A few days after a somewhat unusual mid-October snowfall, I set out with two friends to day-hike for three days on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in northern Plumas County, between Humbug Summit and Domingo Springs. This post describes the first day’s hike from Humbug Summit to the Carter Meadows Trailhead. While we did encounter some snow on the trail, the highlight of the hike was seeing Lassen Peak, along with several nearby peaks in Lassen Volcanic National Park, mantled in gleaming white snow. This is just one of several panoramic views we enjoyed during the hike.
The GPS track shows an overview of the 14-mile point-to-point hike, which we did in the northbound direction. The orange dot shows the Humbug Summit trailhead at Cold Springs.
It is notable that we were fortunate to do these hikes with a designated driver. This meant that we only needed to have one car, and we did not need to reposition cars each day. We were driven to the beginning trailhead each morning and picked up at the ending trailhead at a pre-designated time. This was a real treat that made it possible to do longer sequential hikes and cover more miles of the PCT.
For this hike, the PCT mileage was 13 miles, from official mile 1308.6 to 1321.6, according to the PCT data book. At the end of the day we hiked 1.2 miles out the Carter Meadows Trail to a trailhead on a gravel road where our ride had just arrived to pick us up. The entire hike was within Lassen National Forest and mostly within Plumas County, with short sections in Butte County and Tehama County.
As shown in the elevation profile, the PCT climbs about 1000 feet from the Humbug Summit area before descending to a slightly lower elevation. Then it climbs about 500 feet before descending once again. The total elevation gain was a bit over 2200 feet: quite reasonable for the hike distance.
The Humbug Summit / Cold Springs trailhead is right next to the spring and a couple of backpacker campsites, less than 100 yards from the PCT. This is a horse-friendly trailhead, with the spring water flowing from a pipe into a horse trough and with hitching posts nearby. To reach the PCT you simply follow the obvious trail and then, at the PCT junction, follow the arrow pointing to Canada on a sign. Another sign on a nearby tree advises that it is 35.8 miles to Domingo Spring, which would be the northern terminus for our three days of hiking, and 40.4 miles to Lassen Volcanic National Park – the destination for a future hiking trip!
The PCT climbs at a pleasant 8% grade through pretty forest, and within a mile or so we started to see snow near the trail. As we continued to climb the snow got a little deeper – it was never very deep, but if the snow cover is continuous it doesn’t take more than a few inches to hide a trail.
After a bit we noticed that we were following boot prints in the trail’s snow cover and realized that two hikers had preceded us northbound in the few days since the snowfall. At first we simply followed the boot prints into a small clearing or meadow – and then it became clear that the previous hikers had wandered around a bit, but the path did not continue! Fortunately we had phones with a mapping application that included the PCT, and within a few minutes we were able to determine that we had, indeed, gone slightly off-trail and the trail was about 100 feet away. So we quickly recovered from this navigation issue. I have to note that, if I’d been hiking on my own (and without such a detailed “live” map) I would have needed to turn around and return to the trailhead, since snow now covered the trail ahead as far as we could see.
Shortly after we returned to the PCT path, still in the meadow area, I noticed several lupine plants, with the sun creating pretty shadows on the snow.
After we left the meadow, for some distance the trail followed a wider path through the forest, and the previous hikers’ path was again obvious. This view reminded me of hikes I’d done two years prior in Northern Ireland, with trails making their way through forested areas.
In an area where the snow layer was thinner we noticed a few boot prints that appeared to have sunk an inch or two into mud, then re-frozen overnight. The columnar ice crystals were quite interesting and unusual.
About 2.7 miles from the trailhead we found a sign indicating that the Butte County high point was just 0.2 miles away. In fact, it was less than 0.2 miles round trip to climb the remaining 25 feet or so to the top of a gentle hill, also the highest elevation of the hike. And, as far as I can tell from my maps, the high point is barely across the county line from Plumas County. As the PCT continues north, however, it stays in Butte County for the next 2 miles or so, generally descending.
Just past the Butte County high point we had our first views of Lassen Peak, filtered by trees along the trail. During the subsequent descent there was a nice view of Lake Almanor, which is approximately 15 miles away to the northeast.
After we’d hiked about 5 miles we stopped for our first of two lunch breaks: a good practice for hikes of around 15 miles or more. We found a sunny spot with some nice rocks to sit on; we didn’t happen to have a special view, but it was pleasant anyway.
