California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park

Manzanita Lake and Lassen Peak at Lassen National Park, California

Lassen Park – Images by Lee Foster

Author’s Note: This article “California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park” is one of 30 chapters in my travel guidebook/ebook Northern California Travel: The Best Options. That book is available also as an ebook in Chinese. My other Northern California travel guidebook/ebook  with parallel content is my newest book Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips. Several of my books on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

The explosion of northern California’s Lassen Peak on May 30, 1914, far exceeded the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. Both are part of the Cascade chain of fire mountains stretching down the west coast.

On that remarkable Memorial Day, the “extinct” plug volcano spewed the first of 150 spectacular eruptions. The greatest show of all occurred on May 19, 1915, when a river of lava poured a thousand feet down the mountain and created a mud flow a quarter mile wide and 18 miles long. Three days later a dramatic upheaval, 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. Some two inches of ash fell on towns as far away as Reno. For people of a certain temperament, it appeared that the day of judgment had arrived.

Volcanism means more than brimstone and devastation at Lassen Volcanic National Park. The volcanic reality gives the park’s flora and fauna an added alertness, a greater immediacy. All life in Lassen, whether a struggling whitebark pine, a scurrying ground squirrel, or an interloper such as man, exists precariously, at the pleasure of the more powerful underlying geologic forces.

Lassen Today

Lassen today shows how succession in nature covers the scars of volcanic activity. The high meadows, the trout streams, the exceptional stands of pine and fir trees, and the 150 miles of hiking trails draw visitors to Lassen in summer. In winter, cross-country skiing is popular.

Some things in Lassen are perennial and others change.

The volcanic presence is a constant and the patience of skilled rangers, such as Steve Zachary, a 27 year veteran, is there to explain to travelers the wonders of the place, such as one of the special trees of Lassen, the Jeffrey pine.

“We call them the gentle Jeffries,” said ranger Zachary, “because when you roll the large cones in your hands, they are not prickly.”

The superb afternoon view of Lassen Peak from the forested edge of Manzanita Lake, if you hike around the lake from the park entrance point, is legendary and endures.

But other things are new. At the northwest corner, in the Lake Manzanita Campground, there are now 20 picturesque small cabins, good for the aging population (among the 400,000 annual visitors) wanting something other than a tent or a self-contained RV in this park.

And at the southwest entrance to the park, there is now the Kohm Yah-Mah-Nee Visitor Center, a LEED-certified structure reflecting the latest in green architectural design. The Visitor Center presents the thermal geographic wonders of the park, the fauna and flora, and the Native American human culture of the area.

Getting to Lassen Park

Lassen is about five hours by car north from San Francisco. Take Interstate 5 north and then turn east at Red Bluff on Highway 36, then north through the park on Highway 89. The nearest fly-in point for commercial air service is Redding.

Lassen can also be approached from the north and west, on Highway 89, leaving Interstate 5 at Mt. Shasta.

The road into the northwest corner of the park has two further attractions, Burney Falls and Subway Cave.

Burney Falls is one of the loveliest falls in the northern part of the state. There is easy access to an overlook in McArthur-Burney State Memorial Park to see the constant year-round flow of water from underground aquifers, maintaining a chilly temperature of 42-48 degrees. A hundred million gallons of water fall here every day.

Between Burney Falls and Lassen Park is another interesting stop, Subway Cave, which is an underground lava flow, now a large hollowed out tube. One can imagine the river of lava from an ancient pyrotechnic event coursing its way through this underground channel.

Lassen Park History

The main historic drama at Lassen is geologic. Massive eruptions a few centuries ago created a pile of debris called Chaos Jumbles. At the northeast corner of the park lies a textbook-perfect cinder cone formed from 19th-century eruptions.

The Atsugewi Indians followed the deer herds back into Lassen each spring and ate the venison, trout, salmon, acorns, seeds, and lily bulbs that they could forage.

A branch of the Emigrant Trail that brought early settlers to California passes through Lassen Park. Rangers at the park sometimes re-create the early wagon train scene for travelers.

The park was originally purchased because of its cinder cone, an excellent geologic specimen. Taxpayers received a bonus on their investment when everyone learned, much to their surprise, that the volcano was active.

