The Ultimate Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is most popular during the summer when its most beautiful features are revealed after a long snowy winter

While Lassen Volcanic National Park is just as serene and peaceful as other California national parks, it was established to protect and aid the research of a turbulent landscape. The birth of this park as a federally protected area really began in the summer of 1914 when three climbers ascended Lassen Peak in an attempt to uncover the reasons why the dormant volcano had recently started rumbling deep beneath its surface.

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As they neared the top, the volcano began to erupt, spewing ash and debris into the air forming a 12-mile long mudflow that flooded across the region. The climbers narrowly escaped and survived the event—an event that would become one of intense study for many years to come. In 1915, the peak blew its top. The catastrophic eruption forced rock, trees, and debris miles down into valleys devastating the surrounding areas and changing its landscape forever. Then in 1917, the volcano fell dormant. 

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Today, the active but sleeping volcano is the high point of a lively wilderness environment. Across 160,000 acres, elevations range from 5,300 to over 10,000 feet creating a diverse landscape of jagged mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forests, meadows, streams, waterfalls, and of course, volcanoes. There are hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, steam vents, and other geothermal features in the area as well from where bubbling activity still appears reminding us of the region’s stormy past.

With all of that said, it is not surprising that Lassen Volcanic National Park is known for its extreme weather. During heavy snow years, the main park road along the Lassen Volcanic National Park Scenic Highway (the main park road) may not open until May and sometimes not until mid-July putting visitors at the mercy of Mother Nature during any season of the year. Lassen Volcanic fully opened for summertime activities this year in late June. All the park’s roads, campgrounds, and trailheads are open for the first time in seven months with some high-country trails in sun-shielded sites still covered with some patches of snow.

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Lassen features a landscape built primarily by volcanic blasts and lava flows with the last series of major eruptions from 1914 to 1918. Its high country is cut by ice and snow. The park’s 106,000 acres is a matrix of lava peaks, basalt flows, and geothermal basins that is set amid forests, lakes, and streams. The centerpiece, 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, has just an inch or two of snow left on portions of the switch-backed trail that leads up from the parking lot. It is expected to melt off soon.

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As a national park, Lassen is like Yosemite’s little brother—it gets about 750,000 visitors each year (542,274 in 2020) compared to Yosemite’s 5 million (2,268,313 in 2020). It is a unique destination for camping, hiking, trout fishing, and wilderness treks. The Pacific Crest Trail also runs through much of the park.

With summer heating up, here is the ultimate guide to Lassen Volcanic with ideas on how to enjoy the park’s greatest hits and stay cool.

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Along the Lassen Park Highway, you can find major campgrounds and camping cabins at Manzanita Lake (multiple loops, 179 sites, 20 cabins). Or check out Summit Lake with two separate campground areas and 94 sites which opened June 25. Near the southern entrance station, Southwest Walk-in has 20 sites, first come, first served. In the park’s more remote regions, the campground at Butte Lake (101 sites) is located across the entrance road from the car-top boat access.

Camps are also available at the distant Warner Valley (17 sites, first-come, first-served) and the even more remote Juniper Lake (16 sites, first come, first served, opened June 25). Access to these spots is along dirt roads and SUVs are advised to reach them.

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Three easy hikes

The park’s most popular hike, the Bumpass Hell geothermal area (named after a guy who accidentally fell in), is now open. It’s a 3-mile round trip: a short climb and then a descent to a basin filled with boiling pots, hot springs, steam vents, and hydrothermals. A series of boardwalks provide access to the basin.

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From Hat Lake along the Lassen Park Highway, there’s a pretty hike along a creek past a waterfall (a short cutoff on the right provides the best view) to gorgeous Paradise Meadow. It’s a 2.8 miles round trip with a 700-foot climb on the way in. The meadow is nestled in a mountain bowl at 7,100 feet where visitors will find an explosion of wildflowers.

