Uncovering Hidden Treasures: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Are you one of those intrepid travelers who yearn for more than the well-trodden paths of the popular U.S. National Parks like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite? While these iconic destinations are a must-see for any road trip enthusiast, their overwhelming popularity can lead to overcrowding, especially during peak tourist seasons. The unique breed of travelers I’m about to introduce isn’t snobbish. In fact, they’ve ventured into the classic parks at least once. Their insatiable curiosity propels them to seek out the concealed natural wonders within this corner of North America’s breathtaking beauty.
California’s Hidden Gem: Lassen Volcanic National Park
Think you know California inside out? Prepare for a delightful surprise. Have you ever come across Lassen Volcanic National Park? If the answer is no, you’re in good company. Lassen is one of those lesser-known parks nestled in northeastern California, a region that often eludes typical road trip itineraries. But here’s the scoop: it’s a hidden jewel waiting to be discovered!
Let’s dive into everything you need to know for your visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park, often dubbed California’s miniature version of Yellowstone National Park.
What to Expect
The picturesque road slicing through this park, essentially the sole route except for a few minor roads, offers a unique mountain landscape dominated by the towering Lassen Peak, soaring to 10,433 feet. Within this terrain, you’ll stumble upon bubbling lava pools, craters, and steaming fumaroles creating a dramatic contrast with emerald lakes and lush coniferous forests. Trails of varying lengths and difficulty levels crisscross the park, all effortlessly accessible from the main road.
Lassen Peak, one of the largest volcanic domes on Earth, presently slumbers, with its last eruption tracing back to 1915. In a park segment known as the Devastated Area, remnants of this eruption still remain.
Best Time To Visit Lassen Volcanic National Park
If you’re embarking on a journey by car (how else would you reach this remote gem?), careful planning is essential. During the winter months (December to May), all park roads are off-limits to vehicular traffic. Therefore, your window to explore Lassen Volcanic National Park opens from June to October. For the safest and most accessible experience, consider scheduling your trip for August or September. However, even during the open season, road closures can occur, particularly in July due to lingering snow. If you opt to visit during these months, ensure you carry snow chains.
Where is Lassen Volcanic National Park
The primary town neighboring Lassen Volcanic National Park is Redding, situated a mere 50 minutes from the park’s north entrance. To access the park from Redding, embark on a roughly 50-mile journey (approximately 50 minutes) along Hwy 44 until you reach the junction with CA-89 S. This road transforms into the scenic Lassen Park Rd, the sole thoroughfare traversing the park from north to south.
Travelers originating from Sacramento can bypass Redding by taking I-5 N to Red Bluff, a locale boasting several hotels and gas stations. From there, it’s a 40-minute drive along Hwy 36 to Mineral, a diminutive town equipped with limited facilities but home to a supermarket and a lodge. Beyond Mineral, embark on Lassen Park Rd to access the park via the Southwest Entrance Station.
If your journey commences from the east, continue your route through Chester and remain on Hwy 36 until you connect with Lassen Park Road.
Hiking Lassen Volcanic National Park: Must-Explore Trails
Here are some highly recommended trails and itineraries for those embarking on a one- or two-day exploration of Lassen Volcanic National Park, commencing from the south (Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center) and proceeding north (Manzanita Lake):
- Mill Creek Falls: Lassen’s resemblance to a miniature Yellowstone includes its waterfall. Although not as majestic as Yellowstone’s, Mill Creek Falls offers a popular family hike. The 3.2-mile trail (approximately 2.5 hours) near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center winds through flowery meadows and the dense Red Fir Forest alongside East Sulfur Creek.
- Sulphur Works: This hydrothermal area is a popular stop for visitors entering from the south. A short trail offers views of the intense hydrothermal activity that characterizes the park. Allocate less than an hour to explore bubbling mud pools and fumaroles.
- Bumpass Hell: This area boasts stunning hydrothermal features and a more demanding hike with a longer duration. Covering about 3 miles round-trip with a 295-foot elevation gain, the trail takes approximately 2 hours to complete. Starting from the parking lot (6 miles from the south entrance), the trail winds through woods to an open area where the ground boils and trembles. Bumpass Hell’s main attraction is the Big Boiler, the world’s largest fumarole inside a dormant volcano. Stick to the boardwalk!
- Lake Helen: Near the aforementioned parking lot, you’ll encounter the stunning Lake Helen. Its crystal-clear waters mirror the coniferous forest and showcase Lassen Peak, the park’s main attraction. It’s a worthwhile stop for a photograph, though you won’t be the only one with this idea!
- Lassen Peak Trail: For more adventurous hikers seeking a panoramic view from the summit, the Lassen Peak Trail is a challenging option. Climbing a rock staircase to the volcano’s top, you’ll experience an astonishing elevation gain of nearly 1,970 feet over approximately 4-5 hours roundtrip. This trail is recommended for experienced hikers with extra time to spare.
- Devastated Area Interpretive Trail: Despite its uninspiring name, this short trail in the northwest park area offers enlightening insights into the effects of a volcano eruption. To reach the trail’s parking lot at the base of Lassen Peak from the south entrance, drive 19 miles to Emigrant Pass. From there, follow an easy paved trail for about half an hour, suitable for the entire family, complete with informational panels.
- Manzanita Lake: For lovers of mountain lakes, explore the trail encircling Manzanita Lake at the park’s northern entrance. Covering 1.8 miles in about 2 hours, this leisurely walk offers captivating views of Lassen Peak.
Other Hidden Spots to Unearth
While Lassen Park Road serves as the primary route through the park, there are lesser-known areas of extraordinary beauty that often escape tourists’ attention. Although I’ll highlight two of them, consider these if you possess a genuine interest and the luxury of extra time:
- Butte Lake Area: Accessible via Hwy 44, roughly 24 miles east of Manzanita Lake, this area features the enchanting Butte Lake and Cinder Cone, an impressive volcano crowned with a summit crater. A challenging 4-mile hike (approximately 3 hours) beginning at the lake’s parking lot traverses breathtaking lava beds along the lake’s edge (Fantastic Lava Beds) and ascends the solidified lava mass to the crater. The reward? A breathtaking view of the adjacent Painted Dunes. Please note that this road is closed from November to June.
- Juniper Lake Area: Situated on the park’s southeastern periphery, Juniper Lake is the largest in Lassen. Accessing this area requires a bit of a detour from the main road, approximately a 90-minute drive from the south exit. If you’re traveling from Sacramento, journey along Hwy 36 to Chester. From there, follow CR-312, a side road leading directly to the lake known as Chester-Juniper Lake Road. Just above the campsite, a delightful short trail leads to Crystal Lake, nestled in a rocky basin surrounded by classic mountain vistas. This trail is well worth the exploration. Keep in mind that seasonal road closures can impact access.