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6 don't-miss spots in Lassen Volcanic National Park

A view of Mount Lassen in Lassen Volcanic National Park. | Photo by Ewoerlen / Getty Images A view of Mount Lassen in Lassen Volcanic National Park. | Photo by Ewoerlen / Getty Images

Discover otherworldly landscapes in this oft-overlooked California national park.

The first time I visited Lassen Volcanic National Park, the splurt, splurt, splurt of boiling mud pots, the barren landscape, and the strong sulfurous odor made me feel as if I had wandered into some alien world. Granted, my reaction probably said more about my penchant for vintage sci-fi flicks than it did about the park itself. But my initial impression that the place was simply about strange hydrothermal phenomena indicated just how little I knew about it. 

A few years after that first encounter, I moved to Redding, a 50-mile drive from the park’s northwest entrance. Now, when I walk out my front door I can see Lassen Peak (pictured at top) in the distance, its distinctive flat top bathed in purple shadows created by the sun rising behind it. Over the past decade, I’ve explored much of the park’s approximate 166 square miles and discovered that the hissing steam vents and “boiling” lakes that captivated me years ago are just a small portion of the park’s remarkable attractions.  

Lassen's explosive history

It may not be California’s tallest mountain, but none can claim a more explosive history than Lassen Peak. It was one of the most active volcanoes in the continental U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, though its last eruptions took place between 1914 and 1921. The big one, on May 22, 1915, shot a plume of ash into the air that then collapsed and created a fast-flowing current of gas and volcanic matter that destroyed about 3 square miles on the volcano’s northeast flank. That area, now covered with trees again, is one of a variety of landscapes you’ll encounter in the park. You’ll also find dramatic waterfalls, several alpine lakes, and expansive forests of red fir and whitebark pine that contrast beautifully with the geothermal features.

Interestingly, Lassen is one of the few places on the planet where you can see all four types of volcanoes: plug dome (Lassen Peak), cinder (Cinder Cone), composite (Brokeoff Volcano), and shield (Prospect Peak). As alluring as this volcanic landscape is, Lassen is one of the state’s lesser-visited national parks: In 2019, the park had 517,039 visitors, compared with 4.4 million at Yosemite. 

Many trails are finally free of snow by June or July, so late summer is a great time to visit, although access to the park and its trails depends on weather and snow conditions. (The main park road could open any time from early May to late July.) Before venturing out, be sure to check the park’s website, nps.gov/lavo, or call (530) 595-4480.  

You could spend several days exploring, but if you are tight on time, these are my top six recommendations.

1. Manzanita Lake

Manzanita Lake, Lassen National Park, California

Photo by Engel Ching / Alamy Stock Photo

Located 1 mile from the northwest entrance, Manzanita Lake (pictured above) provides a peaceful introduction to the park. Lassen Peak is visible from the 1.8-mile trail that mostly circles the shoreline. Kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals are available most years, and the lake is popular with fly fishers angling for rainbow and brown trout. Nearby Reflection Lake and the Lily Pond are just as photogenic.

2. Mill Creek Falls

As scenic attractions go, it’s hard to beat a rushing waterfall, and Mill Creek Falls’ 75-foot drop is the park’s highest. Look for the trailhead behind the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitors Center at the park’s southwest entrance. The 1.8-mile trail is moderately strenuous, but your efforts will yield views of the waterfall and the rocky ridge known as Brokeoff Mountain, plus hillsides covered with wildflowers that start blooming in either June or July.

3. Bumpass Hell

Bumpass Hell at Lassen National Park in California

Koji Hirano / Getty Images

Renovations to make the 1.5-mile trail between the parking area and the Bumpass Hell basin (pictured above) wider and smoother were mostly completed in 2019. Filled with boiling springs, splashing mud pots, and hissing steam vents, this 16-acre area is the park’s largest hydrothermal display. The name pays homage to 19th-century pioneer Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, who, while touring with a local newspaper editor, fell through the thin crust and badly burned his leg. Fortunately, visitors can now access Bumpass Hell on an elevated wooden boardwalk and dirt trails. The views here, including a panorama of multicolored soils, springs, and jagged peaks set against the deep blue sky, are almost enough to make you forget about the sulfurous odor.

