Chaos, Lava and Snow – A Winter Trip to Crags Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park

For an area replete with unattractive names, the trail to Crags Lake is filled with beauty.

Last weekend, we had a craving for some snow. We headed east, knowing that Lassen National Forest and Lassen National Park would be a good bet.

Our timing could not have been better. The previous day, six inches of snow had fallen near the southern entrance to the park. We decided to try for the northern entrance, and entered the park with the unmanned ticket booth standing as a stark reminder of the government shutdown. We parked in the parking lot of the visitor center, along with many other cars whose inhabitants likely had the same idea as us.

The hike on the agenda: Crags Lake. The trail itself is oft forgotten because of the many other challenging and beautiful hikes in the Park – the hikes to Lassen Peak, Kings Creek Falls, Mill Creek Falls, etc. Rather than ending up at a dramatic and breathtaking vista point, this humble little trail winds to the forest and finishes at a small lake (“pond” might be more accurate) at the base of a momentous peak: Chaos Crags.

Chaos Crags are what remains of several different plug volcanoes, and is relatively young geologically speaking. Erupting a mere 1,000 years ago, lava pushed up out of the landscape quickly and violently. The lava cooled, forming huge blocks of dacite rock. Still an infant in geologic time, roughly 400 years ago one of the crags collapsed in an avalanche that spread the rocks throughout the area now known as the Chaos Jumbles. Evidently, the debris from this rock slide dammed up several streams, causing the creation of Manzanita and Reflection Lakes.

Circumnavigating Manzanita Lake is a fun, easy, family-friendly hike. (In fact, slightly less than a year before my companion and I had our first experience snowshoeing by following this trail). I’ve followed the trail to Crags Lake once before, finding a small, nearly dry pond. The 2 mile hike changes about 800 feet and is a moderate hike, especially in the snow.

We were lucky that we were not the first ones of the day to try the hike. My memory is spotty at the best of times, so remembering a trail I’ve done once two years back would have been tough as it was. We followed footprints that had done the tough work of breaking the snow, and mostly finding the trail. We could see several times where the footprints ventured off, only to return to the best guess of where the trail was. It is times like these when I consider the value of a GPS and a good topo map.

The snowy landscape was more than serene. We had mostly blue skies, and the trees were heavy laden with snow. We crossed over the small stream that intersects the trail, as it quietly babbled along. Although it was cold out, we were soon stripping off a few outer layers as we heated up from trudging through the snow. One item we forgot – sunglasses. Luckily, we weren’t too blinded from the bright snow, but we did find that we got a little sunburnt.

The trail slowly and steadily climbs through the forest, but my favorite part is when Chaos Crags emerges into view, like a lumbering giant. With an elevation of upwards of 8,500 feet, these would be the gem of the park if not for the more notable Lassen Peak. The hike curves slightly northward here, eventually bringing us to the border of the forest and the rockslide. It is on this miniature ridge where we looked out at Table Mountain, Chaos Jumbles, and the Dwarf Forest.

Also, since this spot was relatively exposed, it was here where our body warmth from the hike was stripped from us by biting wind. Also, the landscape was rocky and covered in snow, meaning we slipped and fell on the uneven landscape many times, increasing the probability of a twisted ankle. It was here too where the footsteps we were following ended. Indeed, Chaos Lake was hidden beneath the snow, and we could not even see the icy sheen that would delineate the border of the lake.

We debated stopping to heat up water to make coffee (yes, I had lugged my mini stove up here), but decided the wind would render that idea useless. Instead we enjoyed the view, and stayed on the rocks that were visible. We turned back here, realizing once again we may have been racing the setting sun.

We were back to the trailhead maybe 20 minutes before sunset. Here, we tried to boil water for hot chocolate (yes, I had also brought up packets of instant hot cocoa), but in our impatience ended up drinking lukewarm chocolate. We got out of our wet clothes, turned up music and the heater, and drove back down Highway 44 towards Redding. We found snow, alright.

Crags Lake is diminutive in the best of times. It is fed by snowmelt, and often disappears relatively early in the summer. In my mind, although the lake is the finale of the trail, this is one of those cliche hikes where the destination is in the journey. The views of the menacing Chaos Crags, juxtaposed with the forested and rocky valley below. The small and tranquil stream that continues its journey oblivious to the rest of the world and its struggles. Even the uneven rocky terrain that is asking hikers to take a spill. It’s a little known hike that was a great way to spend a Saturday.

Ryan Loughrey

Ryan has been wandering the PNW since 1993. Follow his blog at

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