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Accessible beauty on hike to Mount Eddy

Mount Eddy is the Rodney Dangerfield of mountains, at least as seen from Interstate 5. Upstaged by 14,000-foot Mount Shasta to the east, Eddy don't get no respect.

Then there's that name. When I told a friend 20 years ago I was going hiking on Mount Eddy, she laughed as if the peak bore somebody's first name, like Billy the Mountain in the old Frank Zappa song. It is in fact named for Nelson Harvey Eddy, a pioneer rancher in the area.

In this rugged country east of I-5 and north of Weed — between the Trinity and upper Sacramento rivers in the region sometimes called the Trinity Divide — Mount Eddy reigns as not only the highest point but the focus of a nexus of trails and lakes beckoning day hikers, backpackers, horseback riders, wildflower enthusiasts and others.

And no wonder. Big, beautiful Dead Fall Lake lies on the mountain's west side less than three miles from two different trailheads, each with its own parking area on a paved road less than 15 miles from the freeway.

The summit of the 9,025-foot mountain is only 4 or 5 miles from the trailhead, depending on your exact route and which hiking guide you believe, making it accessible to determined day hikers in good shape. But why rush, with the lakes and the eye-popping views of Mount Shasta, Black Butte, the Marbles, Trinities, Siskiyous, Castle Crags, Lake Siskiyou and Lake Shastina?

To reach the trailhead, take the Edgewood exit north of Weed from I-5, go under the freeway, turn right at the stop, briefly, then take Stewart Springs Road a bit more than four and a half miles to Parks Creek Road, or Forest Road 17, which takes off right. At the road's high point, a bit less than 14 miles from I-5, come to the large parking area for this segment of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Another parking area about 1.2 miles farther on (and down) gives access to the Dead Fall Lakes trail and the Sisson-Callahan National Recreation Trail. The trails intersect with the PCT near Dead Fall Lake, so you can take either one. The Dead Fall Lakes Trail, starting at lower elevation, climbs more steeply to the lake.

On a recent backpacking trip, we planned to hike in via the lower trail, which is renowned for its profusion of wildflowers, and return via the upper one, the PCT. But the lower parking area was so full you couldn't get one more car in with a shoehorn. Not wanting to risk parking overnight on the narrow, winding road, we returned to the upper area to leave the car.

The good, nearly level trail here is carved into the west side of the mountain's lower flank. There are red and white fir along with Ponderosa pine along the mostly open trail with its views of the Trinity Alps. You pass little streams and springs in the mountain's side. Lupine and columbine grow here.

In two-and-a-half miles or so the PCT intersects with the Sisson-Callahan Trail. A few yards past that crossroads a trail shoots off right to Lower Dead Fall Lake, at 25 acres the biggest around except for Castle Lake, a different kind of deal (you can drive to it). If you stay on the Sisson-Callahan instead of veering off to the lake, you head up the mountain's side to the upper lakes and, eventually, the summit.

We camped at the lake, lured by its beauty and the fact that the lake is swimmable. On a Thursday afternoon, nearby sites were occupied by other backpackers, and we had a rather rocky, if level, site. The lake lies at the bottom of a basin dotted with pines and Shasta red firs. Shadows crept up the steep slopes as the sun went behind the basin and the sky turned red as evening came on, courtesy of several fires burning in the area.

The Sisson-Callahan gains elevation, gradually at first, as you approach and pass the lovely upper lakes. It's mostly open country with serpentine cliffs visible to the north. When you arrive at a large cirque that gives way from Eddy's summit, the trail takes off more steeply to the right and soon arrives at another marker, this one indicating the trail to the summit.

Outdoor writer and "76 Day-Hikes" author Art Bernstein writes that the stunted trees with bundles of five short needles growing here are foxtail pines, examples among just a few scattered patches hereabouts of the trees, which belong hundreds of miles to the south.

From here you simply follow the switchbacks up the mountain the last 1,000 feet or so of elevation gain. It's very steep — noticeably steeper than it was 20 years ago — and hot. Carry a liter or two of water. As you gain elevation you get aerial views of the lakes you passed on the way up, and some you didn't see.

An old fire lookout still stood at the summit at the time of my last visit. It's gone now, with just some scattered boards remaining. The view, needless to say, is a 10, even with the smoke from the fires.

For a place as gorgeous as this — and boasting the twin magnets of the lakes and a reasonably easy summit — to be this accessible creates the danger that too many people will love it to death. As we returned to our campsite near the lake early Friday afternoon, new groups of hikers were arriving at the lake, combing the area for hard-to-find level spots to pitch tents.

Such numbers defeat one of the main reasons you go backpacking. And there's worse. New arrivals walked through and pitched tents near the campsites of others. One blatantly pitched a tent next to the lake (backcountry courtesy calls for tents to be 200 feet from a body of water). Others let their dogs roam at will, and some of these menaced other campers.

You didn't even want to think about what Saturday night was going to look like. Fraternity boys with boom boxes and beer kegs, maybe? We didn't stick around to see, hiking out Friday evening, a day earlier than we'd planned.

In the parking area we met two families preparing to hike in with multiple small children not long before sunset. Some of the kids were packing heavy cotton sleeping bags and beach toys. We warned them daylight was short and they might not find any level ground left, but they were undeterred.

"A lot of planning went into this," one young mom said. "We can't turn back now."

September would probably be a great time to visit this lovely, over-loved place, after Labor Day and before the winter storms arrive.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

The setting sun illuminates Dead Fall Lake. - Bill Varble