One of the most dramatic hikes in Lassen Park is to the top of Cinder Cone, a testament to the volcanic devastation that occurred here. It's a two-mile easy hike to get to the base of the cone, and then a grueling quarter-mile, 700-vertical-foot-rise, 30%-grade stumble to the top in rocky lava shards. But the reward is the surrounding view -- Lassen Peak in the distance, miles of black lava beds, painted dunes, and two blue-green volcanic lakes in the distance.
The bowl at the top of the cone is enormous, a half-mile hike around. It reminds me of a giant version of the small, cone-shaped pits dug by ant lions in the sands of my native Texas. "Doodlebugs", we kids called them; the sides of their tiny pits were smooth and slippery, and acted like a spider-web for unsuspecting insects who would slide down into the jaws of the predator buried in the center. Might Cinder Cone be hiding a giant monster just waiting for me to be its lunch?
I decide to test my climbing legs by tackling Lassen Peak, a 2000-ft climb from the trailhead at 8,500 feet. It took me 2 hours and 45 minutes, but we made it! The first one-third of the climb is fairly pleasant, a regular packed trail thru sparse forest. But after that, you're onto a rocky, gravelly path of endless switchbacks, skirted by steep grades covered with talus -- large chunks of broken lava rock cascading down the mountainside. And the increasing altitude -- 10,500 feet at the summit -- is a killer for us middle-agers: count 50 steps up; stop to rest; pant, pant, pant. Can you imagine people actually climbing to 27,000 feet on Mt. Everest?
The distance to the summit seemed much longer than the reputed 2.5 miles. Near the top there is a marker which proclaims ".5 mile" (still to go), but all hikers agreed it was a vicious lie. Most of the trail is barren and completely exposed to sun and wind. We started the climb at 8:30 a.m. By the time we started down again, at about 12:30, the winds were strong enough to blow you off your feet!
Beautiful views and a feeling of accomplishment reward the successful climber. Although it didn't show up well in my photos, from the top we could see the snow-covered peak of Mt. Shasta to the northwest, looking like just another cloud floating on the horizon. Below us, half-melted snow in the caldera of the volcano's throat formed a beautiful blue-green lake. We didn't see much wildlife on the mountain, just a few black ravens struggling against the wind and a couple of chipmunks on the trail. I noted with curiousity several bumblebees buzzing us all the way up -- what do they eat in this land of rock and snow?