Towering ominously above glacial lakes, the Red Cliffs are at once the most dramatic and scenic feature of the Thousand Lakes Wilderness. The Thousand Lakes is located in the southern reaches of the California Cascades. Centered on the Crater Peak Massif, the Thousand Lakes Wilderness is one of northern California’s most seldom-visited wilderness areas. In spite of this, the wilderness boasts several excellent lakes (even if there are quite a few less than 1,000 of them) high peaks with amazing views, numerous volcanic features and a volcanic crater that reaches the tree line.
The Red Cliffs highpoint
The Red Cliffs constitute the southern rim of the volcanic crater of the Crater Peak Massif. The entire volcanic cone is usually identified as Crater Peak, although Crater Peak itself is simply the volcanic rim’s highpoint. Three other peaks, Magee Peak, the Red Cliffs and Fredonyer Peak are also found along the rim. The entire mountain was once a few thousand feet higher, but prehistoric volcanic cataclysm removed the higher section of the cone. At some point following the eruption glaciers formed in the crater. As they flowed east, they breached rim and gouged out the Thousand Lakes Valley. Glacial moraines and lakes remain as silent testimony to the glaciers work.
As stated previously, the Red Cliffs form the southern portion of the Crater Peak rim. The name is derived from bands of red volcanic stone that line the cliffs. There are numerous prominent points among the Red Cliffs. The highpoint of the cliffs is found where the rim turns north, just before the glacial breach. In addition to the volcanic crater, two glacial cirques radiate from cliff highpoint. The more dramatic cirque is formed by the eastern rim wall and the unnamed peak referred to as the “Everett Tower”. The crater rim and the ridgeline connecting to Fredonyer Peak form the other cirque.
The most dramatic feature of the Red Cliffs is the “Everett Tower”, so-named because the best vantage to observe the tower is from the eastern shore of Everett Lake. Indeed, aside from the vistas of the surrounding region (which are nothing short of jaw-dropping) the scene observed from Everett Lake is the single most spectacular view in the entire Thousand Lakes Wilderness (except, perhaps, for those from the summit of Freaner Peak). Both the “Everett Tower” and the Red Cliffs high point make worthwhile climbs as a side trip while summiting either Magee or Crater Peaks.
Thousand Lakes Wilderness
The crater and the Thousand Lakes Wilderness
The Thousand Lakes Wilderness is classic Cascade geography. In many ways it resembles the Oregon Cascades more than the Cascade region in California. It contains numerous tree-ringed glacial lakes, cinder cones, lava flows, vast forests and high peaks that manage to just reach the tree line. All of this is contained in a small wilderness, only 16,335 acres. Nonetheless, the area is compact, which allows for numerous trails and loops.
The Crater Peak Massif is the primary feature of the wilderness. It occupies the western half of the area, while the eastern half contains the Thousand Lakes Valley, Freaner Peak, Eiler Butte and a host of other, smaller volcanic features. Glaciers on Crater Peak breached the crater rim and flowed eastward, gouging out the Thousand Lakes Valley in the process. When the glacier disappeared, it left the regions namesake lakes. Granted, there are noticeably fewer than 1,000. Indeed, there are far fewer than 100. In fact, it is generally agreed that there are only ten 10 lakes of consequence in the Thousand Lakes Wilderness. However, there are numerous small pools, giving the impression that there are a lot more lakes than actually present. The largest lake is Eiler Lake, which is located beneath Freaner Peak at the eastern edge of the path followed by the glacier. The two best lakes are Everett and Magee Lakes. These lakes are the highest, and closest to the dramatic cliffs of the crater rim.
Four trailheads provide access to the Thousand Lakes Wilderness. Cypress is located in the north and is the best starting place for trips headed toward Everett and Magee Lakes. Magee Trailhead leads steeply up to Magee Peak and the crater rim. Tamarack and Bunchgrass lead into the interior of the Thousand Lakes Valley.
The Red Cliffs from Everett Lake
Two routes lead to the top of the Red Cliffs. Both lead to a saddle on the crater rim. The most direct route is a steep climb from the Magee trailhead. It climbs 2,400 feet in 2.6 miles. The Forest Service no longer maintains this route.
The other route is longer but far more scenic. It begins on the north side of the Thousand Lakes Wilderness at the Cypress trailhead. This trail climbs 3,500 feet in six miles. Longer, with more elevation gain, the route has a much more reasonable grade. Moreover, this path travels through excellent old growth forests, passes nearby Eiler, Twin, Everett and Magee Lakes, and travels beneath the Red Cliffs and through the interior of the crater before climbing up to the junction on the rim saddle, where it meets the Magee trail. This route can be done as a day hike or as an overnighter.
From the junction on the saddle it is an easy cross-country hike to the highpoint of the Red Cliffs. The rim is just at the tree line, so there is little in the way of obstacles. From the highpoint, it is another relatively easy hike to the base of the “Everett Tower”. Once must scramble to the top from here.
The Crater Lake massif from the Chaos Crags
From Highway 89 at Hat Creek, head west on Forest Road 34N19. It is twelve miles on the dirt road to the Cypress trailhead. There are numerous junctions on the road, but each is well signed, so the route is clear. The road itself is in excellent condition and is easily passable for a 2WD vehicle.
Head west on Forest Road 16 off of Highway 89 at the Ashcamp Snowmobile Park. Continue northwest on Forest Road 16 (also marked as 34N17) for roughly 10 miles. Turn right on Forest Road 32N48. Arrive at the trailhead after 1.5 miles.
***The Magee trail is no longer maintained by the Forest Service. There are numerous downed trees on the trail and some at the trailhead. Although the road itself is still passable, this route continues to suffer. Conversations with the Forest Service revealed that recent grants may allow this area to be rehabilitated, but this is only a possibility.***
The Red Cliffs are located in the Thousand Lakes Wilderness. Normal wilderness rules and ethics apply.
Lassen National Forest
2550 Riverside Drive
Susanville, CA 96130
The Hat Creek Valley has several excellent Forest Service campgrounds. The Honn Campground is the nearest to Road 34N19. Once off the main highway, there is dispersed camping on National Forest land.
If backpacking, the best campsite is at the east end of Everett Lake. From here, the Red Cliffs form a spectacular backdrop to the lake. Magee Lake is also an excellent option although the view is not as good. It is possible to camp inside the crater and water may be available beneath the Red Cliffs, but this is a suspect source at best.
External LinksLassen National Forest