Portions of the Heart Lake trail are on the newly acquired parcel and hikers have historically been forced to cut through private land on their way to the iconic lake.

To celebrate the recent purchase of 637 acres of breathtaking land that abuts Castle Lake, the Wilderness Land Trust and other involved agencies hosted a hike to Heart Lake Saturday morning.

Portions of the Heart Lake trail are on the newly acquired parcel and hikers have historically been forced to cut through private land on their way to the iconic lake.

Saturday’s 2.2-mile hike featured talks from representatives from the Wilderness Land Trust, the Siskiyou Land Trust, the U.S. Shasta-Trinity National Forest and Castle Lake Research Center and attracted more than 40 people.

The Washington-based Wilderness Land Trust will hold ownership of the acreage until it can be transferred to the public. Adjacent to U.S. Forest Service property, the parcel was the largest remaining private property in the designated Castle Crags Wilderness.

Wilderness Land Trust Senior Lands Specialist Aimee Rutledge explained that parcels of private land are checkerboarded with Forest Service land along the old railroad lines. The Forest Service tries to obtain these sections of land for conservation and preservation and to complete designated wilderness areas.

To facilitate the purchase, the Wilderness Land Trust took out a low interest, $1.9 million loan with the David and Lucille Packard Foundation. It also acquired timber insurance for $30,000, since much of the land’s value comes from timber with good access.

The Forest Service has tried multiple times over the past decade to buy the property, but the parties couldn’t agree on a price, Rutledge said. Earlier this year, the owners put the property up for auction.

The Wilderness Land Trust made an offer and it was accepted in June before it hit the auction block.

Once the Forest Service has the land and timber appraised, it will work to purchase the parcel from the Wilderness Land Trust. The Forest Service will then be able to give out permits to Heart Lake. It will also be able to put the popular trail on its maps.

U.S. Forest Service Ranger Stacy Smith said they plan to reroute the well-used trail to make it less steep. The new route will also allow for a better view of the lake. But that’s still a couple of years out, she said.

“Building a trail is like building a road. It needs drainage and there is a lot to consider,” Smith said. The Forest Service will also need to secure funding to complete the trail project.

Smith said the purchase of the property “gives us the chance to protect the hiking trail to Heart Lake and access to lake activities. It also means the land is safe from logging and development, which would have threatened old growth forest, critical habitat and a major source of clean water for California and the west.”

Julie Cassidy, a retired archeologist who worked at the McCloud Forest Service Station for 35 years, gave a talk about the history of Castle Lake. Some of the stories about the lake’s history are conflicting, she explained.

The Wintu Indians were the first documented people and called the lake “the house of the devil,” said Cassidy. The battle of Castle Crags was fought in the vicinity in 1855 with bows and arrows. Originally, the road to the lake came up the canyon by the creek, but in 1961 it became a place for recreation and Siskiyou County took over the easement. Today the county maintains the road.

Since 2005, Dr. Sudeep Chandra has been the director of the Castle Lake Environmental Research Program. Dr. Charles Goldman first started the program through UC Davis 61 years ago. The project has the longest ecological data strings in the world, according to one of the signs that was installed in 1990.

Today, the Castle Lake Research Center is run through the University of Reno in partnership with UC Davis, but Chandra is concerned about the center’s future. Goldman, now 89, still visits the center, Chandra said.

The station studies the physics, chemistry, biology and food production of the lake and is run by UC Reno students.

Chandra said the lake was once a testing ground for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“They would stock the lake and what fish would survive they would use to stock other lakes, but they stopped this practice about seven or eight years ago,” Chandra said. Historically, these lakes were fishless but did have amphibians, salamanders and frogs. Now there are three species of trout at Castle Lake, including Brook trout, rainbow trout and golden shiner (which were) probably brought in as bait fish.”

During the hike, Chandra pointed out some of the old growth timber that was tested. They turned out to be 90 years or older.

Like the local non-profit organization Siskiyou Land Trust, the Wilderness Land Trust is funded by donations and grants. Its mission is to acquire and transfer private lands to public ownership that complete designated and proposed wilderness areas or directly protect wilderness values. For more information, visit www.wildernesslandtrust.org.

For more information about the Castle Lake Environmental Research Program, contact Dr. Chandra at (775) 354-4849 or sudeep@unr.edu.