Mount Shasta Climbing Facts

California's Fifth Highest Mountain and Active Volcano

Woman hiker looking at Mt. Shasta
Laura Ciaponni/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Snow-topped Mount Shasta graces the southern end of the Cascade Range in northern California. You may not realize that it is considered an active volcano. Here are more facts about this youngest major volcano in the Cascade Range.

Height and Location of Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta is located just 50 miles south of the Oregon-California border and midway between the Nevada border and the Pacific Ocean. Its coordinates are 41°24′33.11″ N / 122°11′41.60″ W.

At 14,179 feet (4,322 meters) in elevation, it is the fifth highest mountain in California, and the second highest mountain in the Cascade Range (Mount Rainier is 249 feet higher), and the 46th highest mountain in the United States.

Mount Shasta is an ultra-prominence peak with 9,822 feet (2,994 meters) of prominence, making it the 96th most prominent mountain in the world and the 11th most prominent mountain in the United This huge mountain rises 11,500 feet (3,500 meters) above its base; has a base diameter larger than 17 miles; can be seen from 150 miles away on a clear day; and has a mass of 350 cubic kilometers, comparable in volume to other stratovolcanos like Mount Fuji and Cotopaxi.

Mount Shasta Geology and Volcanic Eruptions

Mount Shasta is a large stratovolcano with four overlapping volcanic cones. Besides its main summit, Shasta has a 12,330-foot (3,760 meters) satellite volcanic cone called Shastina. Shasta has erupted periodically over the last 600,000 years and is considered an active volcano.

A period of mountain building between 600,000 and 300,000 built Mount Shasta until the north side of the volcano collapsed. Over the last 20,000 years, volcanic episodes have continued to build the mountain with lava flows and dacite cones.

The Hotlum Cone has erupted several times in the last 8,000 years, including a large eruption over 220 years ago that was noted by La Perouse, a French explorer, who saw the eruption from the coast in 1786. Several hot sulfur springs near the summit indicate that the mountain is still active.

Mount Shasta has erupted at least once every 800 years during the last 10,000 years, with its last eruption occurring in the 1780s. These eruptions have formed lava domes and lava flows on the mountain’s slopes as well as massive mudflows, also called lahars, which extended over 25 miles from the mountain in valleys. Geologists warn that future eruptions could wipe out the communities located along Shasta’s base.

Shastina is an unranked, subsidiary lower summit of Mount Shasta. Its volcanic cone, reach 12,330 feet, on the northwest side of the mountain would be the third highest mountain in the Cascade Range if it was a ranked peak. A water-filled crater on the cone’s summit is Clarence King Lake.

Glaciers, Vegetation, and Lenticular Clouds

Mount Shasta has seven named glaciers—Whitney, Bolam, Hotlum, Wintun, Watkins, Konwakiton, and Mud Creek. Whitney Glacier is the longest, while Hotlum Glacier is the largest glacier in California.

Mount Shasta rises almost 7,000 feet above timberline, with areas of grassy tundra, large rocky scree fields, and glaciers covering most of this treeless region.

Mount Shasta is famous for the prominent lenticular clouds that form over its summit. The mountain’s sheer prominence, rising almost 10,000 feet above the surrounding land, helps form the lens-shaped clouds.

Climbing Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta is not a difficult mountain to climb, although severe weather conditions can occur year-round. The usual climbing season is from early May through October. Climbers should be prepared for extreme weather conditions, even in summer; carry a rope, crampons and ice axe; and be skilled in glacier travel, snow climbing, and know how to self-arrest after falling on a snow slope.

A wilderness permit and a summit permit are required to climb Shasta. Use the self-service registration box at the Bunny Flat Trailhead for day use; a daily fee is charged for each person climbing above 10,000 feet. Human waste bags are required for use on the mountain and are available for free at trailheads.

Mount Shasta is usually climbed via the seven-mile-long John Muir Route (14 miles round-trip), also called the Avalanche Gulch Route, and gains 7,362 feet of elevation. This popular but strenuous route, rated Class 3, offers great snow climbing in June and July.

The best time to climb is April through July when snow is on much of the upper route. If the snow is melted, expect lots of scree slogging. It’s usually climbed in two days. For a one-day ascent, plan on 12 to 16 hours to climb and descend.

The route, ascending the southwest flank of Shasta, begins at the Bunny Flat Trailhead at 6,900 feet and climbs 1.8 miles to Horse Camp and a large stone hut at 7,900 feet. A good trail ascends to Lake Helen at 10,400 feet, then climbs steep scree slopes to Thumb Rock at 12,923 feet. It finishes up more scree on Misery Hill to Shasta’s summit.

