• Activities:

    Camping, Fishing, Photography, Swimming, Backpacking, Hiking

  • Skill Level:


  • Season:

    Summer, Autumn

  • Trail Type:


  • RT Distance:

    12.5 Miles

  • Elevation Gain:

    2000 Feet


This is a strenuous 12.5 mile loop hike, mostly in sand, but worth it for the feeling of remoteness, wildlife, and fantastic geologic formations.

Start from the Butte Lake trailhead, off Highway 44 at the north end of Lassen Volcanic National Park. From the parking lot walk past the little boat launch and the trailhead is obvious in front of you.  Be mentally prepared to be walking in loose sand for most of this trip (and bring ankle or knee braces if you have a weak joint). You'll walk along the edge of the intimidating black "fantastic lava beds" on your left for a large part of the day. The first 2 miles to the Cinder Cone has moderate traffic, and for good reason. It is a truly spectacular feature that appears suddenly in front of you, with a very loose sand/scree winding path circling up its side. It's a painful 800 ft climb, especially with a pack, but worth it for the expansive views from the top and the rare peak at the inside of a volcano. You can easily bypass the Cinder Cone by taking an obvious right at the fork, or even drop your packs there before the climb and return for them. Once you're at the top of the cone, don't miss trail down the south side - it's next to the only tree offering shade at the summit. Descend in awe of the Painted Dunes in front of you. (Note this loop could be done in reverse, saving the strenuous Cinder Cone for the end of the trip. I felt like the trail was slightly shorter but steeper on the back side). 

Take two consecutive left turns through the painted dunes to keep walking along the edge of the lava bed through open sand and mixed forest until 2 miles later arriving at the shores of Snag Lake. This is a perfect spot for lunch, a quick dip, and maybe spotting a bald eagle. If you have a permit you can camp anywhere along the lake (although always at least 200 ft away from the water). I think the best spots are on the peninsula about a mile down the southwest side. 

Continue following the lakeshore through some burned areas and into a healthy forest to another junction and turn left to start north again. You're walking around the majority of the lake, and it will quickly appear again on your left side. Camping is also good on the eastern shore although there are less obvious sites. You can see the Cinder Cone in the distance. Be aware of plentiful wildlife (I was charged multiple times by a territorial buck in the night). 

In the afternoon (or the next day), continue north along the eastern edge of Snag Lake and into lush forest for about 4 miles. Eventually you'll come to Butte Lake and walk along its eastern shore for 2 miles with fantastic views of the lava flow and the cinder cone. At the northern edge of the Lake you can continue along the creek for a more gentle climb, or take the immediate steep trail up to the left for more views of the gorgeous turquoise water with the black lava beyond. Eventually you come back to  the trailhead parking lot with restrooms and water. 

Pack List

  • Overnight permit (if camping)
  • Lots of water
  • Sun protection (sunscreen, hat)
  • Good shoes
  • Ankle support (if necessary)
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Nicole Mason

Traveler, Outdoorswoman, Nature Addict, Nomad...

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