At A Glance
A short, easy, and seldom used trail to some of the most attractive lakes in the Mount Shasta area, complimented by high, craggy cliffs and beautiful meadows.
Total Length: 4.5 miles
Elevation Gain: 670 feet
Season: Summer, Fall
Tremendous Tamarack and Terrific Twins
It is a surprising irony that the southern third of the Trinity Divide’s high country has some of the entire range’s most dazzling scenery and yet sees dramatically less visitation than the upper two-thirds. The reasons for this are clear: checkerboard land ownership, an extreme paucity of developed recreation infrastructure (particularly trails) and the general obscurity of the fantastic sights that await hikers in this region. While these challenges hold most back from exploring the area, those who do venture into the southern Divide are treated to some of the most breathtaking scenery in all Northern California. The mighty Grey Rocks, one of the least known yet most rugged mountain strongholds in the North State, crown the southern Divide but are complemented by numerous lakes and meadows. The best and easiest way to sample the exceptional landscape of the southern Trinity Divide is to hike the Tamarack Lake Trail. This incredibly underused trail visits not just the eponymous lake but also the Twin Lakes, the upper of which is a first rate alpine lake in its own right and would be worth a long hike on its merits alone. However, as excellent as Upper Twin Lake is, it is Tamarack Lake that is the unrivaled monarch of the all the lakes in this region. A large, deep lake ringed with lush meadow and backed by a massive bank of enormous cliffs, Tamarack Lake is one of the prettiest lakes in the Klamath Mountains and is one of the top tier lakes in the greater Mount Shasta area. In addition to the marvelous lakes, the Tamarack Lake Trail also offers excellent views of the nearby Grey Rocks and passes exquisite meadows.
For all of the great attributes offered by the Tamarack Lake Trail, it is a remarkably easy trail. The trail itself is fairly short and with only a little more than 100 feet of elevation gain. Of course, these statistics are a bit deceptive because the trailhead is not easily accessed and it is likely that hikers will need to tack on about 1 mile of rough road and 450 feet of elevation gain to the beginning and end of the hike. Considering how short and easy the trail is, this only increases the difficulty marginally and the Tamarack Lake Trail remains one of the prettiest hikes in the Mount Shasta area. Two notes of caution are in order however. First, some of the Tamarack Lake Trail is on privately owned land, particularly the area around Upper Twin Lake and the low divide that separates that body of water from Tamarack Lake. There is an established trail here and the owner (a logging company) allows passage, so hiking the trail is not trespassing. Just be respectful of the area so that access is not prohibited in the future. The second issue is the overgrowth on the trail as it climbs the aforementioned divide between the two lakes. The trail is easily discerned as one begins the climb from either the Twin Lake or Tamarack Lake sides but at the top of the divide the route is obscured and careful route-finding is necessary to maintain course. These caveats having been noted, the Tamarack Lake Trail is one of the prettiest in the entire Mount Shasta area.
Though the Tamarack Lake Trail technically begins at Tamarack Meadow just south of Lower Twin Lake, most hikers will want to park on the side of Road 38N17, next to where Twin Lakes Creek passes under the road. There is a small pullout on the road, on the opposite side of the crossing. The road connecting to the Tamarack Lake trail initially parallels the creek, though the water is out of sight, below the trail in a gully and obscured by trees. After a short, steep dog leg to the west the road sets its course to the south and makes a long gradual climb along a series of small meadows, which spread out on the east side of the road. Many sections of the road are in good shape and passable by low clearance vehicles. However, there are just enough rough spots that driving a regular car up this road is completely unrealistic. After nearly a mile, the road makes another steep dog-leg to the west. Once surmounted, hikers are deposited on the edge of a large and beautiful meadow. To the south, the tall cliffs that mark the lakes’ backdrop loom beyond the dense forest of lodgepole pines that ring the meadow. To the northeast, the dark towers of the Grey Rocks have an ominous, if beautiful, presence.
Once at the meadow, which is sometimes referred to as Tamarack Meadow, the road comes to a theoretical end and the Tamarack Trail actually begins. However, it is hard to distinguish the two because the trail is nearly as wide as the road as it skirts the western edge of the large grassy clearing. The wide path proceeds to the south a short distance and then makes a short, steep climb. If anyone had any thoughts this was still a road, the rocky climb should lay this assumption to rest. It would take a very stout jeep to make it up this section of the trail. Having made the short climb, the trail arrives the edge of Lower Twin Lake. Though fairly shallow, the lake is large and clear. To the west rises a wooded ridge and the cliffs seen from the meadow continue to populate the southern horizon. In most places this lake would be a first rate destination but do not tarry too long here. Better sights await only a stone’s throw away.
