Castle and Heart Lake Hike

Castle and Heart Lake Hike

One of the best outdoor writers in America (IMHO) is Soul-soaring views await from perch above Heart Lake. In it he beautifully described

Heading up to the Shasta Area we found our first glimpse of the 14,179-foot (4321.8 m) Mount Shasta from the dog area at a rest stop on Highway 5 just south of Castle Crags State Park.

Willow with Mt. Shasta in the background
That One Tree Blocking The View Though

As we got closer we kept getting glances of the always larger mountain peaking through trees or just around corners.

Mt. Shasta Through the trees
Getting Closer

We arrived in the area on a Monday so as to minimize weekend crowds and traffic. We could tell that Castle Lake was a main draw in the area with all the Castle-named items in the area. We found a nice little campsite in the National Forest right off of Castle Lake Road, close to Castle Lake Creek about half way between Castle Lake and Lake Siskiyou.

Map of the general area
The Big Picture Of Where We Were At

On Tuesday morning we got up early and hustled the 3 miles or so to the parking area at the lake just past the Castle Lake Campground. Only one other vehicle was there when we arrived at 7:30 in the morning so we had our choice of parking spots. Not knowing how long we were going to be hiking I made Willow wear her Ruffwear Palisades pack so she could carry her own water. She uses that pack in the Medium size and the saddle bags perfectly fit a 1 liter Platypus SoftBottle in each side. As it so happened she ended up carrying that water for me as she had ample opportunity to drink water straight from the lakes and streams we were playing around that day and water from the source always tastes better than bottled water.

Willow wearing her pack standing in Castle Lake
She Wasted No Time Getting Her Feet Wet

We went through several different packs before settling on this one and during that time I quickly learned to not put items that would be damaged by water in it so now I don’t fret when she starts swimming or professional-grade wading with it on.

Willow wading in Castle Lake with her pack on
Go And Be Free My Girl

Castle Lake is a typical glacial “cirque” lake that was formed about 10,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Era when much of this area was covered in glaciers. The high wall at the western end of the lake is called the Cirque Face and are the remains from where the glacier did most of its erosive work. As the glacier receded towards the north end of the lake it left behind tons of debris called the terminal moraine which blocked off the area and allowed the lake to form.

glacial cirque formation
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia

The lake at the cirque face is up to 120 feet deep while the depth at the moraine and outlet is only about 10-15 feet deep. Castle lake is one of the longest scientifically observed lakes in the world with studies started in 1938 and still ongoing today. There are still a few cabins on the northeast side of the lake housing researchers and equipment from the University of California, Davis. In aquatic ecology circles Castle Lake is one of the most famous lakes in the world! Limnological studies started in 1959 focused on the growth of algae (or lack thereof) in the lake. Researchers soon realized that the dominant mineral type in the Lake Castle watershed is granite which is lacking in essential plant nutrients such as Nitrogen and Phosphorus. This explains why Castle Lake has relatively low algae growth which allows its waters to be some of the clearest in the world, on par with Lake Tahoe.

We took an hour and walked around the lake in a counter clockwise direction, past the research camp until we could not go any farther easily. Heading back towards the parking area we kept going around the eastern side of the lake until we saw the sign pointing towards Little Castle Lake and decided, why not.

Willow in pack under sign pointing to Little Castle Lake
We Were Planning On Two Lakes But Let’s Do Three

With the path unclear and signs pointing the way non-existent we just headed in the relative direction and hoped for the best. Probably half of the two hours it took for us to find our way down to Little Castle Lake was spent stumbling around cross-country and breaking trail. We experienced the whole gamut of “trail” types from flat and smooth to steep and rocky with a some tripping underbrush and face-smacking tree limbs thrown in for good measure. It was hard work but we made it.

Tiger Lily flower with Little Castle Lake in the background
A Tiger Lily Greeted Our Arrival

I removed Willow’s pack to give her a quick break as we both had a drink and a snack in the little campsite we found near the lake.

Willow without her pack on
Glad To Get A Break From Lugging Water Around

Our short rest over we got her pack back on which was now several ounces lighter, took a look at our Garmin eTrex to get an idea which way Heart Lake was and started in that direction. About 45 minutes later we crested the lip of the little cirque that held Heart Lake. Upon seeing the lake Willow rushed down towards the lake and only stopped from plunging head first into it when I issued the “Stop” command and quickly took this picture.

Willow in her pack next to Heart Lake
Patiently Waiting For Me To Take This Photo

Once the photo was taken I released her and she finished her mad dash into the lake.

