The view of Mount Shasta at sunset from the summit of Gray Butte is an unforgettable vista. The mountain, in all of its hulking glory spreads out beyond the butte, filling up all but the fringes of what one is able to take in. Gray Butte itself is a fine peak, rising like the prow of an old dreadnaught from the dark forests that surround it. Indeed, as one drives up Everitt Memorial Highway, the only paved road to climb high up on Mount Shasta, the butte is the first indication of the rocky magnificence that awaits those who venture onto the mountain. Some might think that to reach the summit of Gray Butte and attain the mighty vista that it offers, a long and demanding hike awaits. The opposite is in fact the case. The trail to the summit of Gray Butte is the shortest, simplest trail on Mount Shasta. Though short, it is not without its charm and its scenery. The trail begins in Panther Meadow and has a gorgeous view of Mount Shasta, after which it passes through old growth red fir forest. Nearer the summit the trail passes through one of the finest hemlock forests in northern California as well as great views of mysterious Red Butte to the east. The view from the summit is an astounding spectacle, offering one of the finest views of Mount Shasta, the Trinity Divide and the distant Trinity Alps. The shortness of the trail actually works in its favor, as it is easy to catch the sunset on Mount Shasta and then race down to Panther Meadow before it is totally dark. If one is in need of a quick trip with great views, it is tough to beat the Gray Butte Trail.
Though this is the more commonly used route to get to the meadows, it is a bit more confusing than the Old Ski Bowl route. The trail begins at the Panther Meadow campground, about a mile before the road ends at the Old Ski Bowl. After passing through the campground, the route cuts across Panther Meadow. Upon entering the meadow, there is a signed trail that splits off to the north, heading toward the upper section of Panther Meadows. This trail, along with some cross-country hiking or road hiking can combine the Panther Meadow route with the Old Ski Bowl route to form a very attractive loop. Continuing across the meadow, there are great views of Mount Shasta and a couple of small stream crossing before the trail plunges into a forest of Shasta Red Fir. After 0.65 miles, the gradually climbing trail reaches a wooded saddle. Here the trail splits, with the route to the summit of Gray Butte heading off to the south. The Squaw Meadow Trail continues to the northeast.
Once having left the junction with the Squaw/South Gate Trail, the Gray Butte Trail passes a little further through a thinner forest of red fir. The thinned trees means views are better, most notably the ridge climbing steeply up to the summit of Gray Butte. It is possible to ascend this ridge, staying mostly on the eastern side. As the trail moves beyond the ridge, rounding onto the east side of Gray Butte, the trees change from red fir to hemlock. This is one of the most fantastic hemlock groves in northern California. The trees along this stretch of trail are particularly large. Around 0.35 miles from the trail junction, the path enters a large clearing in the hemlock. The clearing is in fact a large talus slope falling away to the east. The views open up and provide an outstanding opportunity to observe Red Butte and much of the off trail route that circumnavigates that peak. After a short duration in the clearing, the trail once again enters the woods and finally reaches a sharp right hand turn as the trail passes onto the south side of Gray Butte, 0.5 miles from the trailhead.
Once on the south side of the butte, the long, switchbacking road that climbs to the communication facility on Gray Butte’s southern end becomes visible. The final leg of the road is only 40 or 50 feet below the trail and the two parallel each other for a few hundred yards. Eventually the hemlock forest begins to thing and a few faint use trails branch off to the right. These are only shortcuts cutting up to a higher section of the Gray Butte Trail. Stay on the main path a short distance more to another sharp turn, this time to the north. Here the forest really thins out and the hemlock becomes quite stunted. The trail narrows a bit but is never faint. It climbs moderately with ever improving views of Mount Shasta as one ascends to the summit of Gray Butte. Finally, the trail ends at the peaks highest point, which is known as Artist’s Point. Here the final, grand view of Mount Shasta opens up and one can survey the monumental mountain and much of northern California.