October 14, 2013 by Deborah W. Trotter
Looking for a hike in Lassen Park that I had never before taken (there are not many), I decided that the trail to Little Bear and Big Bear Lakes would give me a good amount of miles (7.2) toward my 60 miles in 2013 goal, as well as take me through territory in the Park new to me. It wasn’t until after we had chosen a weekend to go that I realized that part of that new territory is in the area burned by last summer’s devastating Reading Fire.
We started the trail to Big Bear Lake from the parking area in the Summit Lake North Campground.
Soon we headed into an open forest. At first the trail was smooth and the climb gentle, but it quickly became rocky and steeper. The trees were sparse enough that there were views of Mt. Lassen, not much shade, and green manzanita groundcover as far as we could see.
There was still no evidence of a fire even as we topped the ridge the trail was climbing about two miles from the trailhead and continued down the other side toward our destination.
The first signs that we were entering a fire zone were a few evergreens with dead, orange-colored needles. Soon it became obvious that we had passed beyond the outer edges of the burn area. I had been expecting to see mostly charred landscape, so I was surprised by the number of green and apparently healthy trees that we saw, some right next to blackened, but still standing specimens or even burned out stumps. Along the trail there were manzanita plants, parts of which were both burned dead and still growing. I don’t know much about fire behavior, but what we observed on this hike made clear that intense wildfires do not have the same impact on everything in their path. Our sense of destruction, however, was unwavering.
Little Bear Lake and Big Bear Lake were still lovely. You could almost pretend that they weren’t in the middle of a burn zone.From there the trail continued to Cluster Lakes and beyond, farther into the fire’s territory, but we decided we had gone far enough. Depressing is too strong a word for the effect that walking through this burned area had on us, but we were ready to leave it behind.
This hike is fairly strenuous since the starting elevation is 7,000 feet, and you hike up to the top of a high volcanic ridge and down the other side to the Lakes, which are slightly lower than 7,000 feet. Meaning, that you have to do exactly the same thing in reverse on the return hike to Summit Lake for a total elevation gain of well over 1,000 feet.
The second winter post-wildfire will be settling into the Park before long. By hiking season next summer, two springtimes will also have come and gone since the burn. If you are curious about the process of wilderness recovery after a forest fire, the trail to Big Bear and Little Bear Lakes will provide you with insight into that for years to come.