The high desert is one of the most ubiquitous of American landscapes. Though there are four great deserts in America, the Mojave, Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Great Basin Deserts, aridity remains a distinct trait of the rest of the West. The mountain regions climb high enough to absorb moisture from passing storm systems and the runoff and snowmelt from these mountains are what nurture and sustain civilization throughout western half of our country. However, below the mountains aridity remains and these dry regions are usually referred to as high deserts, as opposed to the vast thirsty lands and distinct ecosystems of the four great deserts. Although not omnipresent, the high desert areas are often identified by the presence of sagebrush, juniper and in the southwest, pinyon pines. These plant communities are hearty and well suited to living in dry lands. Some travelers do not find beauty in the lands of dryness, seeing bleakness instead of beauty. But for those who have unlocked the mystery of desert beauty, the high desert maintains a strong and deep draw.
The region to the north of Mount Shasta lies in the mighty mountain’s rain shadow. The towering volcano stabs deep into the heart of passing storms and wrings the water from them, feeding the hungry glaciers and subterranean reservoirs. There is little left for the land to the north and it is left bereft of much precipitation. This dry area is mostly contained in the Shasta Valley. Like other western landscapes, this area is home to juniper and sagebrush, which are stark apposition to the lush alpine forests that cover the surrounding mountains. However, the Shasta Valley is not the only area where high desert holds sway. East of Mount Shasta and the Cascade Crest the rain shadow persists, but the elevation is a little higher so the high desert mixes with other environments, the juniper and sagebrush coexisting beautifully with ponderosa pines and aspens.
These arid areas make particularly great places to hike in the winter and spring. The Shasta Valley has a few noteworthy hikes that highlight the great diversity of Mount Shasta’s rain shadow. However, the most surprising feature is the presence of the water jewels of Trout Lake and Lake Shastina. Neither lake is natural, but both are glittering oasis in the land of dryness. Lake Shastina is formed by impounding the Shasta River, a ribbon of life that waters the Shasta Valley. Trout Lake is a bit different. There is originally a small natural pond, fed by springs. A pair of short levees bottle up the small valley and the springs have inundated it, enlarging the pond to the lake’s present size. Both lakes are beautiful in their way, contrasting the cool blue water against the rocky, hardscrabble, high desert land.
The Shasta Valley Wildlife Refuge is not well known and is a no-frills type of park. Three lakes are found here: Trout Lake, Bass Lake and Steamboat Lake. Of the three Trout Lake is the prettiest. The lake is graced with incredible views of Mount Shasta and hiking along its shores means the constant presence of the enormous mountain. The terrain is a classic high country environment, including juniper trees, sagebrush, lots of exposed rock and expansive grasslands. Spring and fall are the nicest times of year to enjoy this area. In the spring, flowers bloom, the grasses are colored green and red and the weather is perfect. In the fall, the color gold is nearly overwhelming. The grass is gold and the reeds that ring the lake seem to glow with gold light. The hike along the edge of the lake highlights the high desert and offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the beautiful views of Mount Shasta and the high peaks of the Cascade Crest, including the Goosenest and Willow Creek mountains.
The Shasta River flows northward through the Shasta Valley from the flanks of Mount Eddy until it joins the Klamath River. Most of its journey passes through private land and access is limited. However, there is a public access area at Lake Shastina, where the river’s swift flow is temporarily stilled. Although no official trails are maintained, there is a well established route up an unnamed butte that is nearly an island in the lake when water levels are high. Despite the nearby presence of large stands of ponderosa pine, the butte is part of a distinctly high desert environment. When the lake is full (it is drawn down at times) it is a glittering gem in the midst of the high desert. The hike up to the summit of the butte is never out of sight of Lake Shastina. There are also great views of Mount Shasta, Mount Eddy and the Trinity Divide.