Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta is a 4,321.8m high mountain that is situated at the southern tip of the Cascade Range in the Siskiyou County of the US State of California. It is also considered as the most voluminous stratovolcano that forms a part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc in the western portion of the North American continent and has a volume of 350 cubic kilometers. Besides being the state’s fifth highest mountain, Mount Shasta is also the Cascade Range’s second-highest peak and the fourth highest volcano in North America. Being a popular tourist destination, Mount Shasta attracts more than 26,000 visitors every year. There are also numerous myths and legends associated with the mountain, including the stories of Native Americans who lived in the area.

Geography

Mount Shasta volcano at sunset, California
A view of Mount Shasta volcano during sunset in California. 

Mount Shasta is situated about 65km south of the boundary between California and Oregon, and 124km to the north of the city of Redding. Being a part of the Cascade Mountain Range, Mount Shasta is situated within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, which is Northern California’s largest federally designated forest. This potentially active volcano is surrounded by the Klamath National Forest in the west; the Modoc National Forest in the east; and by the Lava Beds National Monument and the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in the south. While Mount Shasta is located to the north of the Lassen Volcanic National Park and the Lassen National Forest, both Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak are considered to be the southernmost active volcanoes in the Cascade Mountain Range. Mount Shasta features seven named glaciers, of which there are four large and three small glaciers. The four large glaciers include the Bolam Glacier, Hotlum Glacier, Wintun Glacier, and the Whitney Glacier. The three smaller glaciers include the Konwakiton Glacier, the Mud Creek Glacier, and the Watkins Glacier. The glaciers of Mount Shasta feed the Sacramento, McCloud and Shasta rivers. Mount Shasta serves as a popular tourist destination and offers many recreational activities for its visitors including mountain climbing, and backcountry skiing. Currently, there are 17 established routes with different difficulty levels and of these routes, the Avalanche Gulch route is the most popular one. The climbing season usually starts in April and continues till October. However, the climbing of Mount Shasta can be very strenuous, given the harsh climate and terrain as well as the decreasing oxygen levels at higher altitudes.

Geology

Mountain climber looks out at Shastina from Mount Shasta
A mountain climber looks out at Shastina from the top of Mount Shasta. 

Geological studies have revealed that the volcanic activity in the Mount Shasta region began about 37 million years ago, but it is estimated that all the mountains that form a part of the Cascade Mountain Range are less than 2 million years old. Geologists believe that the volcanic activity in the Mount Shasta region is due to the subduction of the Pacific Plate beneath the western extremity of the North American Plate. About 593,000 years ago, the eruption of Andesitic lavas close to McBride Spring led to the formation of the Mount Shasta stratovolcano. Mount Shasta is a compound stratovolcano that is made up of four overlapping inactive stratovolcanic cones which also include the principal summit as well as Shastina – an important satellite cone that rises to an elevation of 3,760m. However, around 300,000 and 360,000 years ago, a massive landslide occurred due to the collapse of the northern side of the volcano. Currently, among the four remaining volcanic cones – the Sargents Ridge is the oldest, while the Hotlum Cone is the youngest. It is believed that the Hotlum Cone was responsible for the last major eruption of Mount Shasta that took place about 200 years ago. Even though the volcano has been geophysically quiet for the last few decades, scientists still consider the volcano to be active. The periodical release of gases from the fumaroles close to the mountain’s summit proves Mount Shasta to be an active stratovolcano. Scientists believe that during any future eruption, the seven named glaciers on Mount Shasta would significantly contribute to the formation of lahars when they come in contact with the lava. Mount Shasta has been classified as a “very high-threat volcano” and is therefore under the constant monitoring of the United States Geological Survey.

Ecology

Indian paintbrush flowers blooming in Siskiyou County, California near Mount Shasta
Indian paintbrush wildflowers blooming in Siskiyou County, California with Mount Shasta visible in the background. 

Apart from the glaciated areas, Mount Shasta supports diverse plant and animal life. Some of the notable plant species that are found close to the mountain area include Douglas fir, red fir, western white pine, and sugar pine. On the northeastern edge of the mountain, juniper and mountain mahogany grows on the lava flows. Some notable plants like chinquapin, Greenleaf manzanita, pine mat manzanita, Siskiyou Indian paintbrush, Shasta’s owl clover, and tanoak are found here. The landscape above 2,400m is dominated by whitebark pine and krummholz. Many wild animals such as coyotes, black bears, deer, foxes etc are also found here.

Brief History

scenery of Mount Shasta, California.
The scenery of Mount Shasta and animals grazing the grass in California. 

It is believed that the Mount Shasta area was inhabited by humans at least 7,000 years ago. Before the arrival of the European Americans in the 1820s, the Mount Shasta area was inhabited by the Native American tribes such as the Atsugewi, Klamath, Modoc, Okwanuchu, Shasta, and Wintu tribes. In 1826, the first reliable sighting of Mount Shasta was by Peter Skene Ogden, who also named the mountain after the native Shasta tribes who inhabited the Shasta River basin.  The mountain eventually became an important landmark along the famous Siskiyou Trail, which formed a part of an ancient trade and travel route which in turn connected the Pacific Northwest with the Central Valley of California. In the early 1850s, the first European Americans came to the area after the California Gold Rush. In 1854, the mountain was first ascended by Elias D. Pearce and his team. After Pearce’s ascent, interest in the mountain grew in the scientific and literary community. Mount Shasta was then extensively studied by geologists regarding its mineralogy, glaciation, ancient avalanches, and other geothermal activities. There are also several written descriptions of the beautiful mountain area by John Muir, James Hutchings, John Rolling Ridge, and many others. In 1887, the completion of the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad that was built along the Siskiyou Trail led to a significant boost in tourism in the mountain area. The Pacific Highway built at the beginning of the 20th century also provided additional access to the mountain area. In December 1976, Mount Shasta was designated as a National Natural Landmark.

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