Lassen Volcanic National Park in the age of pandemics

Touring Lassen Volcanic National Park in late summer…

Boiling hot springs, steaming fumaroles, sulfuric mud pots, multiple volcanic peaks – fire and ice. Like a small version of Yellowstone National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park happily lies only 3 1/2 hours from San Joaquin County. One of nine national parks in our state, it’s both inspiring and much more lightly visited. 

Hoping to get out of the wildfire-smoked skies of central California, we looked at the air quality forecasts and bet that Lassen might be out of the smoke. We took the scenic route to get there, following Highway 49 through Nevada city, Downieville, Sierra City and connecting to Highway 89 for a route the took us past scenic Lake Almanor.

The Lakes Region lies above Sierra City, framed by the rugged Sierra Buttes North.

Towing our vintage 64 Scotty camp trailer, we turned off Highway 49 just above Sierra City, following the Gold Lake Road into the Lakes District and spent one night on beautiful Gold Lake at  6500 feet, lying in the shadow of the Sierra Buttes North. The Buttes are jagged peaks, with multiple lakes and campgrounds – though the smoke here was still pretty thick, we made a note to revisit in clearer weather.

Happily, as we reached Lake Almanor and started to ascend towards the southwest Lassen Park entrance, the smoke dissipated and we found ourselves in clear air and blue skies. 

Our Scotty trailer, with Lake Helen and Mt. Lassen in background.
Hwy. 89 winds 32 miles through the park, with frequent stops to
see the volcano’s might from the 1914 to 1921 volcanic activity period.

Lassen, at the south end of the Cascade Mountain Range, is part of the “pacific ring of fire“, a string of volcanoes surrounding the Pacific Ocean. Lassen formed about 27,000 years ago from a volcanic vent on the flank of Brokeoff volcano (which is about a half million years old), resulting in one of the world’s largest plug dome volcanoes, rising to 10,457 feet. 

The visitor center explains the four types of volcanoes found throughout the world, all of which can be found within the park. Those include composite volcanoes (Brokeoff Volcano), plug dome (Mt. Lassen), shield (Prospect Peak) and cinder cone (Cinder Cone). Mature children and teens will have an interesting time attempting to identify these four types of volcanoes on the park’s horizons.

Bumpass Hell’s boardwalk winds its way through this eerie hydrothermal area.
Hot Rock in foreground, just after the 1915 explosion that leveled the Devastated Area (courtesy, National Park Service photo)

Towing our trailer, we proceeded on to our reserved campsite in scenic Manzanita Lake Campground on the park’s northwest corner. It’s a big campground with several hundred sites spread throughout tall fir and pine trees. We sited our trailer, then walked to the southern campground end and hiked up the Manzanita Creek Trail in the direction of Lassen Volcano (All Trails is a good app to identify nearby hiking trails and their degrees of difficulty).

The next morning, we started early, retracing about half our drive through the park to reach the Bumpass Hell trailhead. Here a 3.5 mile round trip hike took us first up, and then down into the valley called Bumpass Hell. In 1864 mountaineer and explorer Kendall Bumpass first discovered this hissing, steaming hydrothermal area. He and his partner, Major Pearson Reading filed a claim with the intention of developing it as a tourist attraction and mining its minerals. Soon thereafter, Bumpass broke through the thin crust into a boiling mud pot at nearly 240°, causing severe burns and the loss of his leg, interrupting his development dream.

Author’s spouse Susan next to 25,000 lb. boulder hurled off Mt. Lassen,
three miles away, leveling the Devastated Area in 1915.

The 32 mile drive through the park, from south west to north west entrances offers a wealth of interesting points-of-interest, including the Sulfur Works, the Bumpass Hell trail head, the Lassen Peak trailhead (requiring a 2000+ foot ascent of the south east side of the peak), Kings Creek trailhead down to Kings Creek Falls, the Summit Lake area with two campgrounds and the Devastated Area, which was leveled by the volcanic explosion, covered with pumice, ash and mudflows and littered with boulders the size of cars blasted off the peak almost 3 miles away. Stop further down the road at Hot Rock, a huge boulder that remained hot to the touch for days after the volcanic blast. The park is interlaced with 150 miles of trails including 18 miles of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

Visitors can find three campgrounds, Manzanita Lake, Summit Lake North and Summit Lake South. The less-visited eastern side of the park is interlaced with several score large and small lakes, the Painted Dunes area, lava beds and more. It’s a hiker’s paradise, with limited vehicle access to the eastern, wilderness-designated portion of the park.

Lovely Manzanita Lake, looking NW, from the campground on its shore.

Please practicepandemic/leave no trace methods, donning facemasks, maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from fellow visitors and packing out all of your trash.

How to get there: from Stockton it’s about 250 miles taking the most direct route (I-5 to Red Bluff, then east on Hwy. 36 and 89 to the park’s southwest entrance). The scenic route, about 100 miles longer, is up I-5, east on I-80, follow scenic and historic Highway 49, connecting with highway 89 into the park. Definitely check the road report – Hwy. 89 through the park is not open until July and close early in fall due to snows.

What’s nearby: Mount Shasta and Burney Falls State Park to the north; Chester and pretty Lake Almanor to the east, and Redding and Shasta State Historic Park to the west.

Burney Falls State Park is a nearby destination.

For more information: Lassen Volcanic National Park, nps/gov/lavo, (530) 595-6100.

Contact Tim, tviall@msn.com, or follow him: blogs.eSanJoaquin.com/Valleytravel.  Happy travels in the west!

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