Apocalypse in California: When Lassen Peak Erupted in 1914
By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
The unexpected and explosive eruption of volcanic Lassen Peak in far northern California, in the spring of 1914, caught the imagination of the entire U.S.
To those living close to the volcano, the 1914-1917 period seemed as if the Day of Judgment had arrived. During one eruption, inches of ash fell as far away as Reno, Nevada.
The Historic Story
Volcanoes and glaciers are the main players in the geologic history of Northern California.
From Napa’s Mount St. Helena all the way north to Mount Rainier near Seattle, the volcanic mountains have periodically erupted, shaping the landscape.
Farther south, in Yosemite, glaciers were nature’s other major force changing the shape of Northern California.
Within the memory of the white man in California, the explosions of Lassen Peak were the main non-earthquake geologic events.
On May 30, 1914, the “extinct” plug volcano displayed the first of more than 180 steam explosions.
On May 19, 1915, a river of lava poured a thousand feet down the mountain, creating a mud flow a quarter-mile wide and 18 miles long.
Three days later, a dramatic event called the Great Hot Blast shot debris five miles into the air and felled pine trees like bowling pins around the base of the mountain.
The Loomis Museum near the park’s northwest entrance houses a dramatic display of the historic photos of the catastrophe.
Lassen Before the White Man
Before the arrival of the white man, Lassen was populated in summer by Atsugewi, Yana, Yahi, and Maidu people. The men hunted deer, and the women gathered acorns and basket-weaving materials. In 1911 a Yahi Indian named Ishi appeared in nearby Oroville. He had never met whites before and this tribe was thought to be extinct. He lived out his remaining days at the University of California, Berkeley, befriended by two anthropologists. A poignant book about Ishi, titled Ishi in Two Worlds, by Theodora Kroeber, tells the story.
A drive on the Loop Road through Lassen Volcanic National Park acquaints you with the full range of this geologic drama. The Loop Road entrances to the park are near the southwest and northwest corners.
Two other park entrances are interesting, but require substantial drives, so consult maps carefully.
An entrance at the northeast corner takes you to a geologically textbook-perfect cinder cone for which Lassen is famous.
The southeast corner entrance takes you to some lovely lakes, such as Juniper Lake, and to the historic lodging known as Drakesbad Guest Ranch.
Drive north on Interstate 5 and turn east at Red Bluff on Highway 36, then north on Highway 89, to reach the southwest entrance to the park near the town of Mineral.
Be Sure to See
The best way to see Lassen is to enter at the southwest corner, beyond Mineral, and drive the Loop Road, the main road through the park. The park’s Road Guide will alert you to all the important stops.
Allow time for stops, such as the relatively level, three-hour, three-mile hike to the thermal area called Bumpass Hell. Bumpass is a choice walk amidst the sulfurous fumaroles and other bubbling and hissing reminders of the live geologic energy below. Another hike, more invigorating, could take you to the top of Lassen Peak. Remember that Lassen Peak is at 10,457 feet, so be careful not to overexert yourself in the high altitude.
On the way out, at the northwest corner, stop at the Loomis Museum to see the historic photos.
Best Time of Year
Lassen is locked up with snow and ice for the winter and well into spring, though accessible to the snowshoe enthusiast and cross-country skier. By June the park begins to open up and is a joy all summer and through autumn until the first snows make driving the Loop Road treacherous. In an era when some other national parks are crowded in summer, Lassen remains relatively undiscovered, getting only about 500,000 visitors per year.
The historic lodging of note here is Drakesbad Guest Ranch, accessible at the southeast corner of the park. E. R. Drake founded a ranch here more than 100 years ago. Truly an example of historic destination lodging, Drakesbad is comfortable but rustic, offering a full-service lodging plan that includes all meals. Drakesbad also organizes horse-packing trips into Lassen, which allows you to see in a short time more of the terrain than you could on foot. Drakesbad Guest Ranch is located at 14423 Warner Valley Road, Chester, CA 96020; 866/999-0914 or 530/529-1512.
Fine dining is available at Drakesbad for patrons of the resort. Basic fast-food service is available at the southwest and northwest entrance to the park. If on a day trip, a traveler might want to return to Redding for dinner at C. R. Gibbs American Grille (2300 Hilltop Ave.; 530/221-2335; http://www.crgibbs.com).
For Further Information
Contact Lassen Volcanic National Park, PO Box 100, Mineral, CA 96063; 530/595-4480; https://www.nps.gov/lavo/index.htm. The park boasts an unusually good range of publications on the history, flora, and fauna of the park.
For free brochures and visitor information from the Redding Convention and Visitors Bureau, visit Bonnie inside the Turtle Bay Store & Coffee Bar at Turtle Bay Exploration Park, adjacent to the Sundial Bridge, 844 Sundial Bridge Drive, Redding, CA 96001.
To talk to Visitors Bureau specialists and get information, call 530/225-4100, 800/874-7562, or 530/242-3102; or go online (http://www.visitredding.com).