buddy Jimmy and I did see a few animals during our the two days we spent camped next to Butte Lake, where the only thing darker than the black volcanic soil may be the stillness of the overcast night sky. There are these giant black and orange ants there, for sure, and at least a few night crawlers we packed in with us and released at the end of the trip. But no game crossed our paths, and even chirps and squeaks from birds hiding in the trees were a rarity.

March isn’t quite spring when you get up about 6,000 feet, despite the 80 degree days down in the Sacramento Valley. There were still some patches of snow on the ground, but during our stay temperatures never even dropped below freezing. The air was dry and calm until our final day on Sunday, when morning winds started to huff and puff and nearly sent my tent aloft into the lake. The woods are dry, too, and it took little more than the flick of a Bic to start our fire each night.

Butte Lake. March 14, 2015. Photo by Clay Duda.
Butte Lake. March 14, 2015.

Butte Lake is incredibly low, but beautiful none the less. The Fantastic Lava Beds, as they’re officially known, cascade into the sky-blue waters of the lake making up the western-ish shoreline and giving the lake a distinctive and jagged L-shape.

"The Fantastic Lava Beds" cascade into Butte Lake giving its distinctive shape. Photo by Clay Duda.
“The Fantastic Lava Beds” cascade into Butte Lake giving its distinctive shape.

There is a ranger station there at the lake along with developed campsites complete with potable water, shower facilities, bathrooms and bear boxes to lock up your edibles. But the summer season there often doesn’t start until May at the earlier, so a trip in March meant we had the place to ourselves but no running water or other amenities (even the bathrooms were locked). We saw only one other backpacker on the trail with his dog. We waived and a distance and then they were gone.

Of course you now need a permit to legally sit in the California woods. I dropped off the $10 park entrance fee at the self-service kiosk near Manzanita Lake even though I knew we’d not see a ranger on the trip. We didn’t.

We were this first visitors of the season to make it to Butte Lake, or at least the first to find the guestbook chained to the ranger station. Photo by Clay Duda.
We were this first visitors of the season to make it to Butte Lake, or at least the first to find the guestbook chained to the ranger station.

Butte Lake is in the remote reaches of this already remote park. There’s a six-mile dirt road leading to the lake and campground from Highway 44. It’s about equal distance between my base of Redding, California and Reno, Nevada, where my buddy Jimmy lives.

The road was closed about five miles up, so we shouldered our gear and packed in after dark on Friday.

Jimmy on the trail -- okay, it's a road -- to Butte Lake. Photo by Clay Duda.
Jimmy on the trail — okay, it’s a road — to Butte Lake. The six-mile dirt road leading to the lake and campgrounds was closed about five miles in.

Saturday morning we took to Cinder Cone, a roughly 700-foot-tall pile of loose rock and volcanic ash. From Butte Lake it’s a moderate 1.2 mile stroll each way to the base of the hill, then a sharp incline toward its peak that can turn into a hands-and-feet scramble skirting an ice sheet on one side and a steep drop down the hill on another. With an eye uphill on the lookout for the occasional rock sent tumbling, I made for the summit.

Cinder Cone comes into view.  Photo by Clay Duda.
Cinder Cone comes into view.

The peak is circled by two rim trails. An outer trail leads up to the cone’s high point overlooking the Fantastic Lava Beds, Painted Dunes and Butte Lake. An inner trail circles a divot in the center. It looks like a volcano.

To the west views of Snag Lake in the foreground lead on to the majestic sprawl of the Lassen range, including a panorama of Brokeoff Mountain, Lassen Peak and Chaos Crags. iPhone photos really don’t do it justice, but it’s not an official camping trip unless you run off and leave something important. In this case it was my Canon 7D. And silverware.

On top of a volcano. The summit of Cinder Cone.  Photo by Clay Duda
On top of a volcano. The summit of Cinder Cone.

Winds hit me hard once I made the peak Saturday afternoon, so I didn’t spend much time up top. I snapped a few photos with my iPhone 5s and made for camp.

During warmer months this backpacking odysseus could easily make for a casual a weekend outing, but during this season you’ll have to earn the experience.

Skirting the edge of "The Fantastic Lava Beds" near Butte Lake.  Photo by Clay Duda.
Skirting the edges of “The Fantastic Lava Beds” near Butte Lake.

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Clay Duda is a freelance journalist specializing in investigative reporting, feature writing, editorial photography, and digital media.