See Steaming Volcanoes at This Eerie National Park

Lassen Volcanic Park boasts a fascinating eruptive history that has dramatically shaped the landscape

Lassen is also one of the oldest national parks in the country. The former hunting ground for the Atsugwei, Yana, Yahi, Maidu, and Kohm people became the fifteenth national park in 1916.

When a national park has over 20 volcanoes, you can expect some pretty spectacularly strange landscapes. Gurgling mud pots, curves of red earth, sulfur vents, fumaroles, lava tube caves, and boiling springs all sit in a northeastern patch of California mixed in with lakes, waterfalls, and snowy mountains. Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the few places on earth that has all four types of volcanoes (cinder cones, composite, shield, and plug dome)—for all the science types out there.

Lassen Volcanic National Park© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. As they neared the top, the volcano began to erupt, spewing ash and debris into the air forming a 12-mile long mud flow 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. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The geothermal activity and spectacular jagged landscape is one of California’s best kept secrets as only about 500,000 travelers visit the park each year—as opposed to the few million found just south in Yosemite—even though it’s easy to reach at just 130 miles north of Sacramento.

In Lassen’s 166.3 square miles of protected land, you’ll find rigorous hikes, the 30-foot Kings Creek Falls, and wheelchair-accessible viewpoints of the rugged volcanic wilderness. You can experience the best of the park during a day trip but to do Lassen justice and maximize your trip spend three to four days in the national park. Here’s everything you need to know about the volcanic park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit… pretty much any time of year

Lassen Volcanic National Park can be visited year round—but expect snow for the majority of the year. Determining the best time of year to go will depend on what you hope to experience in the park.

The winter season lasts from December to March but snowfall continues through June making winter-centric activities in the park available through spring. In cooler months, visit the southwest areas of the park which begin at 6,700 feet of elevation and receive the most snow—up to 30 feet each season. Manzanita Lake is a popular spot for snowshoeing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Summer is the most popular time to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park though visitor numbers are still low enough that the park can feel quite empty. Warm-weather hikes in Manzanita Lake start around May though Bumpass Hell Trail often remains closed due to snow hazard until July. As the sun comes out you might increase your chances of spotting some of the 250 species of wildlife in the park looking to basque in the sunshine.

May through September brings wildflowers in the meadows. Peak blooming occurs between July and September depending on the elevation of the area. And while leaf peeping isn’t a huge draw to the park as it’s mostly populated with evergreen trees you’ll still find some changing leaves on aspen, alder, and cottonwood trees in the autumn months. The best place to enjoy fall colors is Hat Meadow.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike around and on top of volcanoes

No matter what, you’ll want to begin at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center locatrd one mile from the Southwest Entrance which is open year-round. The visitor center offers an information desk, exhibit hall, auditorium, amphitheater, park store, dining area with fireplace, patio, and a gift shop and cafe. Free Wi-Fi is available inside.

There you can choose from between the 150 miles of trails in Lassen.

At Butte Lake, hike the challenging four-mile trail to the summit of Cinder Cone and be rewarded with views of the volcano’s crater.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The three-mile round-trip Bumpass Hell Trail leads to a boardwalk over the largest hydrothermal area in the park. The path takes guests within a safe distance of aquamarine pools in the 16-acre basin.

For a longer trek, head out on the park’s 17 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.

Hike at least seven miles in Lassen Volcanic National Park and you could achieve the Reach Higher Trail Challenge which supports the recovery of the native Sierra Nevada red fox. Plus you’ll be rewarded with a nifty, commemorative bandana. Are you ready for the challenge?

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Totally don’t worry about eruptions

No trip to the park is complete without a visit to the most famous volcano in the park, Lassen Peak, also known as Yah-mah-nee or “snow mountain.” It’s the world’s largest plug dome volcano at 10,457 feet elevation and it last erupted in 1917. But don’t worry—volcanologists know well in advance when an eruption could happen and park rangers wouldn’t let you venture out if it were a possibility. Despite often being snow-covered into August, Lassen Peak Trail is open for hiking year-round. Or stay grounded and enjoy the stunning views of the gigantic mountain jutting out behind the tree-lined lake.

To experience Lassen’s famous hydrothermal activities fed from the natural underground hot water system head to Sulphur Works where you’ll witness mud pots boiling and steam hissing from vents. Just like at Yellowstone, you’ll want to stay on designated paths to avoid severe burns though you’ll get to witness strange colors of the earth and smell some pungent sulfur.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay in Lassen National Park

Camping permits are free in Lassen and there are eight campgrounds within the park. RVs and trailers can be accommodated at the Manzanita Lake, Butte Lake, and Summit Lake campgrounds. Campsite reservations are highly recommended July through early September and can be made only through recreation.gov.

You can also find camping cabins at the Manzanita Lake Campground. Thanks to the lack of light pollution those who sleep over often see the shimmering Milky Way or a spectacle of meteor showers while stargazing.

If roughing it isn’t your thing, book lodges, cabins, or bungalows at the historic Drakesbad Guest Ranch which is the only lodging in the park. The ranch will prepare your meals while you soak in the on-site hydrothermal spring-fed pool after a day spent exploring the park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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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 treasures indeed.

—William H. Brewer, Up and Down California journals, 1860-1864