Mill Creek Falls, a gorgeous 75-foot chute-like waterfall, is a 3.8-mile round trip. The route starts near the southwest parking area (near the park entrance, behind the amphitheater), then is routed through the forest with a few small stream crossings.

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Two tougher hikes

The park’s signature hike, the Lassen Peak Trail, has recently become accessible for hiking as the snow melts off the south-facing switchbacks. It’s a 5-mile round-trip with a 2,000-foot climb on the way up to the rim. Then it’s a short jaunt across the caldera to the plug dome summit crag. As you approach, the best route up to the pinnacle is on the far side on the left.

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From the trailhead at Butte Lake, the park’s most unusual climb is the 2-mile trek to the rim of the Cinder Cone (4.5 miles roundtrip). It’s somewhat of a slog through volcanic rubble but the reward is a view inside the collapsed caldera of the cone and views of the Spectacular Lava Beds and also to Lassen Peak. A trail rings the rim of the cone with a cutoff spur that plunges to the bottom.

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The park’s most famous lake is Manzanita Lake, located a short distance from the Highway 44/89 entrance station. During the summer, it is a favorite area for kids of all ages to hike, swim, and paddle. With a kayak or canoe, you can paddle across the lake with a backdrop of Lassen Peak. Kayak rentals are available at the Camper Store. The lake is also a destination for flyfishers with special regulations in effect for catch-and-release wild trout.

National Park Service rangers at Lassen also provide regular guided tours that examine summer bird species in the area (there are 213 species in the park) The one thing that never changes at Manzanita Lake is the straight-on view of Lassen Peak from its north side. Gorgeous! 

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Summit Lake, ringed by conifers, is also popular for kayaking with the best access on the northern shore; no rentals.

Remote Butte Lake has a designated area to launch car-top boats and from here you can paddle amid a backdrop of pine forest, volcanic crags, and shoreline rubble. The lake has fair trout fishing with fish up to about 12 inches. No motors are permitted at any of the lakes at Lassen.

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Fact Box

Size: 106,372 acres

Date Established: August 9, 1916

Location: Northern California, at the southern foot of the Cascades Range

Park Elevation: 5,300 feet-10,463 feet

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How the park got its name: Lassen Volcanic National Park was named after the high-point in the park, Lassen Peak (10,463 feet). Lassen Peak was named after a Danish blacksmith named Peter Lassen who explored the area and settled there in the early 1840s. It has also been called Mount Lassen or Lassen Butte. It’s Native American names varied, translating loosely as Fire Mountain, Water Mountain, Snow Mountain, and The Long High Mountain That Was Broken.  

Iconic site: The unobstructed view of Lassen Peak from Manzanita Lake is a showstopper and a site that can be accessed all year long. Along the popular 1.5-mile trail that circumnavigates the lake, there are plenty of cool offshoot trails meandering the serene alpine setting. From the north side of the lake, forests of conifer trees frame-up Chaos Crags, Eagles Peak, and Lassen Peak like a painting. Stay for sunset! It’s an easy walk back to the car and the alpenglow is beautiful. 

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Did you know?

Sunset Magazine called Lassen The West’s most beautiful, least visited wonderland.

Lassen is one of the few places on Earth that contains all four of the world’s known types of volcanoes—stratovolcanoes, volcanic domes, shield volcanoes, and cinder cones. A shield volcano can be seen at Prospect Peak, a cinder cone volcano that formed the Painted Dunes when it erupted in 1666, Lassen Peak itself is a plug dome volcano—the largest in the world, and the stratovolcano (also known as a composite volcano) can be seen at Mount Diller.

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All of the mountains in this national park are volcanic.

The only volcanic eruption occurring in a national park in the lower 48 states during the 20th century was at Lassen Volcanic.

 Worth Pondering…

Lassen’s Peak looks sharper from this side than any other, and views seen from among these pinnacles and rocks are some of the most picturesque imaginable. A series of photographs would be treasured indeed.

—William H. Brewer, Up and Down California (Journals; 1860-1864)