Best Things to Do in Lassen Volcanic National Park
A steaming, hissing, and bubbling landscape, Lassen Volcanic will be unlike any other national park you'll ever visit. A place that will hold fast to your memory banks and won’t let go for years to come. When you come here for the first time, get ready to discover a mystical place with a destructive and tormented history.
Located in the Cascade Range in northeastern California, for some strange reason, this is one of the lesser-known National Parks in America. This makes it a blessing in disguise for savvy travelers who will experience fewer crowds and untouched beauty. Established in 1916, Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to all four types of volcanoes found on Earth: composite, shield, plug dome, and cinder cone.
This vast area typically experiences two seasons – summer and winter. It seems there is little room for the in-between climates of spring and fall. Winter conditions can be expected from November through May, while much warmer conditions exist from June through October.
Lassen Peak is considered dormant at present, but the park remains an active volcanic area, with many hydrothermal spots. Scientists are quietly confident that it is not a question if Lassen Peak will erupt again, but when. The last eruption was in 1915.
Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway
Stop by the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and pick up a printed road guide, then hit the open road for a 30-mile wondrous journey around the east side of the park. The road connects the northwest and southwest entrances of the park. Travel in either direction and expect to stop and get out often, as there are numerous roadside highlights offering spectacular views. You can also download a roadside audio tour or purchase the audio CD at park stores, the visitor center, or online. This road passes many of the highlights described below.
As one of the park’s main hydrothermic features, it can be described as a bubbling mudpot that is always performing a show. Spewing hot thermal air and gases, do not be deterred by the heady aroma of rotten eggs – that’s just part of the sulfur fun. Roadside interpretive plaques explain the history behind the area; the mining operations and hydrothermal history. It is located in the southwest section of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Trek the Numerous Trails
You will want to bring a good map of the park with you, as many of the trails overlap and it’s easy to get confused as to which trail you’re on. One of the more popular hikes is Nobles Emigrant Trail. Part of the California National Historic Trail, it is the site where more than 250,000 emigrants traveled to gold fields and rich farmlands in California back in the mid-1800s. It was the greatest mass migration in American history. And of course, there is the epic climb to Lassen Peak.
Visit the Historic Loomis Museum
Built in 1927, this museum is housed in a historic structure and is small, but a very interesting way to learn about the history of the park. Benjamin Loomis built it to house his collection of geologic exhibits and park photos. Ranger-led programs are often held in the plaza outside, and the Lily Pond Interpretive Trail is just across the road. Note: the museum is only open in the summer.
This high-elevation lake with its strikingly blue water is the perfect place for honing your photographer’s skills. Stunning views of Lassen Peak in the background make for an amazing setting for the ultimate shot, especially during magic hour (right around dusk, when the light hits the mountain just right). Be prepared for colder weather much of the year – in fact, ice could remain on the lake into early summer! Lake Helen was named after Helen Tanner Brodt, the first woman to climb Lassen Peak back in 1864. It is situated 8,200 feet above sea level, and the drive up is phenomenal.
Located in the northwest section of the park, Manzanita Lake is a popular destination for camping, fishing, kayaking and in the winter, cross country skiing and show shoeing. Warmer temperatures invite the visitor to swim in the shadow of a spectacular, and as of now, quiet volcano. This area makes a great home base for exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park, with a large campground and modern facilities and cabins. Hike the 1.5-mile trail around the lake for the most amazing views. Other wintertime activities involving sledding the small hills on the lake’s northern shore and in the Chaos Jumbles Area.
When Lassen Peak last erupted in 1915, gigantic rocks rained down from the sky, hot gases and spewing ash decimated the surrounding forests, and a massive violent mudflow was unleashed that flooded the river valley. Many of the rocks in the area were literally tossed of the volcano and flung here from the blast of the eruption. Walk the Interpretive Trail and get a sense of what happened a little over 100 years ago. It is the best way to truly appreciate the significance of this National Park. It is an easy ½ mile long path and is accessible to strollers and wheelchairs.
Despite the name, this attraction is actually a lot of fun to explore. It is the largest area of hydrothermal features in the park. Here you can walk among the bubbling, thumping hissing symphony of sights and sounds that show off the amazing features of this volcanic valley. The Bumpass Hell Trail is 3 miles roundtrip, with about 300 feet of elevation gain. Just be sure to stay on the boardwalk for safety reasons – venturing off of the trail is extremely dangerous. This area does see a lot of snowfall each year, and because of this, the trail does not typically open until July.
Kings Creek Falls
With the areas of destruction come the immense beauty of a roaring waterfall and peaceful meadows. The Kings Creek Falls Trail is 2.3 miles roundtrip with about 500 feet of elevation gain. Once you reach the falls, you will see a spectacular water drop of 70 feet on a sturdy overlook perched on a cliff. There are two ways to reach the falls, but by far the better of the two is the Upper Cascades Trail. The Cascades Foot Section is a good way to make your return journey from the falls, with recently-built rock steps that offer gorgeous views.
Click here to see the Lassen Volcanic National Park poster.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who had the rare privilege of studying under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, Rob is on a journey to explore and photograph all 61 of America’s National Parks. He’s creating WPA-style posters to help people celebrate their own national park adventures — as well as encourage others to get out and explore!
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