Back on the trail, the route turns toward the east, away from Lower Twin Lake. The topo maps indicate a trail branching off at this point that climb up the west side of the cliffs. It probably did at one time but there is no indication of a trail at this time. As the actual trail proceeds from Lower Twin Lake, it begins to narrow a bit, looking less like a road. In short order it arrives at the north end of Upper Twin Lake, near the lake’s outlet. As stated previously, this lake is a top tier lake on its own merits. Roughly the same size as its lower twin, it is much deeper and has fewer trees choking its shores and more rocks populating the area. Most importantly, bright white cliffs soar nearly 1,000 feet above the water. It is a dramatic sight that is worth the effort of the hike even if one were to progress no further. For hikers with little time or small children, this could be a satisfying end to the hike. Still, it would be a shame not to continue just a little further to magnificent Tamarack Lake.
From the outlet of the Upper Twin Lake the trail finally narrows down to single track. It crosses the outlet and begins to loop around to the south, on the east side of the lake. After following the shore for a little while, the trail arrives at a junction. Stay to the left, which begins to climb away from the lake. The path to the right continues along the shore of Upper Twin Lake. As the trail climbs, it leaves the trees behind and enters a large brushfield. The path winds over the low divide over that separates Upper Twin Lake from Tamarack Lake. Though some sections tend to be a bit overgrown, cairns help to navigate. Unfortunately, near the top of the divide the trail may appear to disappear altogether. If one begins to follow a route to the north, backtrack until able to find a path that continues to the east, toward Tamarack Lake. This is the most frustrating part of the trail and may cause some to get lost. If continuing too far to the north, it is possible to pick a way through the brush, maintaining an easterly direction and then intersect the trail. However one proceeds, the views of the Grey Rocks are excellent!
Once off of the ridge, the trail continues to the south, moving gradually closer to Tamarack Lake. About 0.15 miles past the point where the path levels off from its descent down the far side of the divide it arrives at another junction. Here the trail is obvious and is even marked by two signs mounted to trees indicating the directions the trail travels. The signs must have been placed long ago because, though the trail remains easily passable, it is obvious that maintenance has not been performed on it for quite some time. At the junction a short trail splits off to the left and travels about 100 yards to the shore of a small, shallow and unnamed lake. Despite not being nearly as large as any of the other lakes in the area, it is still quite attractive and worth a visit. Particularly appealing is the sense of elevation one gets when looking north across the lake and seeing nothing but sky beyond the few trees that line the far shore.
Returning to the main trail, the route now stays very close to the north shore of Tamarack Lake. The views far to the south across the lake are superb. The tall cliffs, looming 800 feet overhead are as impressive as they are sheer. The trail soon arrives at the meadow fringed outlet of Tamarack Lake. It is a stupendously beautiful spot. One thing to be aware of at the outlet is the presence of a rough road coming down to the lake. This road is sometimes used by extremely motivated 4×4 enthusiasts who make the journey to the lake to camp at the few campsites with large stone fire pits found here. A few other great sites are found a few hundred yards south, right on the shore. The sites are well shaded in trees but have open grassy areas and great views of the lake. For most hikers, this is the best place to turn around after having taken in the view and had some lunch.
For those looking for a bit more adventure, there are a few options at hand. First is the road the climbs above the lake onto a low ridge and continues to the south. There are great views of Tamarack Lake and the Grey Rocks to be had on the ridge. The road eventually peters out in a small meadow above the lake. From here one can bushwhack to the west to a small tarn near Tamarack Lake. Another option is to continue south from the meadow and ascend the cliffs over the lake, following a band of trees up to the summit and magnificent views. Yet another small meadow and lake are found along this route, tucks into a small fold in the cliffs. A third option is to return north on the road to an obvious junction. Follow the road to the east up a ridge and then down the far side. Eventually this road will pass a large and luxuriant meadow below some red cliffs, a spot few eyes have seen.
To complete the Tamarack Lake Trail, the easiest and prettiest option is to simply return the way one came. Thankfully the trail over the ridge is more obvious coming from this direction but it is still possible to get lost amidst the brush so stay aware and mark surroundings. There are two other options for returning to the trailhead. One is to follow the road the heads north from Tamarack Lake. After staying left at three different junctions along this road it will eventually arrive at the small pullout at the trailhead, next to Twin Lakes Creek. Unfortunately, this route has little in the way of views to recommend it and it is much, much more scenic to simply return via the trail. The other option, for those looking for some hard work, is to descend the creek the flows out of Tamarack Lake. The rocky gully drops steeply through the forest and eventually deposits one at the edge of a large meadow, near the trailhead. While this route is interesting, backtracking along the trail is still more scenic and much, much easier and faster.
From Mount Shasta, travel south on Interstate 5 and take the Castella exit. Turn right onto Castle Creek Road. After climbing 3,500 feet in 11.5 miles, you will reach at Whalan Summit. Pass the road on the right leading to the Pine-gri-la resort. Continue another mile, then turn left on Forest 38N17. Follow the road for about 3 miles, crossing Twin Lakes Creek once and stopping at the second crossing. Park on the far side of the creek and walk back to the rough road climbing steeply uphill, which is the beginning of the hike.