For more information, contact the Mount Shasta Ranger Station at (530) 926-4511 or Shasta-Trinity National Forest Headquarters, 3644 Avtech Parkway, Redding, CA 96002, (530) 226-2500.

Historical References

The origin of the name Shasta is unknown, although some think it derives from a Russian word meaning “white.” The local Karuk Indians called it Úytaahkoo, which translates to “White Mountain.

One of the earliest references to Mount Shasta was by Hudson Bay trader and trapper Peter Skene Ogden who led five trapping expeditions to northern California and Oregon between 1824 and 1829. On February 14, 1827, he wrote: “All the Indians persist in saying they know nothing of the sea. I have named this river Sastise River. There is a mountain equal in height to Mount Hood or Vancouver, I have named Mt. Sastise. I have given these names from the tribes of Indians."

First Ascent of Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta, then also called Shasta Butte, was first climbed on August 14, 1854, by an eight-man party led by Captain Elias D. Pierce, a Yreka local. He described their ascent of the upper slopes: “We were obliged in many places to climb from crag to crag as best we could. The least misstep or the detaching of the smallest piece of rock upon which we were obliged to cling for life, would have gently lowered the adventurer from three to five hundred feet perpendicularly upon the rocks below. Believe me when I say, that each one of the party, when scaling the dizzy heights, turned deathly pale, and I assure you that most of the pale faces were of long duration."

They reached the summit at 11:30 in the morning. The party erected an American flag on its summit, which was thought to be California’s highest peak. Pearce wrote that they lifted the flag precisely at 12 noon “amid the deafening cheers of the little multitude. Cheer after cheer following in quick succession, after the Flag of Liberty floated proudly upon the breeze until we were too hoarse to give utterance to our feelings."

During the descent, the group found “a cluster of boiling hot sulfur springs” below the summit and also made a rudimentary glissade down a snowfield. Captain Pearce wrote, “…we sat ourselves down on our unmentionables, feet foremost, to regulate our speed and our walking sticks for rudders…. Some unshipped their rudders before reaching the quarter, (there was no such thing as stopping,) some broached to and went stern foremost, making wry faces, while others, too eager to be the first down, got up too much steam, and went end over end; while others found themselves athwart ship, and making 160 revolutions per minute. In short, it was a spirited race…for in a thrice we found ourselves in a snug little pile at the foot of the snow, gasping for breath.”

Notable Ascents of Mount Shasta

The first ascent by women was by Harriette Eddy and Mary Campbell McCloud in 1856. Other notable early ascents were by John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War Major who also was first down the Colorado River and a founder of the Smithsonian Institution, in 1879 and by famed naturalist and climber John Muir who climbed it several times.

John Muir’s first ascent was a solo seven-day circumnavigation and ascent of Mount Shasta in 1874. Another ascent, with Jerome Fay, on April 30, 1877, almost ended in disaster. While descending, a harsh storm with high winds and snow moved in. The pair was forced to bivouac next to the sulfur hot springs below the summit to keep warm.

Muir later wrote in Harper’s Weekly: “I was in my shirt sleeves, and in less than half an hour was wet to the skin…we both trembled and shivered in a weak, nervous way, as much, I suppose, from exhaustion brought on by want of food and sleep as from sifting of the icy wind through our wet clothing…We lay flat on our backs, so as to present as little surface as possible to the wind…and I did not rise again to my feet for seventeen hours.”

During the night, the pair was afraid they might fall asleep and suffocate from poisonous vapors if the wind stopped. The next morning after sunrise, they started down in wind and cold. Their clothes froze solid, making travel difficult. After descending 3,000 feet they “felt the warm sun on our backs, and at once began to revive, and at 10 o'clock A.M. we reached camp and were safe.”

Shasta Legends and Lore

Mount Shasta, like so many awe-inspiring mountains, is the location of many legends, myths, and stories. The Native Americans, of course, revered the great white peak, and legend says, refused to climb it because of gods that lived on it and because it figures in their creation myth.

Some people believe that the interior of Mount Shasta is populated by survivors of Atlantis, who built the city of Telos within it. Others say that the people living within Shasta are actually the survivors of Lemuria, another lost continent which disappeared in the Pacific Ocean. A 1894 novel, "A Dweller on Two Planets" written by Frederick Spencer Oliver, tells the story of how Lemuria sank and how its inhabitants traveled to live in Mount Shasta. The Lemurians are a super-human race endowed with unique powers including the ability to change from the physical to the spiritual self.

Others believe that Mount Shasta is a sacred site and mystical power spot on the earth’s surface and a nexus of New Age energy. A Buddhist monastery was founded on Mount Shasta in 1971. It is also considered a UFO landing site; the aliens use the camouflage of the clouds to hide their ships…think of the significance of clouds in the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."