Steaming sulphur vents, splattering mud pots, boiling springs—these lively features show that the earth is not quiet in this fascinating park in the state’s wild north-east corner. The park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in May 1914, and its volcanic outbursts continued for three years. Today, things have settled down, and trails and overlooks let you safely see and learn about volcanic activity. Plus, there are miles of lush forests and sparkling lakes to explore too.
Looking up at this almost treeless, silent mountain, rising to 10,457 feet in a turquoise-blue sky, it’s hard to imagine that a century ago, it was rocked by violent eruptions that flattened trees and devastated the land for miles around. Lassen Peak’s flare-ups began in May 1914, but the heaviest devastation didn’t occur until one year later, with massive mudslides and steaming clouds of volcanic gases. Steam eruptions continued until 1921.
One of the best spots to admire Lassen Peak is from Lake Helen, which lies at its base just beyond the Bumpass Hell Overlook. This high-elevation lake often wears a cap of snow and ice into midsummer, giving the lake an icy turquoise hue. Even in drier years it’s a spectacular site. For a great picnic spot, aim for the area on the lake’s east side.
If you choose to hike up the volcano (a strenuous but not technical climb—doable by kids with a lot of energy), be prepared for company, especially on summer weekends.
Start early in the morning to beat the heat, carry plenty of water and wear sun hats. The path begins on a deceptively easy gradient though mountain hemlock and white bark pines, but gets steeper as you leave the trees. A series of switchbacks ascend to Lassen’s first summit, with head-spinning views. To visit Lassen’s actual crater, continue a short distance to the peak’s second summit.
The ‘hell’ in Bumpass Hell is aptly named. Here you see geology in action—16 acres of boiling springs and mud pots, hissing steam vents and roaring fumaroles. Early pioneer Kendall Vanhook Bumpass was the unfortunate explorer who stumbled—literally—upon these hydrothermal features in the 1860s: the discovery included stepping into a boiling pool and burning his leg.
No such worries for visitors today. An easy, well-marked trail travels to the geothermal site (3 mile round-trip and worth the effort). Along the way, a short spur trail leads to a stunning panorama of peaks—actually the remnants of a massive volcano called Mount Tehama, which exploded some 500,000 years ago. Your nose will tell you when you near Bumpass Hell. The rotten egg smell from naturally occurring gases is pervasive, and so is the noise—a strange ruckus created by all the belching mud pots and bubbling pools. Bumpass Hell’s boardwalk trail lets you walk safely around them, unlike poor Mr. Bumpass.
Manzanita Lake is one of the most photographed lakes in Lassen and the centrepiece of the park’s main visitor area. There’s a lot to do here: swimming, kayak hires, ranger-led programmes, cabin hires, a large campground and shop and a 1.6-mile hiking trail that circles the lake—perfect for kids who like to explore. On its north side are great vantage points for photographers looking to capture Lassen Peak’s dramatic cone reflecting in the lake’s blue water. Stop by a small museum to see period photographs of Lassen Peak’s 1914 eruption, as well as a handsome collection of Native American baskets.
Manzanita Lake’s campground has 179 sites and all the campground niceties: showers, flush toilets, even a coin-operated laundry. No camping gear? It’s available here for rent, or stay in an assortment of tidy cabins and bunkhouses.
This 1900 lodge offers snug accommodation in the south-east side of the park, with nice extras—massage services, guided trail rides, a restaurant and friendly bar perfect for a post-hike beer, even if you’re not a guest. There’s an appealingly rustic feel to this remote location, with kerosene lamps lighting most of the lodge’s cabins, comfy wooden chairs plonked in front of perfect views and trails fanning out in all directions. Rates include accommodation and all meals—which are decidedly luxe by back-country standards: think grilled salmon or prime rib for dinner and premium wines.
The ranch’s most coveted feature is its hot springs pool, known as Drake’s Bath. During the day the temperature is cooled to a comfortable level for swimming, but at night the naturally hot water creates a giant hot tub. (Insider tip: You can use the pool, even if you’re not an overnight guest; by making reservations for dinner that night.) Drakesbad is in the Warner Valley region of the park (accessed via the town of Chester). Ask ranch staff for directions to volcanic features like Devil’s Kitchen geothermal area, Boiling Springs Lake and Terminal Geyser.
