Home of Wis-Myth. Just left of Sci-Fi looms Wisdom-Focused Modern Mythology

Click on hand to order novels.

Mount Shasta in legend and lore, in history,
and with a geological perspective

Although this frequently-asked question appears on the adjacent Gallery page, it helps to begin with this review:  Is Mount Shasta one of the world's Seven Sacred Mountains? Good information can be found on the Mount Shasta Fact Sheet published and copyrighted by College of the Siskiyous, and written by William Miesse, historian and author. "...there is no officially recognized world list of seven sacred mountains and regional lists of sacred mountains (of the Navaho people or of China, for example) do not include Shasta. Nonetheless Shasta as a sacred mountain does have a well established and widespread legacy. To generations of Native Americans the mountain was and is a highly important place of reverence and a place of balance between earth and universe. To early Californian explorers, climbers, and settlers it was a source of awe and inspiration. To travel writers of the late 1800's it was "The Keystone of California Scenery" and "California's Fuji-san." But it was in the early 20th century that three books firmly established Shasta's reputation as a most unusual and sacred mountain. These three books, A Dweller on Two Planets, Lemuria, and Unveiled Mysteries gave Shasta a body of myth and legend that is perhaps unrivaled in all of North American mountain literature."

The following Epilogue appears at the end of the Geologic Hazards chapter on Bill Hirt's thorough Mount Shasta Companion online newsletter. Bill Hirt is Geology Instructor at College of the Siskiyous in nearby Weed, California. 

Epilogue: In light of the Mount Shasta volcanic system's nearly 600,000 year eruptive history and the continuing geothermal and seismic activity on and around the mountain today, future eruptions are considered very likely. Although predicting the exact times and natures of volcanic eruptions is notoriously difficult, two techniques are used to estimate the timing of future eruptions. First, the mountain is monitored for physical changes -- such as increased seismicity, uplift, and the emissions of heat and volatiles -- that might be associated with the rise of magma into the shallow crust. Under favorable circumstances such changes may give months to weeks of warning in advance of an eruption. Second, for a longer-term perspective, geologists map and date the mountain's ancient deposits in order to reconstruct its eruptive history. This information can then be used to calculate the average recurrence intervals for various types of events. Perhaps the best way to conclude this summary of Mount Shasta's potential hazards is with a quote from Crandell and Nichols (1987) on the chances of when its next eruption will occur:

Studies by geologists show that Mount Shasta has erupted 10 or 11 times during the last 3,400 years and at least 3 times in the last 750 years. Mount Shasta does not erupt at regular intervals, but its history suggests that it erupts at an average rate of roughly once per 250 to 300 years. If the behavior of the volcano has not changed, the chance is 1 in 25 to 30 that it will erupt in any one decade and 1 in 3 or 4 that it will erupt within a person's lifetime.

Redding.com reporter Alex Breitler gave permission to include his April 30, 2005 article on the need to upgrade volcanic early warning systems as part of this Mount Shasta Information resource.

Set that information alongside what appeared in the June 23, 2004 edition of the Mount Shasta Herald, and the question about when Mount Shasta has erupted or will erupt really is up in the air. The article was about the work of an acquaintance who commands our respect. Dennis Freeman, College of the Siskiyous' library director, has gathered information about Mount Shasta's history since 1983. The collection is comprised of 3,000 volumes kept at the library.

To quote from that article: "Freeman also pointed out a popular mistake commonly described as fact regarding the last known eruption of Mt. Shasta.

"He said explorers mistakenly described heavy seasonal burning of brush and timber by Native American tribes as an existing eruption in 1776.

"Freeman said scientific research indicates the last known eruption took place about 9,000 years ago."

To consider monitoring concerns, Alex Breitler further adds:

USGS: Peaks pose a threat

Report cites Lassen, Shasta tech shortfalls

By Alex Breitler, Record Searchlight April 30, 2005

The north state's two prominent volcanoes are not monitored closely enough to best forecast future eruptions, says a U.S. Geological Survey report released Friday.

Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak were listed among a group of 13 "very high threat" volcanoes -- not because they're about to blow their tops, but because scientists say they need more equipment and better technology to detect deep rumblings that might lead to escalating activity.

The report calls for a National Volcano Early Warning System that would use satellites, high-tech sensors, probes and other gadgets to make sure nearby communities have adequate warning.

Too often, geologists find themselves "playing catch-up," the report says, hurrying to set up equipment at an awakening volcano.

"The earlier we can get the warning that something is happening, that a volcano is becoming restless, the more time we have to figure out what's going on," said geologist Michael Clynne.

