While our overnight backpacking trip up to Heart Lake in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest allowed us to experience stunning alpine terrain and awe-inspiring mountain vistas, it only required a short 3 mile round trip hike! It was short, sweet, and thoroughly epic.
We had visited Mt Shasta nearly a year ago, during the first couple of weeks of our new life on the road. Back then, we were traveling incredibly fast, staying only a night or two in an area before moving on to the next place. We had been told about Heart Lake by our very affable camp host (yeah, back then we didn’t know how to free camp, so we stayed in campgrounds a lot) but we didn’t have time to go check it out. So coming back to Mt. Shasta this time around allowed us a second chance, and we were determined to not let it pass us by. Many don’t know about Heart Lake because it’s overshadowed by the much larger and much more accessible Castle Lake. This large, clear water lake is a favorite summer hangout for paddle boarders, kayakers, and anyone else looking to cool off. But high up in the rocky cliffs behind it, you will find Heart Lake. Its water is not as clear, but due to its small size, it tends to warm up a lot faster than Castle Lake – which is great news for folks like us who feel compelled to jump in just about every body of water we come across.
Heart Lake also allows for some spectacular views of Mount Shasta. Because the lake is at elevation, you can gaze out across its waters see the massive snow-capped volcano looming in the background. If the conditions are right and you can find the right angle, you can even get a mirror reflection of Mt. Shasta in the surface of the water.
But the best thing Heart Lake has going for it is the short hiked required to get to it. Not only does this weed out some of the less dedicated individuals (who will not make it past Castle Lake), but it also allows you to experience some stunning alpine terrain with having to commit to a grueling multi-day hike out.
While many people visit Heart Lake as a day hike, we wanted to spend the evening up there so we could experience sunset and sunrise. So we packed up our overnight backpacking gear, parked the car down at the trailhead, and made our way up.
We passed through the wooded shores of Castle Lake, scrambled up exposed rocks, and passed through alpine meadows all over the course of a mile and a half hike. It was like experiencing a trail in a real life montage. Once we arrived at Heart Lake, we found a few suitable spots to pitch a tent, before finding the most epic campsite we’ve ever had to date. The site had been slightly built up with a rock circle around it, and looked out over the valley towards Mt. Shasta. Hands down the best view we’ve had all trip.
A note about pitching a tent in the backcountry: The ecosystem in these high alpine meadows and lake areas is incredible fragile. The vegetation up there takes a long time to grow and can be damaged very easily. We know the meadowy grass looks inviting, but it is extremely important you only pitch your tent on rock or dirt.
It was an extremely hot out, so we spent the day swimming and sun bathed on the rocks. While the bottom of the lake was covered in brown silt, on the surface, the water was clear and warm. It was a perfect place to practice our floating. Later in the day, as the sun started to set, we made dinner – a fried rice recipe that you can check out here. After dinner we had to hurry up and clean the dishes because the light show was already starting.
It can be a spectacular experience to see the sunset in the mountains. Nothing compares to seeing the shadows creep into the valleys, watching the light turn from yellow to orange to red to purple, and spotting the last ray of alpenglow slide off the top of the highest mountain and disappear into the night sky.
The next morning, we were treated to an equally spectacular sunrise. The first rays of the light came very early and warmed the sky on the eastern horizon. Neither one of us were overly eager to get out of our cozy sleeping bags. But thankfully, all we had to do to enjoy the morning was zip up the side of our tent. From the comfort of our beds, we could gaze out toward Mt. Shasta and greet the dawn of a new day.
Once the sun was fully up, we crawled outside our tent to make breakfast. We prepared a spinach and pepper scramble while lazily sipping our coffee and gazing out towards the mountains. The temperature was beautiful that morning, but we could tell it would soon become uncomfortably hot. So after we cleaned up, we broke down camp and began our descent down to the trailhead. It was a short trip, but the sights we got to experience made it feel like we had been out all week.
We are so happy we were able to come back to Mt. Shasta and experience this hidden gem. While travelling across the country the temptation is always there to just keep pressing forwards. But our hike up the Heart Lake was a perfect way to to slow down the tempo and appreciate the moment. If you’re interested in hiking to Heart Lake yourself, there is some trail information about it here.
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