Lassen National Park: More than just a peak experience

Chaos Crags, top left, and Lassen Peak (with snow) loom beyond occupants of a canoe on Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park in 2006.
Chaos Crags, top left, and Lassen Peak (with snow) loom beyond occupants of a canoe on Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park in 2006. Sacramento Bee file

One hundred years ago, a mere geologic eye blink, tectonic plates did a little twerking, and Lassen Peak roiled and rumbled, bubbled and blew. Boulders the size of Buicks and ash as fine as a single indiscernible micrometer rained down, magma spit out in a fury of smoke and steam, new craters tore through the summit and mudflows cut a swath of destruction with a violence unmatched since the eruptions 27,000 years ago that formed the peak.

By the time this tectonic tantrum ended, in 1917, what today is Lassen Volcanic National Park had been transformed, not utterly, but significantly and with unforeseen results.

If not for the eruptions’ fortuitious, media-savvy timing, coming as they did when photography became trendy in newspapers, Lassen probably would not be the federally protected, dearly held patch of morphing land mass it is today. See, the paparazzis of pumice couldn’t get enough of the billowing plumes visible for miles and miles, clear into Nevada and even down into that major media market, Sacramento. Ordinary people flocked to Red Bluff and Redding, 50 miles to the west, using their high-tech Brownies to take selfies.

The government took notice and, in 1916, declared Lassen a national park, upping its profile from a bit player in the Cascade range, literally overshadowed by divalike superstar Shasta, to a volcano to be reckoned with.

A series of volcanoes, actually. Unlike monogenetic Mount Hood or Shasta, which featured a single massive eruption and then just stood stolidly to be admired for millennia, Lassen is the character actor that keeps on giving, offering four types of volcanoes and a cauldron of geothermal activity.

When you visit Lassen today – and surprisingly, only about 400,000 a year make the trip, a pittance compared with Yosemite’s touristic hordes – you’ll see the plug dome of Lassen Peak, the eroded verticality of Brokeoff Mountain, the jagged, ragged beauty of Chaos Crags, the stark symmetry and granular fineness of Cinder Cone, and the fumaroles and bubbling mud pots of Bumpass Hell, Devil’s Kitchen, Sulphur Works and Boiling Lake, all visible evidence of Earth’s volatility and liquidity.

On this, the centennial of Lassen Peak’s last eruption, the park is holding a celebration May 22-25, featuring presentations by U.S. Geological Survey scientists, an official commemoration at the Devastated Area – the avalanche-leveled 3-mile stretch northeast of Lassen Peak – on-site geothermal lectures, plus evening get-togethers at Manzanita Lake, the lovely body of water dammed by tumbling volcanic rock, not by an engineer’s decree.

700The number of flowering plant species that grace the park, providing shelter and food for 250 vertebrates

You don’t have to be a geology groupie or ardent rock hound to be dazzled by Lassen’s topography. But to fully appreciate the forces of nature at work – about 300 eruptions from multiple vents in 3.5 million years, according to the USGS – to grasp the epochal significance, you really should consult the experts.

Perhaps no one knows every crag and crevasse, every peak and dome of Lassen as thoroughly as USGS scientists Patrick Muffler and Mike Clynne, who spent 35 years assiduously mapping the park and outlying areas.

What makes Lassen special for visitors, and worthy of scholarship by scientists, is its continued activity, which hits park visitors visually and olfactorily as soon as they reach Sulphur Works 6 miles past the park’s southwest entrance. This type of geothermal soup, evident at various park locales, coupled with the multiple vents with the potential to reawaken depending on Earth’s subterranean machinations, makes Lassen seem almost like a living, breathing entity.

“The Lassen volcanic center, which has a … history of volcanism in the same spot, not continuous, of course, but generated from a single magmatic system that’s in the upper crust, is sitting there just waiting to be reactivated any time it feels like it,” said Clynne, who said that a recent study shows that “there is magma down there and not very deep, probably 5 to 6 kilometers.”

Don’t fret about an eruption any time soon, though.

“It takes an injection of new magma from much deeper in the crust in order to rejuvenate the system and cause an eruption,” Clynne said. “It needs a new input of heat and mass to erupt. That’s what happened in 1915.”