Shortly after our break we briefly had a distant view generally to the west. Behind several rows of hills and ridges there was a higher ridge with a bit of snow on top. The only areas in that direction that are high enough to have had snow are the Trinity Alps and some peaks in the Yolla Bolly – Middle Eel Wilderness, both roughly 90 miles away.
Almost 5 1/2 miles from the trailhead the PCT curves to the west, not far from Eagle Rocks. To the southwest we had wonderful views of a valley with forested hills rising on both sides and Scotts John Creek, which we couldn’t see, at the bottom of the valley.
In this section of the trail we started to see volcanic rocks, indicating a transition region between the north end of the Sierra Nevada and the south end of the Cascades. Some of the rocks had unusual, almost strange, formations.
As the trail traversed to the west we had our first panoramic view of Lassen. It was magnificent, especially with the snow adorning the peaks.
About 5.9 miles from the trailhead we came to a sign indicating that Humboldt Peak was 0.6 miles away on a use trail; we decided not to make the side trip. While hiking along the north slope of the peak, however, we encountered a bit more snow, including a few very distinct – and distinctive – bear tracks.
The slope of Humboldt Peak was fairly steep, and there were some large volcanic boulders in the forest as well as trees with moss on their trunks.
Nearly 1 mile past the sign for Humboldt Peak we arrived at a road crossing and trailhead, where the PCT crosses Humboldt Rd. This road is accessible to 4WD vehicles and is about a 15-mile drive from CA-89 near Lake Almanor. There is a fairly good sized flat area near the road crossing, with room for several campsites. We gathered that it is a fairly significant remote trailhead, since there were signs pointing the way on the PCT to Mexico and to Canada!
The PCT curves again to go roughly north for a couple of miles along a ridge. Along this northward traverse we could easily see Eagle Rocks, now to the southeast and slightly behind us, where the PCT had turned to the west. From this vantage point it was clear that the PCT had been routed around a valley, rather than down and up again to cross it.
Not surprisingly, there is a creek at the bottom of the valley: Butt Creek. On the west side of the north-south ridge there is another creek: Cub Creek. We passed another sign, this time indicating a vista point for the Butt-Cub Divide 1/4 mile away. We decided not to take the time to check out the view from the vista point.
As we continued north there were a couple of places where we had relatively unobstructed views to the west, and this time we could clearly see the flat floor of the Central Valley, generally near Red Bluff.
By the time we’d covered 10 miles we were ready for a second lunch stop, and this time we found a location with sun, good rocks for sitting, and wonderful views to the north. The terrain was looking more and more volcanic in nature.
Around 10.6 miles from the trailhead the trail bottoms out just below 6200 feet elevation and then begins to climb once again. Especially in the lower areas we noticed a lot of fallen trees and other forest litter on the ground. We wondered if there had been severe storms or whether it had simply been a long time since any cleanup had taken place. The amount of flammable debris was unusual in our experience on other sections of the PCT.
About 12 miles from the trailhead the PCT begins to turn to the east and partial views of Lassen return. Also, there are more varied volcanic rock formations. This one looks like a giant inverted dinosaur foot, and there were a couple of round-topped towers nearby.
Only a few minutes later we passed what would turn out to be the last panoramic view of Lassen for the day. It certainly looked closer than it had looked when we saw the first panorama several miles previously. It was confirmation that we were, indeed, getting closer to the National Park.
At 13 miles from the trailhead we came to the well-marked junction with the Carter Meadows Trail, where we would exit the PCT and hike 1.2 miles out to a trailhead and our ride. About halfway along the trail there is a short spur trail to a reliable water source useful to PCT through-hikers. This water source is signed, as many others are if they are slightly off the PCT. As this picture shows, besides a sign there is often a cairn, a stick, or other marking. The markings at this water source were almost like a doorway welcoming hikers to fill up on the water necessary to continue hiking.
This had been a really nice hike mostly through forest but with spectacular views of Lassen, volcanic rocks, valleys, and even a bit of October snow. We were especially happy that our designated driver found the trailhead and was there to pick us up. It had been challenging to find the trailhead and, following a somewhat panicked phone call from a trail location where we had phone signal, we’d started to wonder if we were going to need to hike out to the paved road; this would have added an unwelcome 7+ miles of walking. Since we resumed hiking at this same trailhead the next morning, I’ll describe how to get there in a separate post related to the next day’s hike onward from Carter Meadows Trail.