Lassen Park Main Attractions

Lassen is both a driving and a hiking park.

Manzanita Lake and Lassen Peak at Lassen National Park, California
Manzanita Lake and Lassen Peak at Lassen National Park, California

The Main Park Road presents spectacular promontory views, including a fairly close position near Lassen Peak. Be sure to purchase the Road Guide booklet at the entrance Visitors Center as an orientation. Enter the park at its southwest corner, proceed to the center, and exit through the northwest corner.

Other access points by car require rather circuitous drives around the park. A northeast entrance leads to the cinder cone, mentioned earlier. A southeast entrance leads into Drakesbad, a rustic and historic lodge.

All the entrances lead to attractive campgrounds and picnic grounds, but there is only one Main Park Road through the park. Centrally-located Summit Lake Camp is my favorite campsite. From Summit it is possible to make day hikes to various perimeters of the park. Lassen is a park of manageable size, one of its appeals. You get the feeling that you truly know it. Juniper Lake at the southeast corner of the park is another lovely, isolated place to visit.

When hiking in Lassen Park, especially when making the climb to the peak, it is well to take it easy. You are already at 6,000 feet and will be climbing another 2,000 feet. The air is thin. Hikers unaccustomed to these altitudes commonly push too hard.

The central physical experience of the park is Lassen Peak, with its aura similar to Rainier for a Seattlite or Fuji for a Japanese. There is always another view or a different light to contemplate. Make a climb to the top to peer into the crater. From wherever you are in the park, Lassen Peak is often clearly visible. The park visitor can collect memorable views of Lassen Peak from different locations, sometimes mirrored in the high lakes, and at different times of the day or year.

If you are unimpressed by volcanism in its cooled museum demeanor, stop at Marker 17 along the Main Park Road and make the 1.3-mile walk along relatively level ground to Bumpass Hell, a cauldron of boiling mudpots, sulfurous fumaroles, and junior-size volcanoes, the whole possible range of hissing hydrothermal experiences. Those not wishing to purchase a guidebook can bring their dog-eared copies of Dante’s Inferno as an introduction.

The current management policy of Lassen Park reflects a change of thinking in the National Park system. Lassen is an undeveloping park. Some of the former lodgings in the park have gradually been phased out. Also, fish are no longer stocked in the lakes of Lassen, so the only fish caught are the resident trout that persist.

Animal and plant life in this wilderness setting is abundant and varied. Blacktail deer can be observed everywhere. John Muir called the hemlock trees on the south slopes of Lassen the finest he had seen anywhere. Golden mantled ground squirrels scurry about. Western tanager birds dart among the trees. Mountain fritillary butterflies flit among the red columbine wildflowers. The lifecycle of all living things here must accommodate the 20-foot snowpack that locks up the park from October through May.

Nearby Trips from Lassen Park

Nearby Mt. Shasta, whose white top was sacred to the Modoc Indians, is worth exploring.

Castle Crags is a state park west and south of Shasta that provides lovely views. The dogwood trees here flower abundantly.

An interesting loop trip can be made from Yreka through Fort Jones and Etna, then down to Weaverville and east to Redding. This drive takes you through ranching country, past large reservoirs and rivers with good trout fishing, and close to such wilderness experiences as the Marble Mountains. The region is small-town California at its best, full of discoveries, such as the gold mining region around Whiskeytown, and its Chinese Joss House, where Chinese miners worshipped.


Lassen National Park: If You Go

The official Lassen Volcanic National Park website is http://www.nps.gov/lavo/.

For info on travel in the region around Lassen, contact the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, http://www.shastacascade.com.

This article is one of thirty chapters in Lee Foster’s new book Northern California Travel: The Best Options (February 2013). See the book online at www.fostertravel.com by clicking on Norcal in the black bar at the top of the page or use Search Lee’s Writings for Norcal. The book can be ordered on Amazon or through other retailers as a printed book or ebook. The ebook version is also available in the Apple iBook Store and the other ebook stores for B&N Nook and Sony Reader. Lee’s books/ebooks on Amazon can all be seen together on his Author Page. See the Lee Foster Author Page