Admittedly we had some post eclipse blues after watching the sun become blotted out by the moon. I mean how do you follow-up day becoming night at 10:30 am? It turns out that hiking up volcanoes is a good next move. After watching the eclipse from the path of totality in Central OR we headed down to Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern CA.
This is another park that we’ve never really heard anyone talk about. Honestly, our knowledge of the park was limited to, “It has a lot of volcanoes, right?” Our first morning there, we set-off for the visitor center to learn about the park and come up with a game plan. Equipped with hike recommendations and another National Park Service video under our belts we headed out to explore.
History and Photography
Turns out that we were right—Lassen Volcanic National Park contains a whole lot of volcanoes. It’s one of the few places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—shield, cinder cone, plug dome, and composite. There may be a test later😉 The biggest, youngest, and most active volcano in the park is Lassen Peak.
Lassen Peak erupted not that long ago—from 1914 through 1921. The largest eruption was in 1915. A local amateur photographer—Benjamin F. Loomis—captured it in a series of photographs. Photography then was much different than it is today. Each photo required its own separate set-up. Loomis’s photos are spaced 20 minutes or more apart. The Loomis Museum has the series of photos printed at mural size so you can really see the difference in the smoke and ash plumes over time. Also, it’s apparent how terrifying it would be to stand that close to the erupting volcano and continue to capture images. Loomis certainly had some guts!
His photos helped raise awareness for this special area of land. After this eruption Congress was finally convinced to designate the area as a national park in 1916. The images were awe-inspiring and showed the power and extraordinary nature of this place. Hmmm, maybe we need to start getting more politicians on Instagram instead of Twitter?
Okay enough with the history lessons. Some of the really cool things about Lassen are all the geothermal areas. These are where steam from lava under earth’s surface vents out above ground. If you’ve been to Yellowstone you’ll be familiar with these landscapes. If not, you should find some geothermal action and check it out. You’ll be able to smell sulfur from a distance. Is it weird that I’ve been craving egg salad ever since we were there?
Bumpass Hell is the largest geothermal area in the park. It has boiling mudpots, steaming fumaroles, and hot spring pools. The place is named after Kendall Bumpass. I swear that one of the signs in the park refers to him as “a crusty old mountaineer and guide”. Well, Bumpass was guiding some visitors one day when he broke through the ground and fell into a boiling mudpot. Sadly he lost his leg, but now this area bears his name.
If you were paying attention above you’ll think, Hey, Cinder Cone is a type of volcano. Why is this section called that? Well, this particular volcano is not only a Cinder Cone, but is also named Cinder Cone. Not very creative, I know. This hike was probably the closest thing to walking on the surface of Mars as we’ll ever get. The trail starts in a rocky sparse forest, then giant volcanic rock piles aptly named the Fantastic Lava Beds come into view. I mean, how could you not want to visit something with that name?
You walk along the trail with the lava piles next to you until you come to the huge cone-shaped volcano. As you get closer, you start to think, What did we get ourselves into! The way up is steep! The sides of the volcano are 30-35° angles. It may not sound like much, but trust me it’s a steep slippery slope. Slippery because you’re walking on cinders which are like walking on sand. One step forward, half a slide back. One step forward…you get the idea.
As you ascend to the top of the cone, Lassen Peak comes into view. Once at the top there’s an incredible display of amazing formations spread out below you: The Painted Dunes, previously mentioned Fantastic Lava Beds, numerous mountain peaks, and gorgeous dark blue Butte Lake. You don’t know where to look first. Then you can descend into the center of the cone. Of course, you have to come back up and it’s another steep slippery slope, but a little shorter than the initial climb. After all, how often do you get to climb up a volcano and then down into it?
We took a little side-trip out of the park to a nearby cave. It was not far from our free campground just north of the park. The cave is actually a lava tube formed from flowing lava underground. It’s a little hike to the entrance stairway and then another short 1/3 mile hike through the cave. You come out of a different set of stairs and then circle back to the parking lot. It was nice to take advantage of nature’s AC in the always 46° cave.
Lassen Peak Summit
This was by far our most ambitious trek in the park. It’s only a 5 mile round-trip hike, but the elevation gain is close to 2,000 ft in 2.5 miles. We’re seeing a trend here at Lassen—steep slopes. Again though, when’s the next time we’ll get to climb up to a volcano? Also, it’s not everyday you can summit a peak as high as Lassen (10,457 ft) without needing true mountaineering skills (which we don’t have). Plus this hike starts with a great view of the Vulcan Eye!
The trail seemed like endless switchbacks. We stopped often along the way to take in the ever expanding views as we climbed. Near the top we were greeted by a flurry of butterflies. The wind carries them up to the high elevation and they circle around you like floating confetti. The final stretch of the hike is more of a scramble than a trail hike. While it’s short, this proved to be the most challenging section of the hike for me due to the thin air. I even had to take a food break in the middle of the scramble. Hangery hiking is not recommended. The views from the summit are amazing. We could see countless volcanic peaks, mountains, and lakes. The cold wind feels like a dream and the heights are dizzying but exhilarating! On the way down, we talked about what mountains we’d like to summit next.
Have you ever done a summit hike? Did you like it and would you do it again?