Gray Rock Lake (Castle Crags Wilderness) 30-Jun-2016

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California

In search of the highpoints in seven of Northern California’s wilderness areas, we went for a short hike and scramble in the small (10,609 acre) Castle Crags Wilderness, located just west of the town of Mount Shasta, California (details).  The area is probably best known for the Castle Crags, a dramatic formation of towering granite spires – ranging in height from 2,000 feet at their base along the Sacramento River to over 7,200 feet at the summit of the tallest crag. The largest are clearly visible from Interstate 5 just south of Mount Shasta. In 2011, we climbed well-known Castle Dome (4,966 feet) from Castle Crags State Park on the south side of the wilderness (post).

But the Dome, while a really fun Class 4 climb, is not the highest point in this wilderness. That honor belongs to Point 7200, located just south of Upper Gray Rock Lake in the northern part of the wilderness. According to information on SummitPost (here), the peak was unofficially named “Harry Watkins” in the 1950s by local Boy Scouts – for the same Harry Watkins who gave his name to Watkins Glacier on Mount Shasta. The name eventually fell into disuse and no “official” name for the peak was ever established.  Just knowing that Point 7200 is the highest summit in the wilderness, one of the highest summits in the Trinity Divide, and one with supposedly excellent views from its crown, was enough to get us heading toward it.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California

From the town of Mount Shasta, we went west on W. Lake Road, crossed over I-5 and, at the stop sign, turned left onto Old Stage Road. After 0.25 miles, we veered right onto WA Barr Road (which becomes Forest Road 26) and followed that for 9 miles past the dam that impounds the Sacramento River and forms Lake Siskiyou. After 9 miles, we turned left across a Forest Service bridge over the Sacramento River (this will be the first bridge you come to). We veered left after the bridge, then made a sharp right hand turn onto Forest Road 39N45 (no sign but hard to miss). After 1.25 bumpy, lumpy gravel miles, we turned left on to Forest Road 39N41. Again, no sign but wear on the road made our choice obvious. More bumpy road for another mile until we came to a sharp uphill turn to the left and a dramatic decline in the road’s fortunes. With our 4×4 truck, we could have bulled our way the additional 0.25 miles to the Gray Rock Lakes trailhead.  But it seemed easier to just park here and walk.  A carefully driven 2WD sedan should have no problem making it this far (and one was waiting for us when we got there!).

From the trailhead, the trail to the Gray Rock Lakes does a slow climbing traverse above the valley that drains Timber Lake.  It was early in the morning, but we were already on our way to another hot day – even here at 6,000 feet.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Starting out on the Gray Rock Lakes trail

In less than a mile, we reached Gray Rock Lake, placid and reflective in the still of the morning. We were braced for attack by mosquitos but thanks to swarms of dragonflies instead, there were no biting bloodsuckers available to torment us.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Gray Rock Lake
Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Point 6936 looms over Gray Rock Lake

The trail is robust up to Gray Rock but gets a little sketchier as it climbs through low growing, but dense, manzanita on its way to Upper Gray Rock Lake.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Gray Rock Lake from the trail to Upper Gray Rock Lake

Upper Gray Rock sits in a cirque hemmed in by Point 6936 to the north and “Harry Watkins” (Point 7200) to the south; the summit of “Harry Watkins” is along the ridge to the left.  The obvious trail fades away here at some campsites on the northwest side of the lake.  After that it was cross-country up toward the low point on ridge just left of the big snow patch.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Upper Gray Rock Lake

By paying attention, we were able to largely avoid the brush as we made a climbing traverse around the northwest side of the lake, up through the trees, and out onto the boulder and scree fields just below the summit ridge. Getting up the scree was the nastiest part of this climb but we now had increasing views of Mount Shasta and Upper Gray Rock Lake to distract us from the slogging and sliding.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
The scree field just below the summit ridge

We had been warned that we would likely have to contend with a lot of brush as we worked our way up the ridge from the saddle – always problematic given our preference for hiking in shorts.  Bad brush did not, however, prove to be the case.  Yes, there was a LOT of brush on the top and southwest side of the ridge BUT there was very little on the northwest side or in the forest patches along the ridge.  There were also several brush-free boulder fields to climb on.  So, by staying left and aiming for forest or boulder fields, we had a near brush-free path to the summit.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
A skin-friendly, brush-free boulder field

There was, of course, a small “false” summit,

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Passing the false summit

but shortly thereafter we reached the real summit and started scouting the view.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
On the summit of “Harry Watkins”

As promised, we had views in every direction: Mount Shasta immediately to the east,

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Mount Shasta

the Trinity Alps to the west,

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Snow on the Trinity Alps

the Castle Crags themselves almost in the foreground to the south,

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Castle Crags

and, visible through the heat haze only because of a lingering snow field, Mount McLoughlin to the north.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Mount McLoughlin (M) was a white dot on the far northern horizon

Even Lassen Peak was dimly visible on the southern horizon through the heat haze.  We soaked in the view, downed a small snack (and a lot of water), and headed down the way we’d come up.  Again, the too slippery, but mercifully short, scree slope was the worst part of the descent.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Descending off the ridge on screeeeeee…

The trail between Gray Rock and Upper Gray Rock has some sketchy spots; a situation only worsened by the confused braiding of various use trails made by others searching for “the” trail. This was our biggest encounter with brush on the whole hike – more so than the cross-country parts!   Shorts – despite the increasing heat – were not welcome attire at this juncture.

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Beating the brush back to Gray Rock Lake

An even shorter hike (4.8 miles round trip, 1,600 feet of elevation gain) than yesterday but a real good one given the inviting lakes and the big views from the summit!

Castle Crags Wilderness Northern California
Our track up “Harry Watkins”

Temperatures were toasty – even at 6,000 feet – by the time we made it back to the truck, so an air conditioned lunch in Mount Shasta was a welcome relief before we hit the road for home.


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