This piece first appeared on the Parks and Points Blog.
The Main Park Road through the western side of Lassen Volcanic National Park twists and rises through 3500 feet with breathtaking vistas on all sides. I white-knuckled it behind the wheel on my first morning there.
The park falls along the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” the circumference of the Pacific basin where plates in the earth’s crust meet, and collide. Most of the world’s earthquakes and volcanic activity occur on the Ring, which runs through Oceana, up the eastern edge of Asia, across Alaska, and down western North, Central, and South America. The result in Lassen is an abundance of great hiking and beautiful scenery. My husband, two teen-aged children and I vacationed in San Francisco one August, and our visit to Lassen was a side trip.
We decided first to take on the Bumpass Hell hydrothermal area. The trail in is short (1.25 miles) with modest elevation change, a fitting warm-up for our two ardent hikers, one willing walker, and one how-much-further-is-it straggler. The area is named for Kendall Bumpass (bumpus, not bump-ass), a guide in the mid 1800’s. According to one of the Park’s informational placards, Bumpass’ leg broke through a thin crust as he led a group through the 16 acres of fumeroles (volcanic vents), boiling mudpots, and hot springs (ground water heated by magma). His acutely burned limb later had to be amputated. A network of boardwalks and railings help visitors today avoid the dangers of scorching water, mud, and steam at up to 320 degrees Farenheit.
The several hundred foot drop off from the main trail does make walking down to Bumpass a little like descending into a rotten-egg-smelling hell. Steam, and simmering chalky-blue pools and puddles ooze up everywhere. But honestly, it’s all too white and brilliantly sunny to be hell. We prowled around the boardwalks before reluctantly heading back up the trail.
After our hike, we continued down the Main Park Road for the rest of its 23 miles to Manzanita Lake at Lassen’s northwestern most entrance. The lake is a smallish one, about 1.8 miles around, populated by rainbow and brown trout. Fishing is catch and release only, and a license is required. We were amused and amazed by the single person inner tube-like kickboats that a few anglers used. A mother duck and her brood entertained us with their splashing and feeding nearby.
On our second day, we had planned to hike to Kings Creek Falls, a 700 foot falls and cascades. Enroute, however, we had to pass by Mount Lassen, which at 10,459 feet is the highest point in the park. “I’d really like to climb that,“ my nineteen year old son said as the imposing peak loomed closer.
While the roundtrip hike is only five miles, climbing Mount Lassen seemed like a formidable task. The trailhead is at 8500 feet above sea level; I wasn’t sure that all in our group could make it through the 2,000 foot vertical gain at what was for us an already high elevation. But we agreed to do it. The woman minding the register in the base store assured us that her grandfather “hiked it when he was 80.”
So we split up into a “fast” group (my son and I) and a “slow” group (my husband and seventeen year old daughter). The two laggers weren’t committed to making it all the way to the top, they just resolved to enjoy themselves for however far they could make it. Indeed, hikers are rewarded with views on this trail all the way from the bottom, there is no dense growth of trees blocking the panorama of surrounding mountains.
My son and I climbed at a steady pace, only occasionally pausing to catch a breath or two. After the first few long back and forth turns, we could see the nearby Lakes Helen and Emerald, then eventually Lake Almanor, some fifty miles distant. As we gained elevation, the trail hairpinned through scrub pines and boulders, then turned more and more sharply through a loose cover of rocks. When we reached the summit an hour and fifteen minutes after starting out, the whipping wind had been more an issue for us than the elevation.
Mount Lassen is a lava dome created 27,000 years ago. It last erupted over several days in May of 1915, after a year of relatively small steam blasts. Culminating explosions that May produced slides of mud, snow, rock and water that ravaged the areas below. Steam vents persisted in the resulting two craters at the peak into the 1950’s. In the summer we hiked it, however, it was an eerie landscape of sharp hewn rocks and tors, and crackled mounds of petrified lava. There are, essentially, two “peaks” at the top. Near the first, we paused for pictures in a large patch of snow. Then we looked north for views of Mount Shasta (the highest mountain in California), and there it was, unmistakable and imposing, framed by the ragged crags of Lassen.
At the base of the second “peak,” I sat for a bit, thrilled at the sight of thousands of California Tortoiseshell butterflies flitting down and around the rocks, rarely rising more than a foot or two away from the surface. After about fortyfive minutes, I literally jumped for joy to see that our two “laggers,” had made it to the top!
“You’re here!” I cried to my daughter and husband. We all hopped among the lava formations in the craters, danced with the butterflies, and gazed out at Mount Shasta.
Later, back down at the trailhead, we ate king-sized Nutty Buddies from the base store.
“That was good work,” I congratulated.
“Yes,” replied my daughter, “it was a real peak experience.”