Geography was my passion at school. So when it came to planning our California Road Trip how could I resist exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park. It has all four types of volcano and geothermal activity by the bucketload. Sold on sight of the name alone.
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Why choose Exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park
We chose Lassen for its volcanoes and geothermal activity. When we decided to go to California Mr CW and I wanted to show the boys San Francisco, Big Sur, San Simeon, Yosemite and Lake Mono. We didn’t want to spend the whole of the holiday saying ‘when we were here last’ and wanted some places for all four of us to discover together. We also didn’t want to head south as it was summer and would be hot. As we looked at the map Lassen with her volcanoes beckoned.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is almost as far away from Los Angeles that you can be and still be in California. It is the far North East of California and at the Southern end of the Cascade chain of mountains. It is surrounded by the Lassen National Forest. Tectonic plates meet and scrape by each other beneath your feet.
What is there to see in Lassen Volcanic Park
Trees and rocks, rocks and trees. But what rocks. Also the type of rock changes round almost every corner. Every single piece of rock that you see has spewed out from deep beneath the ground from the many volcanoes that surround you. There are also lakes. Best of all there are pools of bubbling mud. Lassen Volcanic Park is worth visiting if you love spectacular scenery and/or are a bit of physical geography nerd. Here is what we saw.
I understand that pools of bubbling mud are not to everyone’s taste. More mainstream is a lake. Manzanita Lake was formed 300 years ago when the Mazanita Creek was dammed by a rock avalanche. It has all the usual stuff that a lake has but at the northern end of the lake you are treated to a magnificent reflective view of Lassen Peak.
Lassen Peak or Mount Lassen is the southern-most active volcano in the Cascade Mountain chain. Yep, you read that correctly. Active volcano. On 22 May 1915 Lassen Peak erupted spectacularly and continued to have mini eruptions for the next two years. Not only that, it is the largest lava dome in the world. You can hike up to the top of Lassen Peak, but it is a long hard route and we chose to admire from afar.
What a name! When Lassen Peak erupted in 1914 the top of the volcano was blown sky high, the shattered blocks of rock landed over a wide area. Angular boulders of rock still block the way. Trees are beginning to grow between the cracks but still just over 100 years later you can see why this was named the devastated area.
The promise of the geothermal activity at Bumpass Hell is what drew me to Lassen. Unfortunately thick snow blocked the way and we were unable to visit. I was gutted, the teens whooped for joy, clambered to the top of a steep snowy hill and slid down on their bottoms over and over again. The trail is usually open by July 4 and we visited a few days after that but just hit a very snowy year. Elsewhere in the park you can find places with fantastical names, Devil’s Kitchen, Boiling Springs Lake and the oxymoronic Cold Boiling Lake. If you manage to visit when snow is not obscuring your path it is important to stay on the boardwalks at all times as the earth’s crust is extremely thin here and liable to plunge you into acidic boiling mud if you step on it.
Sulphur Works is right by State Route 89 that runs through Lassen Volcanic Park. No hiking is needed to see the pools of boiling mud and the multi cultured rock left by the sulphurous emissions.
Cinder cone is stunning. 750 feet of small lava pebbles are piled up with slopes of uniform 35 degrees. Any more and the lava pebbles would simply roll away, any less a heap would form. Nearly nothing grows on the slopes. It looks as if the whole lot was dumped there last year. In fact it has all been there for about 400 years.
Fantastic Lava Beds
How could you not love a feature called the Fantastic Lava Beds? Whilst hot cinders were being spewed out to form the Cinder Cone lava oozed out of the bottom of the volcano forming the Fantastic Lava Beds. Geographers will recognise this as an almost textbook example A’a lava flow. A’a lava has low viscosity and sets in a fractured mess of sharp edged rock.
Immediately behind Cinder Cone is the Painted Dune. These are low hummocks of coloured pumice stone. Over time they have oxidised giving the dunes their painted appearance, made all the more amazing by the almost total lack of vegetation. Not only that, there are no people. We didn’t see another soul when we were there.
Volcano types in Lassen Volcanic Park
There are four types of volcanoes and Lassen Park has them all. If you have ever studied volcanology or have a child who has or is about to Lassen is your place. I know of no other place where you can see all four types of volcano within a day. So what are the volcano types I hear you cry.
Plug dome or Caldera volcano
Plug domes produce lava that is so thick and viscous that it sets very hard very quickly. Lassen Peak is a plug dome. That means that the plug of the volcano gets blocked, as pressure builds up the whole of the top of the volcano is blasted off before the molten lava can flow out.
Composite or Strato volcano
Composite volcanoes look like a child would draw a volcano, conical in shape. They are made up of many layers of hardened lava, pumice, tephra and ash. In Lassen Brokeoff Mountain is a composite volcano.
The lava from shield volcanoes is very fluid and flows far and wide. That means that shield volcanoes are not big high mountains but rather wide flat ones. In Lassen Mount Harkness and Raker Peak are shield volcanoes, the one you learnt as an example at school is Mauna Loa in Hawaii.