Willow wading in Heart Lake with her pack on
Sweet Relief

She certainly didn’t need to go and cool off in the lake as by now it was only 10:45 in the morning, it was not a hot day and the hike up to the lake had been of only moderate difficulty. But, she’s my girl and I allow her these types of enthusiasms. Once she finished with her soak I coaxed her back out and up onto a downed tree for a few beauty shots.

Willow wearing her pack, on a downed tree looking back on Heart Lake
Nice View Of This Cute Lake (And Wet Dog)

Taking the advice of Mr. Stienstra we headed around the right side of the lake so that we could get to the back side and hopefully get an iconic photo across Heart Lake with Mt. Shasta in the background along with the slight infinity pool feel of the situation. While it was a partly cloudy day and a bit of a breeze prevented the reflection of Mt. Shasta in the lake I still think we succeeded pretty well.

Willow standing in the back side of Heart Lake looking back at Mt. Shasta
Willow Is Standing In The Water, I Am Almost Sitting In The Water To Get This Shot

Why would I be almost sitting in the water you ask? Well, just as we had made our way around to the back side of the lake some other people showed up and sat down right in the way of our photo.

People sitting in our shot
Move Please

They immediately realized that fact and shouted apologies and I joked that I could just Photoshop them out later. While on the one hand I cannot afford Photoshop and on the other I have become an enthusiastic proponent of FOSS programs. With those criteria I have become pretty well versed in using GIMP for all my photo manipulation needs. But instead we just crouched down and used the crest of Willow’s big, black head to blot them out. Easy peasy.

Walking away from Heart Lake we were able to look back down upon Castle Lake.

Willow in her pack looking back down toards Castle Lake from Heart Lake
The View Back Down To Castle Lake

And just for good measure, a panorama from the same spot:

By now it was 1:45 in the afternoon and so we began our descent back down to Castle Lake and the Tacoma. We said “hi” to a couple small groups of people heading up to Heart Lake and answered their questions which consisted solely of “how much farther?” By the time we made it back down we were both feeling spent but thrilled at the beauty we had seen and all the scents she had smelled.

screenshot of my hike statistics
My Hike Totals
GPS track of the hike
Our GPS Track

In the days after our hike around Castle Lake and up to Heart Lake we used our nice little campsite as a cool and quiet base of operations to hike around, wade in the creek and explore our little section of the forest. A 5 minute hike away from the site was a spot in the creek with several pools which were the perfect size for a cool dip.

Willow wading in a small pool in Casle Lake Creek
Too Cold For Me But Willow Loved It

This was a good spot and so we took this opportunity and used our tried and true MSR Water Filter to refill some of our water storage containers including the two platypus bottles Willow had carried during the beautiful hike.

I am sitting near the base of another grand mountain (Mt. Hood) as I am writing this post literally 2 years to the day since we went on that adventure. Looking back through all the pictures really brought back the fun we had and the belief that the Shasta-Trinity area has some stunning hikes, history and geology to explore and enjoy. Now that I think about it I believe we should head that way and revisit the area on our way back down from Oregon into California. Maybe this time I can get some pictures of breeze-free water filled with the reflection of Mt. Shasta with no people in the shot. Something to aspire to anyway.

What’s the latest epic hike you went on with your furry friend?

Let us know in the comments and have fun out there.

3 thoughts on “Castle and Heart Lake Hike

  1. lauren

    hello! i am seeing contradicting reports that Shasta trinity wilderness doesn’t allow dogs. But seems here that y’all were just fine! did you have any issues having your pup in the national forest or was it totally alloewd? are you OK with sharing your campsite finding tips at all if you have them off of Castle Road? would love to be near that stream. Heading down from Portland and worried we wont be able to find camping over the 4th of july. thanks so much for the puppy camping friendly beta!

    1. E

      Two generalizations: dogs are allowed in National Forests and dogs and motor vehicles are not allowed in wilderness areas. There is a campsite all of a 1/4 mile down the road from the parking area but your chances of getting in on that weekend are slim to none. We found a nice spot directly off Castle Lake Road by turning off and checking out a few dirt roads. If there is no gate, fence or signage stopping you we play by the “contrition is easier than permission” rule. There should be no shortage of dispersed camping options in the national forest. Good luck and have fun.

  2. Tom G

    I stumbled upon your site when looking for data on AZ fire lookout towers. I typically don’t post comments, but since you asked about the latest epic hike with a furry friend I figured – what the heck.

    I hike with my companion Lola and log our ascents of mountains on the website. The last big hike was a 10 mile loop of the Schell Creek Range bagging a fee summits we had previously skipped. It was a strenuous hike, but well worth the effort. The majority of the hike was along the ridge line above 10,000 feet. Lola’s hiked over 400 summits with me and has become such an integral part of my hiking that I don’t enjoy hiking without her.

    I adopted her from the Chattanooga HES in 2010 when I lived in TN.

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