Backpacking Heart Lake

Backpacking Heart Lake

We looked down on Castle Lake, abundant with swimmers and canoers and fisherpeople, with the backdrop of Mt. Shasta, the northern California lowlands, and far beyond that in the distance, peaks of southern Oregon. The views make the hike worth it. The views and swimming the cold water after hiking up with your over sized backpack on your back and a shirt soaked with sweat. 

Heart Lake is a small alpine lake located near the community of Mt. Shasta. Castle Lake is it’s more popular cousin, located near the parking area and easy to get to. Castle Lake is sizable, one of the deepest mountain lakes in northern California, and popular among swimmers, canoe and kayakers, fisherpeople, or anyone wanting an escape from the summer heat. If you recall, it’s also where I camped roughly a summer ago when we sang Disney songs with our neighbors, swam in the lake under the stars, and I started to fall for the woman who is now my girlfriend.

This summer, a week of intense heat (literal heat warnings for our area) drove us to escape, and so over the weekend, Kiva (girlfriend, adventure buddy, jeep-owner, lover of dogs, wearer of converse, roommate, part-time mechanic for my car, thriller writer, photographer, former barista, etc.) and I headed up to Heart Lake. It would be my first time seeing this lake, but she had been before so she would be our guide. We decided to bring our backpacking backpacks, as a kind of test run to see which of our equipment still worked and which didn’t. We loaded the CRV with our backpacks, snacks, and also decided to bring our newly bought crash pad and rock climbing shoes. I have a book of outdoor climbs, and behind the bathroom at Castle Lake there is a large boulder that is evidently a location to climb (more on this later).

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From my Instagram story

The parking area was quite full, as many people had the same idea to beat the heat as us. We probably looked out of place, donning large backpacks and bulky shoes, while others just had on swimshorts or carried fishing poles. Indeed, the hike to Heart Lake, I later learned, was even shorter than we thought. It could have been easily done in a day, but we wanted to spend more time up there.

Before setting off, we did cool off a little in the water. I soaked my shirt and bandana, Kiva dunked her hat in, and then we set off. The hike climbs in elevation, and begins by circling the eastern edge of Castle Lake. We could see small patches of snow, despite the fact that it had been so hot recently. We stopped every so often in the shade to get water and catch our breath, and had passed a few small hiking groups. Finally, when I was about to stop at the ridge approaching, Kiva told me to keep going to see what lay on the other side. Once we had reached the ridge, we looked down onto a small mountain valley with Heart Lake nestled within it.


We followed the path past a few small groups, some had tents set up in all the nicest spots, and before we treated ourselves to swimming, we wanted to set up camp. After passing the lake, and then two smaller ponds formed by snowmelt, we came to a kind of bowl shaped opening. It was cut off from Heart Lake by a small hill, and was semi-private. The bottom of the bowl was a kind of marshland, with shallow water flooding the grassy area. However, a little higher up there was a small steppe that was level. We decided to set up the tent here, and made our own fire ring and gathered firewood before the sun went down.

Home for the night

We decided to reward ourselves by taking a dip. There were a few scattered groups around Heart Lake, some just suntanning, some sitting in a meadow talking, one small group who seemed to want to swim, but were deterred by the cold temperature of the water. Indeed, it was quite cold. We found a small suitable shore area, stripped down to undergarments, and slowly waded in. Slowly, the water got to our waists and we decided to take the leap. I dove in, and the cold water gave us the familiar rush of jumping in a cold lake: the rush of being alive in the truest way. Heart Lake isn’t a particularly large lake, and was pretty shallow. Across the lake was a large exposed boulder, so we swam across and climbed up. We perched here, letting the sun’s rays slowly dry us as we lounged and relaxed. The water was cold, but in a rejuvenating way. It was nice to know that whereas Castle Lake bustled below us, we were one of maybe three groups to swim in this lake all day. We swam back to the shore, and did a small hike to a viewpoint behind Heart Lake. It is only from this angle that the lake actually looks like it is in the shape of a heart, but if it wasn’t named that I’m not sure if I would have seen it. (Much like I applaud the creativity of those who named/described the constellations. They are much more creative than I, but to be fair they didn’t have Netflix to occupy their time)

We also found that near where we had set up our tent, there were great rocks that looked out over Castle Lake. We could also see Mt. Shasta, Black Butte, and far north, Pilot Rock in southern Oregon. We could make out the small shapes of kayaks and canoes down on Castle Lake, and strained our eyes, but could make out the faint silver blur that was our parked car (this was later confirmed when I pulled out my zoom lens on my camera).


As the shadows on the lake grew longer, we went back to camp and began cooking. We had brought dehydrated meals that just needed boiling water, so we used our little campstove to heat up water while we got the fire going. Because of the marshy area, and the snowmelt, a lot of of the wood we got was slightly damp. Still, we got it going, and once it started it was a magnificent and warm campfire. We had the perfect amount of different sized pieces, and allowed the larger pieces to slowly burn while all the small kindling was quickly consumed by the flames. Dinner was good, filling and tasty, and we couldn’t finish the two packets we had. By then, the sun had all but disappeared, and the first few stars were starting to poke out of the grey sky.


