Find volcanic wonders, hiking trails, and an escape from crowds in this lesser-known park.
Nearly a century after Congress established 166 square miles of Northern California as Lassen Volcanic National Park, its lava domes, tumbling waterfalls, and tree-lined lakes remain one of the West’s best-kept secrets. This wilderness at the southernmost tip of the Cascade Range, 50 miles east of Redding, Calif., rivals Yosemite in its wealth of natural wonders and hiking trails, but Lassen draws not even a tenth as many visitors.
Why so few? “We don’t have an Ahwahnee here—no big lodges or major development,” says ranger Steve Zachary, who has been an education specialist at the park for 20 years. Instead, he says, the visitors who do find Lassen enjoy its calm as they camp, walk, and escape the crowds.
By July, the park’s high-altitude meadows and many of its peaks have traded their winter blanket of deep snow for a wildflower quilt of brilliant violets, pink bog laurel, and fiery Indian paintbrush. Vanilla-scented forests of Jeffrey and ponderosa pines make for sun-dappled hikes on crisp summer mornings and warm afternoons.
Still, there’s nothing calm about the volcanic drama churning beneath the landscape. The last time 10,457-foot Lassen Peak blew its top, in May 1915, a mushroom cloud of rock and ash shot 30,000 feet into the air while a rolling sludge of hot mud and boulders flattened trees, dammed rivers, and flooded meadows.
Though there have been no major explosions since then, the park’s lively geology remains its biggest draw. Visitors to the park and the surrounding Lassen National Forest can hike through a giant lava tube, crunch along the black-pebbled rim of a 700-foot-high cinder cone, and visit a steaming lake. The steep path up barren Lassen Peak is closed for repairs, but Mount Harkness offers better views and more wildflowers. For a briefer meander, there’s everyone’s favorite, Bumpass Hell, a 16-acre cauldron of scalding ponds, hissing steam vents, and chortling mud pots traversed by a sturdy wooden boardwalk.
For more trail advice, stop at the new Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. You can start the day there with a double espresso and end it with a panino and a microbrew while watching the light fade on Pilot Pinnacle. Solitude was never so sweet.
Photography by Diane Cook & Len Jenshel
This article was first published in July 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.