Located at 10,400, Lake Helen is probably best known as a mid-point & camp on the climb up Mount Shasta but even if a summit is not on the list for today, making the nearly 3,500′ trek up is a great adventure — and way to train for a climb to come.
Of course before I really begin to share this tale / part of the climb / intro to mountain day hike, it’s worth explaining that reaching Lake Helen (which is not really a lake at this point) is no simple hike and actually topping out there requires a Mount Shasta climbing permit. Spending $25 for a day hike may be a bit steep but (1) it’s a cool view, (2) what better way is there to train for a Shasta climb and, (3) if you’re already planning on climbing it than read on.
Preparing for the Climb: What to Bring
The route up to Lake Helen and up Shasta for that matter changes a lot over the course of the year from winter conditions to dirt. The further into summer it is, the less snow you’ll have on the lower mountain but assuming you want hike before it’s all dirt and misery or are climbing further up the mountain, you’ll need full alpine gear. This means mountain boots, crampons, an ice axe, avy gear, helmet (for the upper mountain) which you can rent in town along with the skills to use them.
You’ll also want a proper pack with plenty of layers, water, food and the 10 essentials. If you’re camping out, add in your tent, ground pad, sleeping bag, even more food, a way to melt snow for water and even more food. I know it’s tempting to think it’s just a nice day out there but really, nice turns quick — gear up.
Warning: Alpine mountain climbing is inherently dangerous, even on so called “non-technical” routes. From avalanches to falls to unexpected storms, do not underestimate the mountain! Be sure to bring appropriate climbing / snow gear, non-cotton layers, along with food, water and the rest of the essentials. Know the conditions, the route, and the hazards. Have fun but be prepared.
The Trailhead: What You’ll Find at Bunny Flat
Your trek up to Lake Helen / up Mount Shasta starts out of the Bunny Flat parking lot. Here you’ll find a bunch of parking spaces, a couple trash cans and 3 vault style bathrooms. Oh, and a sign post. That means you’ll need to get everything for your adventure, food, gear, your map, extra batteries, and especially water back in town before you drive on up the mountain.
It’s a stunning drive up through the forest and potentially snowy trees on a regularly plowed road (though check for chain requirements) to the lot. Once there expect a very busy day in spring and early summer with other hikers and climbers, families coming to play in the snow and general tourists hoping for a nice photo. Since climbing starts early, plenty of people overnight it in their cars before hitting the trail too.
My suggestion: Fifth Season in the town has you covered on climbing gear, maps and condition updates. Swing in there after the ranger station for permits (or self issue at the TH) and one of the small markets for final snacks and supplies.
The Hike: To Horse Camp
Your first mile and a half is a pleasant though certainly not flat climb up through the trees to Horse Camp. This is a destination on its own for many and a great place for an easy overnighter or as part of a multi-day climb up the mountain (option a: shave 1,000′ off and have a moderately big day #2, option b: camp here and Lake Helen for a long visit.)
In early season, you can expect to be on snow from the edge of the parking lot and on up though by late Spring you’ll likely find plenty of dirt around. The trail is marked early on with a decent sign but don’t expect much more than that when snow is covering things so be sure to keep your topo map handy (there’s great cell coverage on the mountain surprisingly and though you should never count on that, it does make it easy to navigate real time in addition to a paper backup. I like Carin App for free map downloads.)
Along the way up to Horse Camp, you’ll climb just about 1,000′ and mostly find yourself locked in by the trees though as you progress which makes for a shady, calm start. Those thin out as you progress up the trail / snow before you rise over a more notable hill (the only such hill on this stretch) to see the roof of the Sierra Club building sticking out just a few hundred yards beyond. If you plan to spend the night at Horse Camp, it’s $5 / tent or $3 / bivvy and $1 / person for day use of the building (cash or check only.) In summer you’ll find a restroom and water spring — in snow it’s blue bags and melt your own.
The Hike: To Lake Helen
After taking a break at Horse Camp, setting up camp or whatever it is you’re going to do, it’s time to actually do some mountain climbing! Again, I’ll assume you’re on snow here because that’s just more fun than dirt and what this post is all about — so start looking for the best possible boot path or start kicking steps, the route is right ahead of you and even the dark pretty much unmissable here.
To be more clear, the main route up to Lake Helen and to the heart of the mountain cuts directly through the center of the valley ahead of you as it moves up the mountain in an increasingly steep fashion. This is avalanche gulch, well, the section below it at least and what you’ll be on all the way to Lake Helen (for summit climbers, you’ll keep going beyond the flat lake, up the heart, around the rocks and then cut up to the summit that lies out of sight for now.)
It’s over 2,500′ up from Horse Camp to the flat area that is Lake Helen and uphill for every step of it. Boot paths tend to weave around a bit to avoid terrain traps or steeper ascents but there are many ways to progress up this route and you should choose what feels best for you — the boot path is not always right or direct. Up and up you go and then up some more but don’t forget to turn around and look back! With every step, the view down gets more impressive as does the view out as other local hills and mountains come into view. Early morning climbs make for some great sunrises too though if you’re on skis and only going part way, starting a little later may make for a better ride (though also a hot ascent.)
As you ascend, it’s pretty obvious where Lake Helen will be as you go from moderate to steeper terrain towards a flat area on your right. The last few hundred feet are the toughest part of this route up though light compared to what comes next but that’s for tomorrow or next time. Stepping onto the flat section, you’ve reached the lake! Wander out towards the obvious view point, start digging in your campsite if you’re doing that and enjoy!
It’s back down the way you came up. Skis are fast, snowboards are too, boots work and glissading as a backup option!
Of course if you’re going on up the rest of the way, this is where the fun just begins…
Quick Facts About the Trail
- Official Rating: Difficult
- Start point: Bunny Flat Parking Lot
- Distance: ~6 miles r/t
- Duration: 5-7 hours
- Climb: 3,500′
- Facilities: Vault restrooms at the TH
- Water: None (horse camp in summer)
- Crowds: Heavy on weekends, light early season
- Cost: $25 / climbing permit or $30 / annual permit
- Permits: Climbing & Wilderness (self issue at the trailhead)