Castle Lake Trail
If you want to visit the high country before winter sets in, don't wait much longer.
Snow dusted Mount Ashland last week, and a major storm dumped 2 to 4 feet of snow farther south in the Sierras.
High-country trails in the Cascades could easily be buried within a few weeks.
A trail near Mount Shasta will reward hikers with postcard views of Northern California's highest peak. The route to Little Castle Lake is short (2.4 miles round trip) and easy - it gains just 640 feet along the way.
The little lake makes a perfect foreground for photographers looking for a new way to frame Mount Shasta. There are other options, too.
Hikers who are willing to set off across open country can walk from Little Castle Lake to Heart Lake, a smaller pond in a rocky little basin where you can see both Mount Shasta and Mount McLoughlin.
To get there, take Interstate 5 south to the town of Mount Shasta. Take the Central Mount Shasta exit and follow the signs to Siskiyou Lake for 3.5 miles. Continue past the reservoir's dam for .3 miles and turn left on Castle Lake Road.
Follow Castle Lake Road for 7.3 miles. Directions and a trail description can be found in William Sullivan's "One Hundred Hikes in Southern Oregon" (which includes a dozen trails in Northern California). The road ends at a parking lot at Castle Lake, where the trail begins. If you have a canoe or kayak, you may want to bring it along. Motors are prohibited on the little lake, which is barely a half mile long.
The trail begins at 5,400 feet so it could be covered by an early-season snowstorm. If you have doubts about road conditions or access, call the Mount Shasta Ranger District of the Shasta Trinity National Forest (530-926-3781).
The trail quickly leaves the lake and enters a mixed stand of white fir and Shasta red fir, then climbs into open country dotted with whitebark pines and manzanita. After crossing a little saddle, the trail descends to Little Castle Lake, which lies just inside the boundaries of the Castle Crags Wilderness.
It's small enough that you can walk its entire perimeter, looking for the perfect setting to view Mount Shasta to the east. If you like scrambling cross-country, it's worth walking to Heart Lake. You can get there by backtracking from Little Castle Lake and heading southwest on a faint trail that begins near the summit of the saddle.
Heart Lake lies about .5 miles from the saddle. You could also walk almost due west from Little Castle Lake to reach Heart Lake, but don't try this unless you have a compass and a topographical map and some experience using them.