Up The Road: Volcanic California Tour: Lassen

Aug 19, 2020

Credit United States Department of the Interior National Park Service

We set out this week on the first leg of the Volcanic California Tour. This trip doesn’t cover all volcanic activity in California, but it does take in two immense and impressive peaks, Lassen and Shasta. These are the southernmost volcanoes in the Cascade Range, both “active.” The tour also includes the intriguing Modoc Plateau and the option of day-trip and overnight solitude on the Pacific Crest Trail.

For this and other coming road trips: If you’re at high risk for COVID-19 complications, come along in your imagination, taking mental notes for future trips. Otherwise, plan a classic road trip, moving from here to there, pulling up stakes daily and practicing coronavirus safety all the way. Or set up camp—or rent a cabin—in some central location, instead, making day trips out in all directions. 


First stop: Lassen Volcanic National Park, with breathtaking alpine views and big-sky volcanic education. You’ll see examples of all four kinds of the world’s volcanoes all in one place, a rarity. 


The big story at Lassen is that it’s a real-deal volcano, still active, featuring all kinds of ongoing volcanic action. Lassen last blew in 1915, an eye-blink in geologic time, the dramatic end to more than a year of violent eruptions that amazed the nation—and led to Lassen’s protection as a national park.


Get the big picture on Lassen’s stunning 30-mile alpine tour. The historic highway slowly climbs from one park entrance to the other—spiraling up, up, up to the base of Lassen Peak and then down the other side, whichever way you go. An ideal overview for families and folks with physical limitations.


Cell service and WiFi are limited in the park, so before you leave home download Lassen’s free audio Then and Now Highway Tour, which explains what you’re seeing at all 16 highway markers. These days you can also watch the park’s introductory film online.


Better yet: explore up close, for a hands-on, boots-on volcanic education. The park is laced with 150 miles of hiking trails, including segments of the famous Pacific Crest Trail.


Not everyone will be up for hiking Lassen Peak. Quite a climb, at very high elevation. But there are rewards. What a view, for one thing, especially on a crisp, cool day in autumn when the air is crystal clear. For another: In mid to late summer—usually July to mid-August—hikers can be greeted uptop by billowing clouds of migrating California tortoiseshell butterflies, which beat the heat above treeline for weeks before flowing downslope again. Not too many butterflies this year, I hear, though last year’s migration was epic.


Another unique park event went virtual this year—Lassen’s annual Dark Sky Festival. So, if you missed it in mid-August, you can still take part. Lassen usually offers late-night stargazing, in conjunction with its many partners—because this is a truly dark night sky. But not this year, when Lassen is already unusually crowded.


However, if you just happen to be here late on a clear moonless night—socially distanced in the parking lot at the base of Lassen Peak, say, telescope and thermos of hot cocoa in hand—the views of the heavens are sublime. Helps keep so many other things in perspective.




Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel

Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread.