Off The Beaten Path: Lassen Volcanic National Parks

When considering California and its national parks, many think of Yosemite’s massive walls, Joshua Tree’s other-worldly landscape, Death Valley’s scalding and barren land, and the enormous Redwood trees.

Hardly anyone thinks of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Due in part to California’s number of high-profile parks, along with its distance from a major city and any other tourist destination, Lassen Volcanic National Park is often overlooked. However, just because Lassen isn’t as familiar to the public doesn’t mean it’s a lesser park.

Lassen features four different types of volcanoes, including the 10,463-foot Lassen Peak. In addition, it also boasts a multitude of crystal-clear mountain lakes and enough geothermal features to impress even a Yellowstone aficionado.

I have been fortunate enough to visit Lassen National Volcanic Park on two occasions, and have found it beautiful, easy to navigate, and magnetic, as there is something about the place that draws you back. I first visited on a trip to Northern California’s Mount Shasta. My climbing partners and I decided to stop on our way and climbed Lassen Peak to acclimatize and explore the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade range.

It was on this trip that I gained first-hand knowledge of the park’s striking landscape, and learned of its Yellowstone-like geothermal spots. Despite my interest, however, there were bigger mountains to climb, and we left Lassen after a successful summit and a short nap in one of the park’s quiet parking lots.

Lassen Peak
Lassen Peak

Ironically, my second visit also coincided with a Mount Shasta trip. After climbing two routes in four days on Mount Shasta, my wife and I dropped our two climbing partners off at the Redding Airport, and then sought warm showers and cold air conditioning in one of Redding’s many motels. With one day left before flying home, and without much of a plan other than doing something outdoorsy while also trying to escape the overbearing summer heat, we thought to drive the hour to Lassen.

One of the great things about Lassen National Volcanic Park is that a large part of it lies above 7,000 feet, making it cool even in the middle of summer. The day we visited, we left behind mid-90-degree temperatures in Redding and found the park to be in the very comfortable mid-70s.

Despite legs tired from over 14,000 feet of climbing during the previous four days, most of it traveled with heavy packs, we found it difficult to avoid many of Lassen’s shorter hikes. With so much to see, breathtaking views around every corner, and limited time, we scurried around to take in as much as possible while telling our legs they could rest on the long flight home.

After spending four days in a mountain landscape, we were anxious to see something different and headed to Bumpass Hell, the park’s largest and most spectacular geothermal area. While being unburdened from the heavy packs and mountaineering boots felt great, as born-and-bred New Englanders, we sensed the trail’s 8,000-foot elevation every time it inclined even a little bit.

On the boardwalk at Bumpass Hell.
On the boardwalk at Bumpass Hell.

After taking in the out-of-this-world landscape, we were enthusiastic about visiting more of the park’s geothermal areas. While we were excited, our legs were not, so we opted to visit Sulfur Works, the park’s most accessible geothermal area, as a short walk along the sidewalk brings you to fascinating bubbling mud pots and steam vents.

After breaking free of the hypnotizing effect of watching the earth bubble and belch, we decided to move along to Cold Boiling Lake. A short one-mile hike (which, at 7,800 feet, is more work than it should be) led us to the lake, where, as the name implies, its bubbles mimic the effect of carbonation in a soda. The geothermal features of Lassen are truly other-worldly!

After sampling more of the park’s geothermal areas and taking in its amazing vistas, we drove to Lassen Peak and contemplated a summit attempt. However, any ideas for summiting were immediately dismissed when we drove past Lake Helen. This quintessential glacial lake sits in the shadow of Lassen Peak at an altitude of 8,200 feet. With its crystal-clear water tempting us, any action and ambition were put aside in favor of rest. After all, this was supposed to be a vacation! Dipping sore feet and tired legs into the cold water provided the perfect way to end an amazing trip.

I would highly recommend adding Lassen Volcanic National Park onto any trip of Northern California, or even as a stand-alone vacation. It’s an incredibly unique location that has a powerful pull to it, and I know I will be back again!

Looking down at Bumpass Hell.
Looking down at Bumpass Hell.