The smoke has been bad the last few days. It is blocking out the sun, obscuring views and adding an extra strain on the lungs. The desire to get outside is usually not too strong when conditions are this miserable. Nonetheless, exercise is still a good thing and getting out of the house remains important. If one is willing to put up with breathing it in (certainly a subjective proposition), there are still some really good trails around Mount Shasta that can be enjoyed when skies are hazy and views minimal. For the most part, these are lower elevation hikes that stick close to creeks and rivers. The forest canopy will often filter views naturally and force hikers to focus on the more immediate delights: the trees, the rushing water (yes, even late in summer during a drought!), the rocks, the flowers and the grasses and other things that line the trails. Indeed, the smoke may be discouraging but count it a blessing, head outdoors and enjoy those things that we often overlook at this time of year when we often hike the high trails.
The hike through the dense forest along this section of the Sacramento River is a delight any time of year. Like other riparian areas, attention is placed squarely on the river and the surrounding forest. The river’s canyon is so large and vast that it almost seems as though there is no canyon and it is flowing through a flat, forested expanse. Yet the forest is fantastic. Firs, pines and the rare yew tree line the water and shade the easy trail comfortably. There is plenty of opportunity to pause, sit on large rocks and enjoy the river as it races by. This is a kid friendly hike with lots of tidepool-like potholes that invite lots of exploration and play.
Journeying into the steep, isolated terrain around the lower McCloud River, the hike along Squaw Valley Creek is one where there are few opportunities to observe the sky. Any smoke or haze is all but forgotten here, as the alluring creek consumes hiker’s attention and the forests cover the sky. This hike can be done as either an out and back or as a loop. The former follows the main trail along the namesake creek. This is the prettiest part of the hike. However, the loop option follows an old road along Bear Trap Creek. This section of the hike passes through the heaviest forest and here the canopy is the most opaque, almost completely suffocating any view of the sky. When fires are active and the skies are covered with smoke, this is a great place to lose oneself in the forest and enjoy the peace that is found in this remote area.
This long trail plunges deep into the dark forests that occupy the canyon of the North Fork of the Sacramento River. The river is not particularly large along this section of trail (especially late in the drought-ravaged summer) but the flow is still pleasant and the canyon is deep, remote and beautiful. While it is usually recommended that the trail be hiked from Parks Creek Pass through the Deadfall Lakes and then down into the North Fork Canyon, when the skies are smoky, begin at the North Fork trailhead and hike upstream through the canyon. The path will pass through remote forests and along geologic oddities. The skies are visible at times, which means the haze is still a part of the hike, but the eye is always led back to the fledgling river and the surrounding forest and canyon.
Rather than hike through the deep forests, the Pluto’s Cave Trail heads underground into the deep earth. The first part of the hike is certainly through open terrain that is very susceptible to hazy skies and smoky conditions. Mount Shasta might not be visible but plenty of interesting, smoke free hiking waits ahead. Once hikers arrive at the cave, all attention is drawn downward into the great cavern. The trail leads through the ruins of the lava tube, winding beneath arches and around boulders before heading into the skyless darkness of the cave. Initially there is still some light in the cave, provided by a small collapse in the ceiling. Beyond this another collapsed section boasts an unusual forest within the cave. Beyond this point, it is a mile of dark tunnel ahead, beckoning the adventurous to go forth.
The McCloud River Preserve is remote and requires a long, bumpy ride to reach it. However, once there, hikers can enjoy one of the finest riverside trails around. The McCloud is large and full and there are plenty of rocks to scramble on and enjoy. However, the canyon is so deep and narrow and the forest so ancient and towering, that little of the sky is visible. Here you can enjoy the river in its prime with no worries about the hazy skies. This is a primeval land where the outside troubles can be forgotten and the blessed river appreciated.