At night, Lassen is dark—so dark that it warrants a celebration. The Dark Sky Festival, held in late July or early August, is a three-day bonanza of stargazing and astronomy activities—solar scope viewing, constellation tours, and discussions and demonstrations by experts from NASA and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Kids can learn about the stars, planets and constellations at Junior Ranger Astronomy sessions and take part in Night Explorer activities. But it’s not just once a year that Lassen celebrates the night sky. In summer, rangers hold astronomy programmes on both the north and south sides of the park--at the Devastated Area every Wednesday night and at the Bumpass Hell parking area on select Saturdays. Dress warmly—temperatures can drop to freezing after dark, even in summer.
In winter and spring, Lassen is a popular ski mountaineering and back-country snowboard destination, but even snow-sports novices can strap on a pair of snowshoes and stomp into the snowy wonderland to see the beauty of Lassen cloaked in white. While roads through the park close in winter, both the north entrance (Loomis Plaza area at Manzanita Lake) and south entrance (Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center) have marked snowshoe trails. Bring your own snowshoes and set off on your own, or go for a ranger guided snowshoe walk, offered on weekends. If you’re a cross-country skier, the snow-covered park road lets you kick and glide to Lassen’s steaming geothermal features surrounded by a blanket of white.
Most of Lassen’s attractions are centred around volcanic heat, steam and boiling water, which makes these two hikes to cool waterfalls especially refreshing. Starting from Southwest campground at the park’s southern entrance, Mill Creek Falls is a 3.8-mile round-trip that passes through a huge field of mule’s ears, their bright yellow flowers blossom cheerfully in July, and under the shade of massive red firs. Mill Creek Falls, at 75 feet, is the park’s highest waterfall.
Heading north up the main park road, the Kings Creek Falls hike is a 2.4-mile round-trip walk (or 3 miles if you take an alternate route, designated for horses, that is less steep). The hike takes you downhill through a verdant meadow, then continues down a rocky staircase alongside Kings Creek. The boisterous waterfall is about 50 feet high and tucked into a shady canyon; arrive in the late morning for your best chance of good photos. Cool your feet before heading back up the stairs to the trail.
With easy access and plenty of in-your-face geothermal activity, head to this remarkable site, right by the park’s main road. It’s impossible to miss it: Steam rises to the sky, and clay minerals splash a yellow, orange and red palette across the barren andesite rock.
"Steam rises to the sky, and clay minerals splash a yellow, orange and red palette across the barren andesite rock."
A short interpretive path loops around odoriferous steam vents (you will smell the rotten eggs, technically hydrogen sulphide), rumbling vents called fumaroles and bubbling mud pots. The largest mud pot, about five feet across, is right next to the walkway. The Sulphur Works had a long commercial history before it became a part of the national park. An Austrian businessman started a sulphur-mining operation here in 1865, but when demand for sulphur slowed, the businessman switched to tourism. ‘Supan’s Springs’ became the place to go to enjoy a hot mineral bath. It was so popular that by 1941, this site had a petrol station, canteen, bathhouse and large restaurant called The Sulphur Works Inn.
You forgot to plan your summer holiday, and now it’s July and you can’t get camping reservations. No worries. Lassen Volcanic National Park is typically so uncrowded that you don’t need reservations at half of its campsites, even though the camping season is quite short, typically late June to September, since snow can take a long time to melt at higher elevations. Remember to pack warm gear: nights can dip below freezing, even in summer.
The park’s eight camps differ in character and attract different types of campers. Manzanita Lake offers the most amenities, so it’s popular with families. The popular Summit Lake campgrounds, two separate areas with good swimming in the comfortably cool lake, are also good family choices. For a car-free setting, Southwest Walk-In Camp has 21 sites that require a short walk from the car park. The hike to Mill Creek Falls begins right at the camp, and the trailhead for Brokeoff Mountain is nearby. More remote campgrounds include Butte Lake, Warner Valley and Juniper Lake. Each lies at the end of a dead-end road that does not connect with the main park road. Juniper Lake is the best choice for kayakers with sites just a few steps from the water. The camp is primitive, so you’ll need to bring your own water or filter it from the lake.