How detection works:

Rising magma triggers swarms of earthquakes, which are detected by seismographs and other equipment. Data are transmitted by radio, phone line, Internet or satellite to the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park to be reviewed daily. This allows scientists to anticipate an eruption days or even weeks ahead of time. Forty-five eruptions and 15 "cases of unrest" have taken place at 33 U.S. volcanoes since 1980. For more information, visit the USGS Web site at http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/index.html.

Geologists for both Lassen and Shasta rely on readings from seismographs scattered around the peaks. Those readings are transmitted to Menlo Park, where technicians analyze the data every day.

Lassen has five seismometers, and Shasta has four. But both peaks need a network of between 12 and 20 such devices to provide the best coverage, the report states.

Lassen last erupted in 1915 and remains a hotbed of volcanic activity. Because it's a plug dome volcano -- the largest in the world -- any future eruption will likely spew from a different vent, perhaps in the Chaos Crags area, Clynne said.

Low seismic shakings are common at Lassen Volcanic National Park, spokeswoman Karen Haner said. Just Thursday, minor movements deep underground were recorded for six hours before they faded away, she said.

"It just indicates that, yes, stuff is still happening," she said Friday. "It's not anything unusual or threatening. It's really interesting -- there's so much to learn here."

Lassen used to have more seismographs, Clynne said. But some burned out and were never replaced because of lack of funding.

Others still rely on batteries and have not yet been converted to solar power. Snow for much of the year makes it difficult to perform maintenance.

"The whole USGS network has been degraded," Clynne said.

The seismographs should ultimately be replaced with broadband instruments that are more sensitive, he said, since volcanic earthquakes are usually very small and can be hard to detect.

It's believed that Shasta last erupted in 1786, an event that may have been seen by the explorer La Perouse off the Pacific coast. The peak is said to erupt every 600 to 800 years, but there's no indication of increased activity these days, said another survey geologist, Margaret Mangan.

"This (report) is not let out with any specific forecasting or predictions in mind," she said.

The USGS report groups the country's 169 active volcanoes into five categories, from very low to very high threat levels. The rankings are based not only on the amount of equipment available, but also on nearby populations and the number of aircraft that fly overhead and might be endangered by clouds of ash.

The report also calls for a 24-hour-a-day volcano watch office, and for a computer system that would hold vast amounts of data from all the peaks.

Such improvements would take several years to complete and would require "substantial" investments beyond the current budget, the report says. There is no dollar estimate given and little mention of where the money might come from.

Most Mount Shasta residents probably don't think often about the peak's fiery potential, said the town's mayor, Chris Meyer.

"But I do think that anyone that's living up in this part of the world would appreciate having additional monitoring," he said Friday.

Many pages could be included here about Mount Shasta's stories, geography, geology and history. The mountain is of profound importance to us not only as our sentinel, but also because it is one of the settings for events that occur in our work of fiction, The Third Verse Trilogy - novels focused in wisdom teachings and modern myth.

After confronting the challenge of providing information about Mount Shasta to those who have viewed our photographs and never visited or seen the mountain, we have chosen this excerpt from the late Emilie A. Frank's book Mt. Shasta, California's Mystic Mountain. Emilie's book is a treasure trove of stories, myths, legends, and unusual interviews as well as data about the mountain presented in a way that's anything but dry. Emilie was a journalist and author here in the town of Mount Shasta for decades. This excerpt appears here with permission from her daughter Jennifer Middleton.

"Stay up there in the rain-shadow of the sublime mountain," an admirer of Mt. Shasta recently wrote to me. "Do you know that Shasta has the largest base and the greatest mass of any lone peak in the world? Its alpenglow leaves me breathless, uplifted, and bemused always."

Indeed, my friend, Mt. Shasta's alpenglow leaves everyone breathless, and its conformation is dramatically beautiful, too, rising so directly and abruptly from the surrounding countryside. One of the largest stratovolcanoes in the world, Shasta rises to an altitude of 14,162 feet and its volume is said to be just over 80 cubic miles.

Visitors traveling to spend adventuresome days on Mt. Shasta's slopes discover that this majestic mountain can be seen in every direction for a hundred miles or more. It rises splendidly in lonely grandeur, and there are those who believe it is the most beautiful mountain in the world.

Geographically the mountain stands alone, a circumstance that heightens its scenic effect, its appearance of majestic isolation. In structure, Mt. Shasta differs materially from the adjacent ranges.

