A Peak Experience
By Laura Power
The main park road through the western side of Lassen Volcanic National Park twists and rises through 3,500 feet, with breathtaking vistas on all sides. I white-knuckled it behind a steering wheel on my first morning there.
The park falls along the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” the circumference of the Pacific basin where plates in the earth’s crust meet, and collide. Most of the world’s earthquakes and volcanic activity occur on the Ring, which runs through Oceana, up the eastern edge of Asia, across Alaska, and down western North, Central, and South America. The result in Lassen is an abundance of great hiking and beautiful scenery.
My husband, two teen-aged children and I decided first to take on the Bumpass Hell hydrothermal area. The trail in is short (1.25 miles) with modest elevation change, a fitting warm-up for our two ardent hikers, one willing walker, and one how-much-further-is-it straggler. The area is named for Kendall Bumpass, a mid-1800s resident and area guide. According to an informational placard, Bumpass’ leg broke through a deceptively sturdy-looking but thin earthen crust as he led a group through the 16 acres of fumaroles (volcanic vents), boiling mudpots, and hot springs (ground water heated by magma). His acutely burned limb had to be amputated. A network of boardwalks and railings help visitors today avoid the dangers of scorching water, mud, and steam that reaches 320 degrees Fahrenheit.
The wafting odor of sulfur as the trail in drops 300 feet, and the plumes of steam hissing out of the ground do make the walk down to Bumpus a little like descending into hell. We prowled around the boardwalks, above simmering milky-blue pools that puddled and sprawled amongst rust- and chalk-colored crusts.
After our hike, we continued down the main road for 23 miles to Manzanita Lake, at Lassen’s northwestern most entrance. The lake is 1.8 miles around, and populated by rainbow and brown trout. Fishing is catch and release only, and a license is required. A few anglers floated in single person inner tube-like kickboats, and a mother duck and her brood entertained us with their splashing and feeding.
We planned to hike to Kings Creek Falls, a 700-foot cascade, on our second day. En route, however, we passed Mount Lassen, the highest point in the park at 10,459 feet. “I’d really like to climb that,“ my nineteen year old son declared.
Mount Lassen is a lava dome created 27,000 years ago. It last erupted over several days in May of 1915, after a year of relatively small steam blasts. Culminating explosions that May produced slides of mud, snow, rock and water that ravaged the areas below. Steam vents persisted in the resulting two craters at the peak into the 1950’s.
Though the roundtrip hike is only five miles, climbing Mount Lassen seemed formidable for our group. The trailhead is 8,500 feet above sea level; I wasn’t sure that we could all make the 2,000 foot vertical gain comfortably—especially as we were already situated at a high elevation. When we stopped in at the trailhead store, the woman minding the register there assured us that her grandfather hiked it when he was 80.
My son insisted on going for it. “We’re here,” he said, “if you don’t want to hike it, just pick me up in five hours.” So we all agreed to do it.
We split into a “fast” group (my son and I) and a “slow” group (my husband and seventeen year old daughter). The two laggers weren’t committed to getting all the way to the top, and resolved to enjoy themselves for however far they could make it.
My son and I climbed at a steady pace, only occasionally pausing to catch our breath. As we gained elevation, the trail hairpinned through scrub pines and boulders. Before long, we emerged from the trees to an early, and stunning, reward. Views rolled out all around, in every direction. The green and gold earth, studded with dark pines, stretched out for several miles before meeting with rows and rows of densely treed ridges. After a few long back and forth turns, we saw the nearby lakes, Emerald and Helen, lying sparkling and deep blue below. Then the fingers of Lake Almanore, some fifty miles away, appeared in the hazy distance.
The trail zigzagged up the bald and open mountainside. Along the way we could see the bobbing heads of fellow hikers as they neared the top. From below, the mountain looked formidable, but in fact, the climb was reasonably gradual and the trail cindery and smooth. When we reached the summit, an hour and fifteen minutes after starting out, the wind whipping at our faces had proven more daunting, ultimately, than the elevation gain.
Mount Lassen, to us, was an eerie landscape of sharp hewn rocks and tors, and crackled mounds of petrified lava. Near the first of the summit’s two peaks, we paused for pictures in a large patch of snow. Then we looked north for views of Mount Shasta, the highest mountain in California, and there it was, unmistakable and imposing, framed by the ragged crags of Lassen.
At the base of the second “peak,” I sat for a bit, thrilled at the sight of thousands of California Tortoiseshell butterflies flitting down and around the rocks, rarely rising more than a foot or two away from the surface. After about forty-five minutes, I literally jumped for joy to see that our two “laggers,” had made it to the top!
“You’re here!” I cried to my daughter and husband. They’d walked up slowly, pausing often to savor the views, watch a herd of deer, and read the informational placards posted beside the trail. My daughter had nattered on about school and friends along the way; “it was a good time to listen,” my husband said later.
For another half an hour or so, we all enjoyed the peak together, roaming in and around the jagged rocks spit helter skelter by the volcano a hundred years ago. As we looked out over the steep and barren “Devastated Area” down Lassen’s northeast slope, we witnessed the destructive power of the lava and mud avalanches that followed the eruption. Butterflies danced around us as we rested on chunks of hardened lava. Finally, we took our last looks at Mount Shasta, miles away.
Walking down the trail was quicker, of course. The wind was still brisk, the scenery still breathtaking. But the afternoon was gone, we were spent, out of time and energy for any more hiking that day. Back at the trailhead, we sat at picnic tables in the parking lot and ate king-sized Nutty Buddies from the base store.
“That was good work,” I congratulated.
“Yes,” replied my daughter, “it was a real peak experience.” We all laughed.
Our visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park was the hands-down highlight of our summer that year. “It’s a national park for a reason,” my husband remarked. We should have stayed longer. I’d only budgeted two days in the park, so we never made our planned hike to Kings Creek Falls. And we didn’t get over to the northeastern corner of the park to hike the Cinder Cone, another volcano formed some 350 years ago. We did, however, make cherished family memories. And we all cannot wait to go back.
Laura Power is a some-time freelance writer and a former business consultant. In the last decade, she and her husband have criss-crossed the continental United States six times, at first with tenting gear and more recently with a travel trailer. They've visited 40 National Parks and Monuments. At home, Laura enjoys all the outdoor recreations that her adopted home state of Vermont offers.