As noted here, winter is often a maddening time of the year for hikers. The high country, so close in proximity yet exasperatingly inaccessible beneath its mantle of snow, is not a viable option for hitting the trail. Still, the Mount Shasta area is blessed with numerous winter alternatives for off season hiking. The best of these options lies to the north of Mount Shasta, in the Shasta Valley. The valley is a wide gap between the Klamath Mountains on the west and the Cascade Range on the east. Mount Shasta, which is actually an outlier on the west side of the Cascade’s crest, bottles up the southern end. The Shasta River, with its headwaters on the flanks of Mount Eddy, drains the valley. The key feature of the Shasta Valley is that it falls within Mount Shasta’s rainshadow, making the valley a pocket of high desert terrain surrounded on all sides by higher alpine and forest clad mountains. Consequently, even when most places are being pounded by winter storms, the valley receives very little precipitation and the trails are wide open for great hiking. Of course, the high desert environment, characterized by the ubiquitous juniper and sage, may not be to everyone’s liking but for those who relish this change of pace from the dark forests just a few miles to the north, the Shasta Valley offers a winter oasis with seldom hiked trails and spectacular views.
What is possibly the best day of off season hiking can be constructed out of two of the trails in the southeast corner of the Shasta Valley. The Pluto Cave Trail and the Yellow Butte Trail are only two miles apart but offer very different hiking experiences. Neither is long enough to occupy a full day but when strung together, one in the morning, the second after lunch, a fantastic and magnificently scenic day on the trail. The two trails are the Pluto Cave Trail and the Yellow Butte Trail. As noted previously, these two trails are found in the southeast corner of Shasta Valley, near where the eastern base of Mount Shasta and the Cascades crest meet. While most of the valley is privately owned, there is a small knot of national forest and BLM land here. This is fortuitous for hikers, as it provides a great day of winter hiking. The trails include one of the most unusual attractions in the Mount Shasta region as well as nearly constant, spectacular views of Mount Shasta. Views of the Cascade Crest, Trinity Divide, Siskiyou Mountains and even the Marble Mountains compliment these trails as well.
In between the two trails, there is a small picnic area at the Pluto Cave Trailhead. This is a great spot to have a lunch in between the two hikes.
The best day of winter hiking in the Mount Shasta area begins at the Pluto Cave. This trail has something of a split personality. It consists of a short, 1 mile loop through classic, high desert terrain. The trail passes through great stands of juniper. Views of Mount Shasta at the beginning of the trail and remain consistent for most of the route. After passing the entrance to the Pluto Cave, the path parallels a few sinkholes that provide an opportunity to peer down into collapsed sections of the cave. Beyond the final hole in the cave, the trail passes through more high desert with views toward the Siskiyou Mountains, some of which lie in Oregon. Eventually the route comes upon a large uplifted fracture in the lava that covers the area. The trail climbs to the top of the fracture and runs eastward along its rim. This section has some of the best views of the trail. On the far end of the fracture the trail drops back down to ground level and the proceeds back to the trailhead.
As nice a trail as the loop is, the real attraction is the Pluto Cave itself. The entrance is a collapsed section of the cave’s ceiling. One drops down into the collapsed ruins, passes under an uncollapsed section that forms a natural arch and walks through more ruined ceiling sections before finally coming to the actual entrance to the Pluto Cave. Once inside the trail drops down as the cave descends a bit. There is a large section of exposed lava but the route is easy to negotiate. As one delves deeper into the cave, the light from the entrance begins to fade. Just as it does, a light appears ahead from another collapse in the cave roof. This one is only 10 feet or so in diameter and is just enough to illuminate the cave’s walls and allow a thick beam of light to come down from the world above. Pushing still further into the cave leads to another section where the roof has completely caved in and tree are growing on the cavern floor. On the far side of this opening, the ultimate entrance to the cave is found. From here the light fades quickly and the Pluto Cave extends for another mile underground.
The temperatures in the cave are fairly constant in the upper 40’s, no matter whether it is hot or cold on the surface. If one is set to explore Pluto Cave, be sure to bring a couple of lights per person. This can be a lengthy endeavor and a picnic lunch at the trailhead will be a great break before hiking to the summit of Yellow Butte.
Of all the color-themed buttes that surround Mount Shasta, Yellow Butte is the lowest in elevation and the only one found on Mount Shasta’s north side. The trail up to the summit is 3 miles round trip, which makes for a leisurely afternoon stroll. Even though the butte is a classic high desert peak, the landscape is markedly different from that encountered along the Pluto Cave Trail. While juniper is present it appears infrequently. The butte is covered in an expansive layer of gold grass, the genesis of the butte’s appellation. The trail winds around small drainages and peaks en route to the summit. Slung on the peak’s flanks and high above the surrounding forest of juniper, the views from the trail are as excellent as they are relentless. One is never out of eyeshot of Mount Shasta and all the mountains that ring the Shasta Valley. Still, the best views are from the summit, where there is a 360 degree unobstructed view of the surrounding region. Hiking this trail in the afternoon means the light on Mount Shasta and the Cascade crest to the east is optimal. Staying up on Yellow Butte for sunset is an experience not soon forgotten.
Honorable Mention – Haystack Trail:
Immediately to the west of Yellow Butte is another small peak, appropriately named the Haystack. There is a great trail up to the summit of this butte as well and its proximity to Yellow Butte means it can easily be included to lengthen a day of hike. It was not included in the suggested day of winter hiking in the Shasta Valley only because its views are similar to those on Yellow Butte. Rather than having a single 360 degree view from a pointed summit, the Haystack has a broad, round summit with a trail circling the rim. The Haystack is certainly a worthy trail and can easily supplement the suggested Pluto Cave Trail – Yellow Butte Combination.