Cinder Cone or Spatter Cone
Cinder cone volcanoes are created in one spectacular eruption. Lots of gas mixes with magma producing vast quantities of tiny blobs of gas filled lava or scoria. These cool quickly and fall to earth forming a steep sided cone. In Lassen the imaginatively named Cinder Cone is a classic example of this type of volcano.
Hiking in Lassen
There are over 150 miles of hiking trials in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Some trails can be completed in a few hours, others will take all day and some require back country camping. If you heading off on a hike check at the visitor centres that can be found at the Lake Manzanita and Kohm Yah-mah-nee entrances to see if routes are clear of snow. We are half day hiking kind of people and undertook the Cinder Cone hike up into the mouth of the Cinder Cone. Four miles doesn’t sound far but trust me when you are climbing a steep sided pile of loose magma it is hard. The views from the top made it all worth while.
We also hiked the altogether shorter but still steep in places route to Paradise Meadow. A week later the meadow would have been ablaze with flowers, we witnessed a landscape alive with melt water. You read in geography text books about the erosive power of melt water but it was only when I saw it running over every surface in Lassen that I truly understood the concept.
Accommodation in Lassen
In Lassen National Park itself there is one hotel, some cabins and camping. To the south of the park there is a wide selection of accommodation.
Drakesbad is the only hotel in the park, it is in the South East of Lassen, accessing the Lassen Peak and Bumpass Hell will involve a very long drive. On the upside you have hot springs in which to wallow safely onsite.
There are twenty cabins in the woods on the shore of Lake Manzanita at the northern entrance of the park. Being in the woods makes for a very shady environment, the whole site was quite gloomy even when we visited on a bright sunny day.
There are seven campgrounds dotted around Lassen National Park some have toilet blocks, most do not. They all have bear lockers and picnic tables. Some of the campsites are first come first served and others need to be booked. Cabins and campsites can be booked via the Lassen National Park Service.
Where we stayed for our Lassen visit
The teens took control of selecting where we stayed for the Lassen part of our journey and chose the Tiny House via AirBnB to the north of the park. They chose this for no better reason than they liked the name and it had a cool teen bedroom. In fact the area suited us down to the ground. We were in the middle of a forest, with very little other than trees. If you want bustle then I suspect that south of the park is for you. We loved the Tiny House at the Living Springs Resort Shingletown.
Lassen Volcanic National Park Fees
As with all American National Parks you need to pay a fee to enter Lassen Volcanic Park. Vehicles pay $30 for a pass that covers all the car and all occupants for 7 days. If you are going to visit a lot of National Parks then consider the National Park annual pass that covers all of them for $85 for a family of four.
Best time to visit Lassen
We visited in early July and as you can see there was still snow on the ground. Our hike to Paradise Meadow involved us crossing quite large patches of snow, the previous week we would have needed specialist snow hiking gear. When we visit next time I would aim to visit in September after the schools have gone back and before the weather closes in. The only road that runs through Lassen Volcanic Park is closed by snow in the winter, check on the Lassen NP website for road condition details.
Places to visit around Lassen
Whilst we were staying in the Tiny House we explored the area around Lassen Volcanic Park. Our highlights were:
We saw quite a lot of waterfalls on our Californian trip. The Burney Falls might not have been the highest but they were among the most impressive. Water usually just falls over the edge of a waterfall, not so at the Burney Falls. Water seeps through the tiny cracks in the basalt rock and emerges through hundreds of tiny holes in the face of the water fall. We visited just to gawp at the falls but they are in the McArthur-Burney State Park that has cabins for hire and many miles of hiking trails.
Subway Cave Lava Tubes
When I noticed that there was a lava tube on our route between Yosemite and Lassen we had to stop. What is a lava tube? I hear you cry. When a volcano erupts with low viscosity lava (aka pahoehoe lava) the outer edge of the lava sets quite quickly leaving a hot core that keeps on flowing, eventually all molten lava flows away leaving a long thin tubular cave. Subway cave is free and self guided. You will need a head torch. Inside the cave it is pitch dark. There are no guides down there, just you and your head torch. Up on the surface there are picnic tables, Subway Cave Lava Tubes made for an excellent picnic lunch spot.
- Subway Cave Lava Tubes, Old Station, California
- Open: dawn til dusk April – September
- Admission: Free
- Top tip: Bring a torch/flashlight
Lassen from Yosemite
We visited Yosemite before we stayed in Lassen National Park. Both are beautiful but if you want to be away from the madding crowds in July and August then Lassen is for you. To travel between Yosemite and Lassen we went over the Tioga Pass and then followed the US Route 395 toward Reno. On the way we stopped at Mono Lake and the abandoned gold town of Bodie. We stayed overnight in Reno, continued up the 395, turning onto the State Route 44 at Susanville and followed it all the way to Shingletown stopping for lunch at Subway Lava Tube.