And, theoretically, it could happen again. Oh, say, in about 7,000 years for a plug-dome like Lassen Peak, 1,500 for Cinder Cone. So plan your future visit accordingly.

Even though, as Muffler says, we don’t expect any caldera-forming eruption in our lifetime, the fact that Lassen is active as a geothermal hot spot is noteworthy.

“You’ve got more hot springs activity here than the rest of the hot springs (in the Cascades) put together,” he said. “Why here? It’s always been a puzzle why other volcanoes like Shasta and Crater Lake just don’t have it. I can give you some scientific arm-waving, but we honestly don’t know. Obviously, there’s a present-day heat source underneath Lassen which is like a burner on a stove, causing the pot above it to bubble.

“And those hot springs are really fun, all the mud pots and stuff. Fun, unless you step in them. Keep your distance.”

The great thing about Lassen is that, depending on time of year, you can get a close-up view of nature at work.

The 29-mile Main Park Road was built between 1925 and 1931.

Highway 89, which runs 35 miles from the Manzanita Lake Entrance Station in the northwest to the Southwest Entrance Station, provides several dozen spots to stop and observe historic geologic sites. These range from the aromatic and steam-belching Sulphur Works to the Bumpass Hell hike featuring additional bubbling minerals, to wondrous gawking at Lassen Peak, the Chaos Jumbles and the Devastated Area, as well as the opportunity to camp or cabin-dwell at Manzanita Lake.

Of course, weather is a factor for travelers. Even in this time of drought, in which the early May opening of Highway 89 was one of the earliest ever, the snow at the higher elevations probably won’t recede enough for full exploration until late June. So Lassen Peak is only seasonally hike-able – unless you don crampons and snow gear – as is Brokeoff Mountain, the second-highest peak. As of this writing, many trails remain impassible, including the popular Bumpus Hell. This past winter has been a challenge for Lassen lovers; the snow has not been deep enough for many of the scheduled snowshoeing trips to take place, but snowy enough to make hiking not recommended.

Though Lassen Peak (10,463) is snow-capped and drifts near the summit are as high as 10 feet, ranger Todd Jesse showed a photo of a completely snowed-in summit in a previous May and lamented, “This is what it should look like now.”

There has been enough snow so that backcountry skiers can hit Lassen Peak’s slopes well into spring. On the first day the road to the peak trailhead was open in early May, cars dotted the ample parking lot at the summit, skiers snapping in bindings pre-run or firing up the portable barbecues afterward.

Two mountain guides on Mount Shasta, Eric Layton and Jason Chapman, said they actually prefer Lassen to Shasta as a back-country destination.

“It’s a little more off the radar than some of the bigger volcanoes,” Layton said.

“More low-pro, yeah,” Chapman added.

Layton: “We were just on Shasta last week, and it’s so big and it gets a lot of the weather, that you get wind-hammered. It’s like a vortex, brings in all the weather. (Lassen) still gets a lot of snow, but it doesn’t get the huge amount of winds. Of course, it’s a couple thousand feet lower than Shasta. It’s that perfect elevation where the winds are moderate and (the powder) stays smoother.”

For friends Gregory Burnett, Alec Sandberg and Matt Gibely, from Tahoe’s Olympic Valley, their yearly back-country trek from the summit parking lot to the Devastated Area parking lot – they leave a car and get dropped off – was a little different this May.

“Most of the time,” Burnett said, pointing to the asphalt at his feet and the cleared road in the distance, “we could ski clear into this parking lot. Most times, you can actually ski Lassen a lot of the year.”

400,000Visitors a year to Lassen Volcanic National Park

By the height of summer, though, people will be reaching for Lassen’s heights on foot. It’s a popular route for day hikers, because it’s much easier to ascend than Shasta (at 14,180 feet).

Jennifer Cauthorn of Redding, visiting Manzanita Lake recently with her partner, Andrew Keller, is a Lassen Peak veteran. Though the peak tops out at more than 10,000 feet, its actual ascent gains only 2,000 feet over 2.3 miles.

“It’s a pretty strenuous hike, but not undoable,” she said.