It is a true volcano. It was once thought that it was formed by volcanic activity beginning probably in early Tertiary (Eocene) time, and continued alternative active and quiet periods for millions of years. But my friend Dr. William Bridge Cooke, world renowned mycologist who spent entire summers on the mountain (a mountain man who certainly needs no introduction to the Mt. Shasta area) wrote in a letter: "As a result of the EIS necessary for the wilderness proposal, there has been a change in thinking about the dates of the formation of Mt. Shasta. Present dates state it at 700,000 years, so it is the youngest Cascade mountain and the youngest mountain in the United States - the lower 48, at least."

In 1975 the full complexity of Shasta's structure began to emerge when Drs. C. Dan Miller and Robert L. Christiansen (United States Geological Survey) spent months combing the volcano's surface. They camped five days at the summit and another five days high on Shastina and they found that Mt. Shasta consists of at least four distinct but overlapping cones which were built during four different eruptive cycles.

They later generously shared the results of their extensive Mt. Shasta field work with Stephen L. Harris, who included the findings in his book Fire and Ice, The Cascade Volcanoes in 1976; then in 1988 his revised edition Fire Mountains of the West: The Cascade and Monolake Volcanoes was published by the Mountain Press Publishing Company of Missoula, Montana. Fascinating and readable, this book tells everything you ever wanted to know about volcanoes and it's extremely interesting if you happen to live on the slopes of one of the "fire mountains" he describes. Or even if you don't.

Mt. Shasta is not a single peak but a multiple structure. From its western flank rises 12,330-foot Shastina, which, if it stood alone would rank as the third highest mountain in the entire Cascade chain because only Rainier and Shasta, itself, rises higher.

According to Harris, Mt. Shasta is a mere infant compared to the Klamath mountains which lie over a green valley to the west of it. Rugged and beautiful in their own right, these peaks were formed of more ancient rocks and were "upheaved" into place millions of years before Mt. Shasta came into being.

He goes on to say, "The discovery that Shasta is really four volcanoes of varying age piled atop and against each other helps explain some puzzling features. Although its shape is generally symmetrical, Shasta has some irregularities and protrusions which cannot be explained by derivation from a single central vent. It has also seemed strange that the most deeply eroded and extensively glaciated parts of the mountain form its southern slopes. Because there are fewer hours of direct sunlight and less melting on the northern and eastern sides of the peaks, the largest glaciers and resulting cirques in most cases occur on the shaded north and east sides, as they do on McLoughlin, Hood, Adams, and Ranier."

During the 10,000-12,000 years since the Pleistocene glaciers melted in this part of California, Mt. Shasta added both the parasitic cone of Shastina and the present summit cone to its mass, and Harris goes into detail about the building of Shastina on its west flank. (Shastina is Shasta's seldom-visited satellite peak with a nearly mile-wide summit crater containing a beautiful turquoise lake.) Harris also states that Black Butte, the spectactular hornblende dacite plug dome at Shasta's western base probably dates from this eruptive episode.

Black Butte, which looms alongside Interstate 5, was originally named "Muir's Peak" by famed naturalist John Muir, who loved not only the area but the mountain, and spent days and nights alone near its peak, reveling in its beauty. In 1874 he wrote in his journal, "When I first caught sight of Shasta, I was fifty miles away and afoot, alone and weary. Yet all my blood turned to wine and I have not been weary since. Go where you may, there stands before you the colossal cone of Shasta, clad in ice and snow, the one grand unmistakable landmark - the pole star of the landscape."

In 1894 Muir wrote, "Would it not be a fine thing to set it apart for the welfare and benefit of all mankind, preserving its fountains and forests and all its glad life in primeval beauty?"

Clarence King is credited with discovering the glaciers on Mt. Shasta in the year 1870. However, we cannot overlook the fact that a man named I. S. Diehl mentioned the glaciers when he made his solo climb in 1855.

It has always been affirmed that there are five glaciers on Mt. Shasta, and they are found side by side, forming an almost continuous covering for that portion of the mountain at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. Whitney glacier, named in honor of Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney, the noted scientist; Bolam glacier, which is an Indian name meaning "great"; Hotlum glacier, which is an Indian name meaning "steep rock"; Wintun glacier, which is an Indian tribal name; and Konwakiton, which is an Indian name meaning "dirty or muddy."

But the late Harry Watkins of Mount Shasta, who was untiring in his efforts to explore the glaciers, came up with some surprising facts; he maintained that there are eight, not five glaciers on the mountain.

"The belief that Mt. Shasta has only five glaciers," he said in an interview, "is a most persistent one. People do not seem to realize that many changes have occurred in the glaciers since 1885 when the first surveys of the mountain were completed, and that changes have also occurred in definition of what constitutes a glacier."