We stayed up long enough to see the sky filled with stars, and all of our wood consumed. We watched as our fire turned to nothing but reddish embers, and we drew nearer, and then the embers turned to coals. Although the day was hot, the night was cool enough to warrant us wearing sweatshirts, which we considered not bringing. One piece of equipment we opted out of was sleeping pads. We had cleared as many rocks as possible beforehand, but it seemed there were still a few that jutted into our backs, so we had to sleep at just the right angle to avoid it.

I remember having odd dreams, and waking up every so often when I had no doubt rolled onto one of the protrusions. At one point, I remember seeing Kiva sitting up, looking out the tent window. She had heard a noise that sounded like an animal going through our food bag, which we thought we packed up tight. Or potentially a human, and our wallets were in our backpacks so we wanted to be sure we weren’t being silently mugged. We couldn’t see anything, and in the end decided it was probably a squirrel or something like that. After that, I didn’t sleep well. A little later, our tent was bathed in an eerie, blue glow. We looked at each other, and wondered if there were some pre-dawn hikers with bright headlamps or something of the sort. But the world was entirely silent. I sat up to peek outside, and realized that it was simply the first light of the new day. For some reason, the color of our tent just made it seem an off, unnatural color when it was the most natural light possible.

I really couldn’t sleep then, and realized I might as well enjoy the sunrise. I crawled out of the tent, and could feel the warmth of the sun already.  I wore shorts and my t-shirt from the day before (I didn’t realize how bad it smelled until then) and grabbed a sweatshirt and went to the overlook. I was not disappointed.

Sunrise in our little Eden

I only saw two other hikers, and the sound of their voices surprised and I wondered if Kiva had awoken. I think they were a little surprised to see me, too. The views, though, were absolutely spectacular.

I found a suitable rock on which to sprawl out, and feel the cool of the night give way to the heat of the day. Castle Lake looked empty of people, in stark contrast with the layer of humans using it the previous day. Instead, it looked like a kind of hidden paradise, the elusive Fountain of Youth that many seek but few find. Across the sky, thin clouds floated lazily, and Castle Lake reflected their soft colors across its peaceful shores.

I tried not to wake Kiva, although a part of me wondered if she should see the sunrise. To be honest, I knew that sleeping in the tent was far from peaceful, so I opted to let her sleep as much as she could. Once it neared 8 am, and the bugs started to wake up, I decided to make another fire. This one would not be for heat though, more the idea that it ties together a campsite and keeps the bugs away. Once she awoke, we tried another freeze-dried breakfast: oatmeal with blueberries. It was from a company that specialized in backpack food, so apparently when you added cold water it made milk as well. It was good, but damn it was sugary. The milk/water instantly turned blue, and it reminded me of the sugary cereals that warp the color of your milk that you’re drawn to as a child and avoid as an adult. We also tried a pour over instant coffee (I think the brand is Kavu?) The idea is that you place it above your cup, anchored to the rim, and pour hot water over it and it filters it through the ground coffee into your mug. It was good and hot, but what we learned was that it is hard to pour accurately from a pot of hot water, and that it was strong so we could have watered it down a little and still be found.


We took down our camp, and got dressed. It was warm, but we wore thin clothes knowing that the as we descended in elevation and hiked, it would warm up. We thought we had woken up at a reasonable hour, but it appeared that all the spots where campers resided were now vacant. We were the last campers to pack up and head out. On the way out, we stopped to take photos and cool off one last time. As we just crested the hill leading out of the little valley, we ran into someone who was a family friend of Kiva’s. We were just starting our descent, as she was just finishing her ascent.

The hike down was inescapably easy. It only took us around 40 minutes, we knew exactly where to go, and it was still early enough that we avoided the majority of the heat.

At the base, we decided to try our rock climbing skills. Behind the  bathroom in the parking lot, there is a huge boulder that my guidebook called “Bathroom Boulder.” Accurate description. We pulled out the crash pad, swapped out shoes, and attempted some of the routes.


What we found was that I am terrible when it comes to actual-rock rock climbing.  I feel like the photo makes it look like I am doing something epic, but in fact the only routes I was able to climb were the easiest. My finger muscles aren’t quite where I want them to be yet, but it was eye opening. Climbing in indoor climbing gyms is quite fun, but it is not the same ballgame as outdoor climbing. Sharper rocks, risk of the rocks breaking off in your hand, and weather to deal with. Sweat covered, and pride moderately intact, we called it a day.

The trip had been short and sweet. An escape from the work week, into the mountains and under the stars was all we needed to recharge. Watching the sun’s rays slowly illuminate the world is a sight I do not often get to gaze on. I hope these are the metrics in which I can measure my life at the end: Have I seen enough sunsets and sunrises to appreciate the passing of time and the wonderful pastels? How many times did I jump in a mountain lake, undeterred by the cold? How many times had I foregone the comforts of home just to gaze with my own eyes at the beauty of nature? How many times had I stayed out to see the stars and shooting stars?

Heart Lake is a small, secluded piece of Heaven. Although it doesn’t exactly look like a heart to me, I could see how it could steal yours away.

Until next time, never stop adventuring.



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