Dunsmuir, California

Hike to Heart Lake in the Klamath Mountains

2.2 Miles Total - 600 ft gain - Out-and-Back Trail

Originally added by Chaney Swiney

A picture-perfect lake hangs on the eastern edge of the Klamath Mountains, with a spectacular view of nearby Mount Shasta, especially at sunset. This short hike into the Castle Crags Wilderness leads to stunning scenery in a landscape ripe for exploration.

Scenes like this are rarely so accessible. Heart Lake is nestled in a bowl below Castle Peak, on the edge of the Castle Crags Wilderness just west of I-5 and the city of Mt. Shasta. The parking lot and trailhead are both located on the shore of Castle Lake, a much larger lake that is stunning in its own right, backed up against a rugged wall of rock. Castle Lake is lovely, but Heart Lake is even more so.

The hike to Heart Lake is just over one mile, one-way, and is fairly easy to accomplish. There are some moderately steep sections that merit a slower pace, but the 600 feet of elevation gain are fairly well distributed along the way.

From the parking lot, cross Castle Lake Creek where it flows out of its namesake and follow the trail around the east side of the lake. The trail soon begins to climb up across the slope above the lake, occasionally offering views through the forest. After a half a mile of uphill hiking, the trail nears a saddle and becomes tougher to follow. Many social trails branch off in different directions. Heart Lake lies to the southwest of the saddle, so bearing that way (to your right as you approach the saddle from Castle Lake) and continuing to gradually gain elevation will eventually lead to the desired destination. The social trails all tend to converge just before Heart Lake, so picking any one that heads southwest should do the trick. If you think you're lost, just backtrack: the landscape is rocky and the forest has given way to shorter manzanita, so you should always be able to get to a good view of Castle Lake and reorient yourself.

Another half mile from the saddle, after dropping between a knob to the north and a wall to the south, the trail descends to Heart Lake. At this point, there are really no bad views to be had. Head to the small natural dam that holds Heart Lake back to look down on Castle Lake and the valley below. Walk the southern shore to see the reflection of Mount Shasta in the water, or scramble upslope above the lake for a truly spectacular view. Sit in the meadows above the lake and bask in the natural beauty of the Klamath Mountains, or dangle your feet in from the rocks that divide the two lobes that give Heart Lake its heart shape.

Mount Shasta commands most attention from this vantage point, but if you're hiking in summer you should take some time to look down into the water. Rough-skinned newts thrive in this alpine lake and can often be seen swimming in the shallows. Best leave them alone, though; they're quite toxic.

The hike can be extended by scrambling or hiking up the ridgelines to the summit of Castle Peak above the lake, attaining an even more panoramic vista. Heart Lake is a fine destination on its own, though, and worthy of time spent enjoying the landscape from its beautiful shore.

In winter when the lake freezes, skipping rocks on the ice produces some fantastic, ethereal sounds that echo among the rock walls around the lake. The trail is certainly easiest in summer, but a winter snowshoe trip would be equally rewarding.

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