According to Watkins, the fact that there are more than five glaciers had also been confirmed by Mark F. Meier, a glaciologist with the United States Geological Survey group. Meier recognized eight glaciers on Mt. Shasta and said that the United States Glacier Survey map showed all of the glaciers very accurately, but continued to give names for only five, which served to perpetuate the belief that only five glaciers exist on the mountain.

What are glaciers? Glaciers are actually rivers of solid ice; they're like giant chisels and they carve deep ditches in the earth they move. Glaciers move, it's as simple as that. The basic difference between an ordinary ice field and a true glacier is the latter is moving, and because of this constant movement glaciers play an important role in sculpturing Mt. Shasta. Volcanoes are not composed of very solid rock and on a volcano like Mt. Shasta, which is built of hundreds of individual lava streams and layers of fragmental material which offer little resistance to glacial scouring, the glaciers are effective eroding agents. Powerful and relentless, a glacier can enter a winding valley, dig into its valley walls, and change its contour.

Experts say a glacier doesn't necessarily require snowfalls of enormous depth. What glaciers need is many cool summers during which the last winter's snowpack doesn't entirely melt. And the Mt. Shasta area is noted for its cool summers.

Many people, not familiar with the terrain of Mt. Shasta, are seemingly unaware of Mt. Shasta's glaciers, the largest in California. They are also unaware of the waterfalls, pastoral meadows, wild flowers, dwarf forests of trees presumed to be over 200 years old, and other natural phenomenon hidden on this great mountain. Whitney Falls, Coquette Falls, Lake Helen, Sisson Lake, Clarence King Lake, golden dome rocks and vast canyons are only a few of the attractions to be found by those who love the mountain's splendor.

Those immense glaciers have lain for centuries in Mt. Shasta's awesome gorges and they remain, for the most part, in secret solitude in their icy beds.

You have been reading an excerpt from (the late) Emilie A. Frank's book Mt. Shasta, California's Mystic Mountain. This excerpt appears here with permission from her daughter Jennifer Middleton. For more information about Emilie A. Frank's book, or to order, click here.

The geography, geology, and history of Mount Shasta offer such a wealth of fascinating information that we never tire of exloring what can be found. Here's an excerpt from an article on the subject in the March 31, 2004 issue of the Mount Shasta Herald, "Unusual wonders at Plutos Caves."

By Michael Le Guellec, Wednesday, March 31, 2004 4:11 PM PST.

"Even on a bright sunny day, darkness comes quickly as you explore the depths of Plutos Cave. Artificial light is a most valuable asset and necessary to safely navigate and find your way back. Many residents and visitors to Siskiyou County can't help but see the beauty of nature that surrounds us. But during a casual drive on Highway 97, about 10 miles outside the city of Weed, thousands of people pass each day unaware of a hidden gem: the Plutos Caves area.

"With an underground network of tunnels running through 50 square miles, Plutos Caves area brings its own beauty and history related to majestic Mt. Shasta.

"College of the Siskiyous geology professor Bill Hirt says Plutos Caves and Shasta Valley are a direct result of a catastrophic collapse and avalanche of ancestral Mt. Shasta, which he calls 'Plutos' Assault.'

"Plutos' Assault is believed to have happened between 160,000 and 300,000 years ago. The United States Geological Survey believes the avalanche carried 20 times the volume of the recent eruption at Mt. Saint Helens.

"Mt. Shasta as we know it today completely buries and rises above the stump of the ancestral mountain.

"The lava flow of the ancestral mountain is responsible for the creation of the Plutos Caves area, which consists of Plutos Cave, Sand Cave and Barnum Cave, along with a multitude of networked tunnels yet to be discovered.

"Hirt says the lava tubes were created when the mountain vented its volcanic flow through a vent in Deer Mountain, which lies southeast of Mt. Shasta.

"'The lava was very fluid as it created the underground channels of caves and tubes,' said Hirt. 'As the lava source diminished, gasses and air hardened the surfaces to create the lava tubes and caves we can see today.'

"Plutos Cave was discovered by Harry Cash in 1863. It was named after the Roman god of the underworld and was, at the time, considered the largest lava tube in the world.

"The actual cave is segmented into three parts, with the lower section measuring 1,500 feet in length."

By the way, did you know that mules and horses have made it to the summit of Mount Shasta? According to The Mount Shasta Story by Arthur Francis Eichorn, Sr., both were led to the summit in the late 1800s, with an authenticated photograph taken of "Old Jump Up" mounted by Miss Alice Cousins in period dress. How does Teddy the burro make it all the way from the Peruvian Andes to above timberline on Mount Shasta? Read Lily G. Stephen's The El-eventh Hour to find out.

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

All images and written/spoken material are protected under copyright by Blooming Rose Press. No material may be reproduced without written permission.
Click on "Contact us" for permission.