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California's Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park

In the shadow of magnificent Mt. Shasta lies a relic of ancient times.

by: Jane Little

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Little Known Fact: Ahjumawi ("where the waters come together") is one of the largest freshwater springs in the world.

A fine dawn mist hangs over the Tule River and our campsite in the shore grass under an aged juniper. Crystal Springs looms in the distance, an inlet so unchanged by time that the Ahjumawi Indians who once thrived here would feel at home crouching on the lava-strewn banks while spearing fish in the shallow spring waters.

We arrived at Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park yesterday, trading our car, hiking boots, and civilization for sport sandals, kayaks, and a watery wilderness. Fewer than 2,000 people a year visit this isolated gem accessible only by boat and dominated by 14,162-foot Mt. Shasta. Waiting for us on the northern shore were 6,000 acres of primeval beauty with nine primitive campsites.

Paddling out Crystal Springs into Big Lake, we passed bronze tule bulrushes lining the banks while a pair of bald eagles circled overhead, their white tails flashing silver in the autumn afternoon sun. We pulled silently across the waters to the point where Big Lake, Tule and Fall rivers, and Ja She and Lava creeks converge at one of the largest freshwater springs in the world. This is Ahjumawi, which translates to "where the waters come together."

Ahjumawi Lava Springs, the ancestral homeland of the Pit River Indians, is one of California's newer parks. It was deeded to the state in 1975 by Ivy Horr, whose family logged and raised cattle in the area after they bought it in 1944. An occasional weathered ranch building emerges along nearly 10 miles of shoreline. Bedrock mortars, village and ceremonial sites, and prehistoric fish traps still used today are signs of the area's Native American cultural richness.

The next morning, we hiked away from the lake on a 6-mile loop trail that breaks out of the trees and into a desert of jagged black basalt that stretches north to the Modoc Plateau. This is one of several loops that lets paddlers stretch their legs. About 15 miles of trail wind through Ahjumawi, crisscrossing and overlapping for plenty of dayhiking options.

Picking our way over the porous rocks, it is easy to believe, as hydrologists do, that we are following the route of an underground river that drains Tule Lake, located nearly 50 miles to the north. Our destination is a spatter cone, a volcanic vent whose "recent" frothy outbursts ~ 5,000 years ago ~ left a layer of lava clinging to the steep sides of a 20-yard depression.

On the hike back, we are rewarded with views of Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen and the southern Cascades. Two anglers casting from the rocks near our camp are the only other people we encounter during the weekend, testifying to the solitude that waits at Ahjumawi.


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