4. Lake Helen

This blue glacial tarn, with its occasional wind-rippled surface, prettily reflects Bumpass Mountain. The lake is named after Helen Tanner Brodt, who in 1864 was the first white woman to summit Lassen Peak. She, along with her husband, had gone to the mountain intending to sketch it, but ended up climbing it after a fire destroyed their camp, forcing them to join a nearby climbing group. The annual snowpack here averages 240 inches, and the lake’s surface can remain frozen well into the summer thanks to its 8,164-foot elevation.

5. Devastated Area

This landscape is evidence of the power of the May 1915 eruption. Tons of hot rock, ash, and melted snow formed a slurry that roared down the mountain’s east face. Signs of the destruction are visible from the road, but these days it’s hard to tell a major eruption occurred because the vegetation has returned. It’s better to get out of the car and walk the half-mile interpretive trail. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views of Lassen Peak’s still-recovering slopes.

6. Kings Creek Falls

A 2.3-mile loop trail passes through a peaceful meadow before arriving at the waterfall’s fern-lined grotto. While the 40-footer is not the park’s tallest, it’s the most scenic. The moderately strenuous hike, which includes a steep stone staircase, also provides broad vistas of the surrounding peaks and colorful splashes of lilies and lupines.

Have more time? Here's what else to explore in Lassen

Cinder Cone, Lassen National Park

Photo by Viktor Posnov / Getty Images

The 700-foot-tall Cinder Cone (pictured above) makes for a challenging climb rewarded with 360-degree views of Lassen Peak and beyond.

The hydrothermal features of Boiling Springs Lake and Devils Kitchen rival those of Bumpass Hell. 

Hardy visitors might want to tackle the 10,457-foot summit of Lassen Peak itself. Reaching it means conquering a 2,000-foot elevation gain over a 5-mile round-trip hike. For the ultimate experience, schedule your visit with a full moon and start your climb in late afternoon so you reach the summit in time to catch both the sunset and the moonrise.

Even more remote is the area around Butte Lake in the park’s northeast corner, which can be reached off State Route 44, roughly 24 miles from the park’s northwest entrance. Huge black lava flows line the lake in places, and the Painted Dunes (pictured at top) provide colorful contrast to the charcoal-black Lava Beds

I was hiking down on the other side of Cinder cone when i came upon this view of the Painted Dunes with mount Lassen in the distance in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, USA.

Photo by Pierre Leclerc Photography / Getty Images

Even more remote is the area around Butte Lake in the park’s northeast corner, which can be reached off State Route 44, roughly 24 miles from the park’s northwest entrance. Huge black lava flows line the lake in places, and the Painted Dunes (pictured above) provide colorful contrast to the charcoal-black Lava Beds

If you go

The park is roughly 50 miles off Interstate 5; it’s a three-hour drive north from Sacramento. The 30-mile park highway connects the northwest and southwest entrances. Fees: $30 per vehicle; $10, December 1–April 15.

Northwest entrance: Take I-5 to Redding, where you’ll find dining, lodging, and refueling options. From I-5, head east on State Route 44, through Shingletown (a good place to pick up picnic provisions), until you reach the northwest entrance.

Southwest entrance: Leave I-5 in Red Bluff (top off your fuel tank while you’re there), and head east on State Route 36 to the park’s southwest entrance, where you’ll find the main visitors center, which is open year-round. 

Where to stay

The seasonal Drakesbad Guest Ranch offers rustic overnight accommodations and serves breakfast, lunch (including brown-bag lunches to go), and dinner. It is near the Warner Valley on the park’s southeast quadrant (access it from Warner Valley Road off State Route 36, near the town of Chester).

Alan Rider is a freelance writer based in Redding, California.

 

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