Lassen Volcanic Nationial park has similarities with Mt. St. Helens and Crater Lake. For three years beginning in May of 1914, Lassen Peak erupted. Its biggest eruption was on May 22, 1915 when it sent a mushroom-shaped cloud of ash 30,000 feet into the air. A large area was left tree-less and covered by a mud flow. Also like Mt. St. Helens, the eruption happened recently enough that there are photographs, numerous eyewitness accounts, and ongoing scientific research on the effects to the environment from the eruption and the recovery. The eruption changed Lassen from a National Volcanic Monument to a National Park. However, looking at the effects of the eruption is not the main reason why people come here
Lassen Volcanic National Park, like Crater Lake, is the crater rim of an old volcano. When you are exploring the park, you are wandering through the caldera. The original composite volcano, known as Brokeoff Volcano or Mt. Tehama, was over eight miles wide and over 11,000 feet high. It didn’t erupt, instead it wore down through hydrothermal activity and weathering. Around 27,000 years ago, Lassen Peak formed as a volcanic vent on the volcano’s flank. It is one of the world’s largest plug dome volcanoes. Lassen Peak is 10,457 feet tall, but only rises 2,000 feet, so it makes for a nice day hike. Also like Crater Lake, there are all four types of volcanoes. Though at this park I was told they are plug, cinder cone, shield and composite.
I spent my first night at Lassen in the north end at Manzanita Lake. The lake is new. It developed after large rocks fell during the eruption and dammed a river. I took both a sunset and early morning walk around it. There are nice views of Lassen and numerous birds: grebes, ducks, dippers. It would be a good place to sit and observe nature. But I packed up and moved to Summit Lake in the middle of the park. Summit Lake is the most popular campground and I assumed it also would be scenic and have birds. It had screaming teenagers in self-powered watercraft.
There is a maze of hiking trails that lead to a multitude of lakes that goes out from the campground. I took a hike that passed Echo Lake, Upper Twin Lake, Lower Twin Lake and ended at Rainbow Lake. I think that’s the most lakes I’ve ever gotten to in one hike. I even got to confirm the trail to a PCT hiker going past. The east side of the park is all trails and the distances aren’t far. A backpacker could see quite a bit of the park in just a few days. The other days I took drives and did short hikes. One stop on the road lets visitors see the devastated area where mud and avalanches cleansed the mountainside of trees. There are before and after pictures and the current view.
At the southern end of the park, I found a most interesting and scenic place called Bumpass Hell. A trail leads down to the thermal area that was Brokeoff Mountains’s heart. At the parking lot is a plaque showing the panorama of the peaks that form the crater of the original volcano. Looking at them in a circle around you, you can see how immense the volcano was. This is one of the most scenic trails I have ever been on. The peaks and caldera valley are all around you as you hike along. Then I came to large, purple lupine fields, one of them climbing up a steep hillside. Finally, I came to the hydrothermal area. A sulfur smell was in the air. The ground was a pale-yellowish white. Fumaroles puffed steam. Mud pots popped hot bubbles. A rainbow of mineral colors made stripes along the trickling streams. The area is named after explorer Kendall Bumpass who found the area and hoped to get rich from the minerals in it. He also lead hikes through it. On one of these hikes, after warning his guests to walk carefully because the crust is thin, he broke through the crust and ended up losing his leg. One of his guests commented, “If he’d been a cursing man, I’m sure he’s have said a few. That he was silent shows there were no words to describe it.” Bumpass never made his fortune.
On Wednesdays, Ranger Kathy gives campfire talks at the Summit Lake amphitheater, and once it gets dark, leads a star talk. I went to both. Ranger Kathy has been at Lassen for 29 years. She calls it a pocket park because it is so small and doesn’t get a lot of visitors. Ranger Kathy must have been either an elementary school teacher or in vaudeville in a previous life because she is full of dramatic energy. After learning about the rodents in Lassen (and getting the name of the rodent I had to present and identify in front of the group wrong, Douglass squirrel), I went to my first star talk. I learned how to use my fingers to measure sky distances so we could all talk about how far a constellation was from another. She also told the Greek myths that went with the constellations. I zoned out on those. I enjoyed it so much that I bought a star chart and plan to use it one day. (I have yet to go out at night–it’s cold and dark.)
I took lots of little three mile or so hikes that lead to lakes or waterfalls. The meadows were flowerless in August. The sun was always shining and the trails were in great condition. There was not much diversification in the forest trees. Often I was walking through pure stands of California red firs or Lodgepole pines. I also saw my first Jeffery Pines which have the same cracked, red bark as Ponderosa pines and a sweet butterscotch smell if you put your nose in the cracks and breathe deeply. On one trail I came across a large group of around fifty people. It seemed to be an outing for at-risk young people. One of the chaperons noticed the shell on the back of my pack and asked what it was for. I told her about the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Some of the young people overheard the conversation and were intrigued. On my hike back, I passed them again and those young people stopped me to ask more questions about the Camino. I hope some day they will have the opportunity to do it.
I finished my time at Lassen with a climb to the top of the peak. They are rebuilding the trail so it is only open once a month on weekends. I got lucky! It’s only 2.5 miles and 2,000 feet up to the top. The trail was mobbed with boy scouts carrying heavy coats; 20 somethings in light tennis shoes and a small water bottle in their hand; and rugged hikers with boots, backpacks and poles. The first two miles were easy, but everyone was dragging up the final half a mile. I stopped at the plaques and view of a crumbled crater rim. Others crossed a snowfield and climbed up to a narrow pinnacle. As long as the pinnacle wasn’t 458 feet higher than where I was standing, I had hiked to over 10,000 feet. (Is the 10,457 summit where the plaques are or the highest place on the peak?)