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Up The Road: Staying Cool At Lassen

Tosh Chiang



We head up the road this week in search of cool once again. To the mountains this time—lonely Lassen Volcanic National Park, fully accessible only in summer and early fall.

But do cultivate a better sense of direction than the park’s namesake, Danish immigrant 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 party of immigrants westward, taking them more than 200 miles out of their way. Oops.

The unifying fact about Lassen Volcanic National Park is right there in the name. Volcanic. This is one of the best places anywhere to get a hands-on/boots-on lesson in volcanology, because you can explore examples of all four kinds of volcanos found in the world: shield volcanos, cinder cones, plug dome volcanos, and remnants of a composite or stratovolcano. Lassen’s sister volcano Shasta, just north, is a classic Cascades Range stratovolcano, still active.

That’s right. Still active. Lassen, too, is still active, though in the early 1900s even the experts thought otherwise. That all changed in 1914, when the peak started to erupt.

At first Lassen seemed to be just letting off steam. It blew dirt, chunks of lava, and hot gases into the air more than 150 times.

The next year, unusually heavy snow added a lake of liquid to the overheated volcanic stew. On May 19, 1915, molten lava bubbled up to the crater’s rim and spilled over on the southwestern side, flowing 1,000 feet down the mountain before cooling into a solid mass. On Lassen's north side, lava poured out, steam shot from a vent near the peak, and chunks of lava fell like hard spring rain. Boiling mud peeled off tree bark 18 feet above ground, and submerged meadows with six feet of debris, as it flowed into the valleys of Hat and Lost Creeks.

The Big One came three days later. Smoke shot up five miles, catapulting five-ton boulders into the air, and steam blasted out again, this time horizontally, flattening trees and anything else in its path. The ending drama created such a stir that Lassen gained national park status in 1916. Today you can witness current evidence of the park’s active dormancy: hot springs, hot lakes, steam vents, and boiling mud pots.

Many people actively explore Lassen, with 150 miles of interconnecting hiking trails, including 19 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Notable features—including major volcanos and a few glacial lakes—are visible and accessible from the one paved road that traverses the park, making a tour of Lassen doable for families with small children and for anyone with physical limitations.

In winter, when the road is buried under tons and tons of snow, come to snowshoe and ski cross-country.

Now, that’s cool.

Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.