Wed, Jun 6, 2018
Castle Crags Wilderness HP
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Day 3 of my far NorCal trip had me camped in the woods west of Interstate 5 and Mt. Shasta City. I was after two points within the Castle Crags Wilderness, one the most prominent point with 924ft of prominence, the other the Wilderness highpoint, and they could hardly have been more different. One was a craggy rock scramble, the other a brush and talus slope climb, both with fine views. While others on PB have reported a shorter approach to the WHP from the north via Gray Rock Lakes, I chose to start from Castle Lake which would be better suited for tagging both summits in a loop. This highly popular lake has a paved road leading to it, found on the north side of the crest that marks the northern boundary of the Castle Crags Wilderness. The PCT climbs up from Interstate 5 through the state park and Wilderness, and I would have an opportunity to make use of it, my first time on this section of the trail.
Mine was the only vehicle in the day use parking lot this morning as I started off just before 6:30a, though there would be plenty of others by the time I returned in the afternoon. Officially, there's only one main trail out of Castle Lake, a 5.5mi route heading east to the Mt. Bradley Lookout. However, the area around the lake is riddled with use trails, some quite good, a rat's nest of them when viewed from above, making it pretty easy to get from point A to point B, almost no matter where "B" is. I followed the main trail up to the saddle between Peak 6,220ft east of the lake and Castle Peak (south of the lake) before using a selection of use trails to take me south over the main crest, about half a mile east of Castle Peak. At the crest I was treated to a fantastic, disheartening and somewhat scary view of Castle Crags to the south, a little over a mile away. The highest point in this collection of granite spires and towers is unmistakable and looks to be really hard class 5 from the north. This is the WPP, a point that shows no ascents on LoJ, and no entries on PB and SummitPost. I was coming into this venture with no other beta than what I'd been able to glean from distance views over the past few days from Grey Rocks and Girard Ridge. In the first minute while I looked at it, I was ready to skip it altogether, but decided I should at least give it a closer look so I'd have some idea how hard of a rock climb it might be and figure out how to make a return visit with gear and partner. While the north side of the crest I stood on is more forested with light vegetation in the understory, the south side is considerably brushier. Still, with careful navigation, I was able to pick my way down the slope about 600ft with minimal bushwhacking before intersecting the PCT pretty much right where I expected to find it, as depicted on my GPSr. I descended the PCT only a short distance until I reached a saddle between the main crest and the bulk of the Castle Crags massive. There are several nice campsites in the forest here, and even better, a use trail I was surprised to find leading up the ridge to the south from the saddle. It's not easy to spot in the initial forest cover, but once it breaks out into the more open ridgeline, the trail is hard to miss. Even better, this trail continues exactly where I needed it to go, nicely using a ledge system on the north side of the ridge to bypass some impressive crags, occasionally ducked even, and finally petering out when it reached the base of the WPP. I suspected the trail was the work of the PNW's Mazamas Club who seem to do most of the rock climbing in this part of California, and figured this was just a climber's trail to Castle Crags. All the time I was hiking along this trail, the WPP kept looking more and more impossible.
The key, of course, was on the south side of the summit which was out of view until I had climbed to the small saddle just west of the summit. By following the edge of the cliffs on the west side of the summit, one can reach a ledge on the south side, above another saddle with a really difficult lower spire just south of the WPP. The ledge leads to a pair of class 3 grooves that head up over excellent granite to more promising terrain above, a bit of slab climbing, more class 3, and without any scary sections at all, I found myself all the way to the top on a most improbable route, one of the most unexpected surprises I've ever come across in the mountains. The scrambling isn't trivial, mind you, at stiff class 3, but far easier than it had appeared for the last hour. I'm not sure why this one isn't better known as I would rank it as an instant classic, easily one of the top 100 scrambles in the state. The views, too, are quite impressive, taking in Mt. Shasta (of course), Castle Crags, Grey Rocks, Trinity Alps and much, much more. I was surprised to find no register anywhere, so left one under some rocks before reversing the route. Fantastic!
Once back at the PCT, I continued west (northbound) on the trail for the next hour, making my way through brush, forest, jungle and across a few tiny creeks, all the while very happy to have a trail here. Though overgrown in a few places, it beats trying to cover three miles through heavy brush that populates the south side of the crest I was traversing. The PCT traverses 1,000ft below the Wilderness HP on its south side, making it necessary to find a way up the brushy slopes to the summit. Vic Hanson had climbed the peak from the PCT a few years ago, and his description of it on PB helped me pick a very good line going up where the brush is minimal (though still some modest bushwhacking required), reaching the crest about 1/3mi east of the summit. Once on the crest, it's pretty easy to pick a non-brushy route along it to reach the summit. There are two closely-spaced points only minutes apart, both of which I visited. I couldn't tell which point was higher as they had identical GPSr readings and neither seemed to have a register. I left one on the southern point before heading back down, after spending about 20min atop the open summit taking in the vistas.
I returned to the PCT and backtracked a little more than a mile to where the trail just touches the crest at its lowpoint. Castle Peak, the other highpoint along the crest, is about a mile to the east from this point. At first glance it appears the ridge has far too much brush to make it a reasonable route, but this is a bit deceiving. The north side of the crest is far less brushy, and by traversing on that side at the edge of forest and brush, I was able to cover the mile distance to the bonus summit in a little less than an hour. Once I reached this third summit, all my Wilderness feelings were lost. Until then, I had seen and heard no one all day. Suddenly I could hear voices which turned out to be from several parties about a quarter mile below on the west side at Heart Lake. There is a use trail reaching to Castle Peak from the east and there was a large windbreak built for camping at the summit. Not so Wilderness-y here, it seems. There was a register left only three days ago by a fellow from Washington. He also left about 50 business cards which I collected for disposal as it didn't seem an appropriate place to advertise your photo-adventure business. There were already four pages used from the notebook, suggesting the peak is rather popular, not really surprising since it's only a mile from Castle Lake.
After descending back down to the main trail I had started on, I decided to pay a last visit to Peak 6,220ft on the east side of Castle Lake because I could see a use trail leading up through the brush on the South Ridge to its summit. After about 15 min's effort, I reach the summit where I found a party of four lounging about just below the highpoint to the north. I took a few quick photos from the top before beating a retreat without them even noticing me. As I was descending the main trail back to the lake, there were 3-4 parties encountered on the short stretch I followed it, with more parties at the lake, some swimming, others screaming (not really sure why, but I guess that's what they do in these parts). It was 2:30p by the time I returned to the parking lot, making for an 8hr effort, covering about 12mi with 4,000ft of gain. A good day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Castle Peak
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