Up The Road: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Jun 15, 2016

In honor of the 100th birthday of our National Parks system, this week we head up the road to the alpine wilderness of Lassen Volcanic National Park—an international wonder, right here, that too few of us enjoy. Name any other national park where you can usually just show up in summer and grab a campsite.

Lassen (right) and Eagle Peaks reflect in the calm morning waters of Lake Helen.
Credit Joe Parks / Flickr, Creative Commons

Lassen visitors should bring a better sense of direction than the park's namesake, Danish immigrant and intrepid traveler Peter Lassen. According to a journal entry by his friend, Gen. John Bidwell, Lassen “was a singular man, very industrious, very ingenious, and very fond of pioneering—in fact, of the latter, very stubbornly so. He had great confidence in his own power as a woodsman, but, strangely enough, he always got lost.” This almost led to his lynching on at least one occasion, when he confused Lassen and Shasta peaks while guiding a wagon train of immigrants westward, thereby taking them more than 200 miles out of their way.

Star party at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center during the Lassen Dark Sky Festival
Credit Photo used courtesy of National Park Service

A great thing about Lassen Park is that much of its spectacular high-country scenery is accessible for folks who aren’t intrepid trekkers, thanks to two-lane Highway 89. It has something for just about everyone otherwise: family camping; both easy and challenging hikes; backpacking on 150 miles of trails, including the Pacific Crest Trail; mountain climbing; serious cycling; birding and other nature study; fishing; kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding. Not to mention excellent cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in winter.

Stargazing is spectacular here, whether on your own or during the park’s Dark Sky Festival in August. Come in September to sample local creations at the annual Art & Wine Festival. And this year there are special centennial events, including ribbon cutting for the park’s new Volcano Adventure Camp—tent cabins, cooking pavilion, showers, and amphitheater for low-cost outdoor immersion programs for young people.

Volcanoes. That’s a key reason to come. Lassen is superb for personally exploring the wonders of volcanism, and one of very few places in the world where you can see all four types. If you won’t be hiking a volcano, look for accessible volcanic features elsewhere—mudpots, hot springs, boiling lakes, and fumaroles.

View from the top of Cinder Cone: Painted dunes, lava flows and two lakes.
Credit Akos Kokai / Flickr, Creative Commons

Lassen Peak is one of the largest plug volcanos in the world. Nearby Brokeoff Mountain is the southwestern peak of what was once mighty Mt. Tehama before most of that ancient stratovolcano collapsed into a caldera. (A classic Cascades stratovolcano, just north, is Mt. Shasta.) Lassen's unimaginatively named Cinder Cone is a classic example of a cinder cone volcano, composed entirely of pyroclastic, or "fire-broken," rock (molten fragments that solidify before they hit the ground). Prospect Peak is a shield volcano, formed from lava flows.

Cinder Cone.
Credit Akos Kokai / Flickr, Creative Commons

In the early 1900s, residents and “experts” believed Mount Lassen to be an extinct volcano. But in late May of 1914, following a small earthquake, columns of steam and gases began spewing forth, littering the mountain’s upper slopes with small chunks of lava. During the next year, Lassen blew more than 150 times, leaving spectators thrilled but still unconcerned. Then on May 19, 1915, molten lava bubbled up to the crater’s rim, spilled over its southwestern side, and flowed 1,000 feet down the mountain before cooling into a solid mass. Lava poured over the rim on the peak’s north side too, steam shot from a vent near the peak, and chunks of lava fell like hard spring rain. Boiling mudflows peeled off tree bark 18 feet above ground and submerged meadows with six feet of ooze, flowing into Hat and Lost Creek valleys. “The big one” came three days later, when billowing smoke shot five miles into the air, catapulting five-ton boulders into the sky. Steam blasted again, this time horizontally, flattening trees and anything else in its path. There were several more minor eruptions before Lassen was officially declared asleep—but not dead—in 1921. 

No one is comfortable predicting when, or even if, Lassen will awaken again. So if you haven’t already enjoyed the peace and quiet of Lassen Volcanic National Park, better get going. Your time may almost be up. 

Kim Weir is founder and editor of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. Weir is also a long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers, and a former NSPR reporter.