Links to related photo illustrations are at the end of each entry.
People around Mount Shasta exchange suggestions on hikes, like San Franciscans exchange restaurant reccomendations. Several aquaintances had suggested we try the Gray Butte trail out of Panther Meadow, raving about the beauty of the passage and the spectacular panoramic view from it's high point. On a beautiful fall day -- October 16 -- we decided to hike it and take Holly and Marcy with us.
You reach Panther Meadow via Everitt Memorial Highway -- the paved road that takes you up Mount Shasta to the abandoned ski bowl. There's a small parking area and a few camp sites just off the road. Passing through that last vestige of civilization you reach the meadow itself. A small stream meanders among the colorful meadow vegetation -- red paintbrush, heather, and monkey flowers. The summit of Mount Shasta rises to your left. Ahead and to the right is the massive Gray Butte after which the trail is named. A sign encourages the hiker to remain on the trail as the meadow vegetation is delicate and easily destroyed.
Like most meadows on the slopes of Mount Shasta, Panther Meadow is a charmer but quite small. We were across it and on the ascending part of the trail in a couple minutes. We were immediately aware that the trail felt different, but it took a while to identify the causes: The trees and boulders were huge; larger than anywhere else we'd been on the mountain. Also there were many fallen giants. It had the look of an untouched, old growth forest. Something else gave it an unusual look: On the steep slope to the left, the trunks of the conifers curved gracefully down-slope before beginning their straight reach for the sky. We assumed it had something to do with the deep snow at that altitude, but I was later to find a photo in a geology book that showed trees with the identical shape and explained that the curve was due to something called soil creep. Various soil disturbances such as freezing and thawing, rain, root growth and burrowing animals loosen the soil and cause it to slowly slide downhill. The surface moves faster and further than the deeper soil causing the tree's growing trunk to move down slope while the roots tend to drag behind. It's this difference combined with the tree's effort to grow straight up that generates the curve. At the time, however we weren't thinking about scientific explanations, we were simply enjoying the wild and unusual beauty.
The trail ascends gradually to a saddle between a ridge running down from Mount Shasta and the steep rise to the top of Gray Butte. When we reached this saddle we were rewarded with long views to the east and west, and a different perspective on Shasta's summit. The flat area of the saddle was only a few yards wide. Stunted and twisted pines and spruces clung to the rocky soil. By the time we reached this perch it was late afternoon and the narrow trail to the summit of Gray Butte seemed too long to negotiate in the remaining daylight. Besides it was not a trail for a couple of meadow-loving Shelties guided by a couple of retired flatlanders. We enjoyed the silent solitude and long views and then began our descent, vowing to come again and complete the hike.
By the time we reached Panther Meadow the low afternoon sun fired the brilliant oranges, reds and yellows of the vegetation; the stream babbled about the glistening rocks; Mount Shasta leaned against the blue sky; and Gray Butte loomed for another day. The drive back down past Bunny Flat; the vista point; Black Butte and through town, reminded us of all the friends and family who had shared this drive with us. It was a good thought for the day's end.
When you reach mid October at the foot of Mount Shasta the realization sinks in that you only have a few more weeks of snow-free weather and any hikes you've planned, better be taken soon. With this in mind, on October 23, we headed east on highway 89 to McCloud; south on Squaw Valley road and then back west a few miles to the Squaw Valley Creek trail head. One of Jennie's golfing pals, Eva Garrett, went with us. Numerous people had raved about the beauty of this trail, especially during the fall color season. We hoped it wasn't too late.
Squaw Valley Creek, a tributary of the McCloud river, plunges in a series of surging cascades and deep pools down a narrow, heavily wooded canyon. The trail parallels the creek; alternately near the water and high above it. In either case the sound of the white water is always with you. While the waterfalls, and wide pools of the creek are the main attraction; the vegetation and rock formations along its steep banks are what give the hike it's unique quality. The Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and insense cedar tower above the trail that in many spots must detour around the massive trunk of one of these giants. Beneath these big trees grow the dogwood, vine maple, willow, and alder that give the trail it's spectacular fall color. The dogwood are particularly attractive with their soft rose-orange foliage; but vivid yellows, bright oranges and rusty-reds also surprised the hiker at nearly every turn in the trail. At times as we walked, a gentle breeze would blow and leaves of all these colors would drift slowly down to the trail. You were inclined to stop in your tracks, pick one leaf and follow it's gently rocking path to the ground.
At many places the trail clings to the steep canyon slope against ancient-looking metamorphic rock outcrops that, I've not seen elsewhere in the Shasta area. Apparently the creek has cut down through these rock layers that underlie the more recent volcanic flows that make up most of the surface rock in the region.
Midway along the trail you reach a picturesque arched bridge that crosses high above Squaw Valley creek. It spans the creek as part of an east-west segment of the Pacific Crest Trail which for a short distance is superimposed on "our" trail. The views up and down Squaw Valley creek from the middle of the bridge are colorful and dramatic.
Eventually it became time to end the hike and start back, but before we did we scrambled down to the creek and sat on some water-sculpted boulders listening to the sound of the nearby cascade and enjoying the visual delight of the fall colors. If you want a delightful autumn experience, I don't think you can surpass a walk along the Squaw Valley Creek trail.