Providing, of course, you have a reasonable amount of fitness. But Lassen is all about options. For every arduous trail, such as Brokeoff Mountain or Lassen Peak, there are moderate and easy hikes. Bumpass Hell, which ranger Sheryl Carnegie says is “undeniably the most popular trail in the park,” probably won’t open until early July and will still have snow on its 1.4 miles (one way) at the end of the month, but people still flock to ogle Big Boiler, the largest fumarole in the park, one that has reached 322 degrees Fahrenheit. Heed those frequent signs admonishing you to stay on the trail’s boardwalks, for the Earth’s crust here is thin and porous.

“The first time we ever went there, it was August, and there was still snow,” said Bradley Hoover of Redding, whose partner added, “There was this cool steam coming off (the snow-covered rocks) and in the pits. Really cool.”

Manzanita Lake’s charms are more subtle and its waters certainly less volatile. A jaunt around the lake is just 1.5 miles and relatively flat, and you’ll liable to see water fowl honking and skimming across the glassy surface. The sight of fish jumping only teased Keller, an avid fisherman. “It’s the only lake you can’t keep what you catch,” he lamented. “But we came up to hike and see the lake.”

Lakes and meadows abound on the Highway 89 corridor – Terrace Lake, Kings Creek Falls, Mill Creek – but if you crave solitude, alight to the hinterlands of the park.

“Basically,” Jesse the ranger said, “you should go to the corners of the park to get away. Warner Valley. Butte Lake. Butte Lake campground rarely fills up, even on Fourth of July weekend. Basically, if you get a half-mile from the road out there, you aren’t going to see anybody.”

In early May, at least, he was right.

From the Manzanita Entrance, it’s a 40-mile drive east toward Susanville to get near the Butte Lake turnoff, where it’s another 6 miles on a washboard dirt road to the ranger station. It’s worth it, because this northeast section features the Cinder Cone, the Fantastic Lava Beds and the Painted Dunes – must sees, all. Even before Lassen Peak blew its top and entire area became a national park, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 declared Cinder Cone a national monument.

“Next to the Grand Canyon, this is one of my favorite places in the world,” said Verna Ober of Redding. “A lot of people go to the peak and they don’t even know the amazing part that’s right here.”

It’s only a 4-mile round trip, on cinders with the consistency of sand, from the Butte Lake parking lot to the top of Cinder Cone, but it’s sightseeing-intensive. You pass by the Lava Beds, hardened magma that oozed through the base of the vent, rather than being expelled through the top, during the 1665 eruption. Once you reach the top of the cone – 950 feet of climbing in a half-mile – you can look down at the Painted Dunes, so named because the lumps of cinder have oxidized. But it’s the view outward from Cinder Cone’s rim that beckons. Lassen Peak absolutely hovers, but you can see clear over the Mount Harkness to the southeast.

In the southeast corner of the park, the Warner Valley (accessible only via the town of Chester), you can hike 2.5 miles (one way) from the Warner Valley Campground to Devil’s Kitchen, smaller than Bumpass Hell but no less a geothermal delight. You cross several lush meadows and pass Jeffrey Pine cedar, and before you see Devil’s Kitchen, you will smell its hydrogen sulfide excretions. On your way back, you can make a mile-long detour and visit Boiling Springs Lake along the Pacific Crest Trail.

As at almost every higher elevation in the park, the specter of Lassen Peak pops up at Devil’s Kitchen. The peak seems omnipresent and ever-morphing, as if it refuses to be ignored. And, 100 years ago this month, it certainly wasn’t.

Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145, @SamMcManis.

If you go

Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • Location: 50 miles east of Red Bluff and Redding. For Southwest Entrance Station, take Highway 36 from Red Bluff to Mineral, turn north and drive 8 miles on Highway 89 to the ranger kiosk. For Northwest Entrance, take Highway 44 from Redding to its junction with Highway 89. Entrance kiosk is a quarter-mile south.
  • Cost: $10 (for seven-day pass)
  • Centennial of Lassen Peak Eruption: May 22-25. Festivities include a commemoration at 4 p.m. May 22 at the Devastated Area and presentations by USGS scientists throughout the weekend.
  • More information:

Bits of history

  • Lassen Volcanic National Park started as two separate national monuments designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907: Cinder Cone National Monument and Lassen Peak National Monument.
  • Jedediah Smith passed through what is now the park in 1828 on his overland trek to the West Coast.
  • Danish blacksmith Peter Lassen, for whom the park is named, guided settlers in the 1830s and tried to establish a city.

National Park Service