Mount St. Helens Erupted 44 Years Ago Today: Here’s How It Unfolded

After the eruption, ash poured into the atmosphere for nine hours

Washington’s Mount St. Helens erupted for nine hours on this day in history, May 18, 1980, killing 57 people and triggering the largest landslide in recorded history. 

Prior to the eruption, Mount St. Helens stood at 9,677 feet, says the website for the United States Geological Survey (USGS). It was the fifth-tallest mountain in the state of Washington.

“It stood out handsomely, however, from surrounding hills because it rose thousands of feet above them and had a perennial cover of ice and snow,” said the site.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That changed on May 18 when the volcano erupted for the first time in more than a century. Instead, there was a horseshoe-shaped crater in its place. The crater’s highest point located on the southwestern side of the mountain is 8,365 feet. The eruption came almost exactly two months after seismic activity began on the long-dormant volcano. 

On March 16, 1980, a series of small earthquakes began to shake the area. Eleven days later, on March 27 following hundreds of small earthquakes, Mount St. Helens had a relatively small eruption—it’s first since 1857. 

In that eruption, steam explosions blasted a 200- to 250-foot wide crater through the volcano’s summit ice cap and covered the snow-clad southeast sector with dark ash. 

These eruptions continued through April 22. 

After about a two-week stop in volcanic activity, smaller eruptions and earthquakes continued from May 7 through May 17. 

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By that time, more than 10,000 earthquakes had shaken the volcano and the north flank had grown outward about 450 feet to form a prominent bulge. 

This bulge was strong evidence that molten rock (magma) had rose high into the volcano and was growing at a rate of up to five feet per day.

At 8:32 a.m. on May 18, a 5.1 earthquake with no immediate precursors struck Mount Saint Helens triggering a rapid series of events. 

At the same time as the earthquake, the volcano’s northern bulge and summit slid away as a huge landslide—the largest debris avalanche on Earth in recorded history. 

A small, dark, ash-rich eruption plume rose directly from the base of the debris avalanche scarp and another from the summit crater rose to about 650 feet high. 

The volume of the avalanche was the equivalent of one million Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

Following the landslide, the destruction continued. 

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landslide had removed part of the cryptodome which was a very hot and highly pressurized body of magma. With the cyptodome removed, Mount St. Helens’s magmatic system depressurized, triggering powerful eruptions that blasted laterally through the sliding debris knocking 1,000 feet off the height of the mountain. 

The cloud of tephra or rock fragments reached 15 miles within 15 minutes. 

The aftermath of the initial eruption was devastating. 

Virtually no trees remained of what was once a dense forest in the six-mile radius of the former summit and other trees were knocked to the ground and seared.

The eruption then became a Plinian eruption defined as as one that produces a sustained convecting plume of pyroclasts and gas rising more than 15 miles above sea level.

The Plinian eruption lasted for nine hours sending 520 million tons of ash into the air.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The ash was so thick that the city of Spokane, Washington, located 250 miles from Mount Saint Helens was plunged into complete darkness. Over four inches of ash covered Yakima, Washington. 

Major ash falls occurred as far away as central Montana and ash fell visibly as far eastward as the Great Plains of the Central United States more than 930 miles away. 

The ash cloud spread across the U.S. in three days and circled the Earth in 15 days.

The blast also triggered something called a lahar which is an Indonesian term that describes a hot or cold mixture of water and rock fragments that flows down the slopes of a volcano and typically enters a river valley.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Mount Saint Helens’ case, the snowy peak melted in the initial eruption. That rush of water combined with the rock flow created a lahar. 

In the weeks leading up to May 18, people who lived near Mount St. Helens were evacuated.

The area immediately surrounding Mount St. Helens was divided into a red zone and a blue zone

Of the 57 people who died in the eruption, only one Harry Randall Truman did not have express permission to be near the mountain the day it erupted and most of the deaths actually occurred outside the boundaries of the blue zone. 

Truman, an 83-year-old man who had lived near Mount St. Helens for 54 years refused to comply with evacuation orders and leave the red zone. 

In a colorful interview with National Geographic prior to the eruption, Truman said, “I’m going to stay right here because, I’ll tell you why, my home and my (expletive) life’s here.” 

“My wife and I, we both vowed years and years ago that we’d never leave Spirit Lake. We loved it. It’s part of me and I’m part of that (expletive) mountain,” he said.

Truman’s remains were never found. 

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mt. St. Helens eruption 44th anniversary

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980 at 8:32 am

The volcano, located in southwestern Washington used to be a beautiful symmetrical cone about 9,600 feet above sea level.

Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!

On March 1, 1980, a new system of seismographs at the University of Washington went into operation to monitor earthquake activity in the Cascades. On March 20, it recorded a magnitude-4.2 earthquake deep beneath Mount St. Helens inaugurating a round-the-clock watch that was to save many lives. From March 25 to March 27, quakes of magnitude 4.0 rocked the mountain as many as three times a day and smaller quakes occurred several times every hour.

At 8 a.m. PST on March 27, the U.S. Geological Survey issued an official Hazard Watch for Mount St. Helens; around noon, the first eruption of steam from the summit sent a column of ash and steam 6,000 feet into the air. Twin fissures opened on the mountain’s north face.

On the morning of May 18, USGS volcanologist David A. Johnston camped on the ridge with his lasers, radioed in his regular 7 a.m. report. The changes to the bulging mountain were consistent with what had been reported several times daily since the watch began. At 8:32, a magnitude-5.1 earthquake registered on the seismographic equipment. His excited radio message, “This is it!” was followed by a stream of data. It was his last transmission; the ridge he camped on was within the direct blast zone.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By the numbers

  • 57: Lives lost
  • $1.1 billion: Damage costs
  • 9,600 feet: Height before eruption
  • 8,300 feet: Height after eruption
  • 200: Homes destroyed
  • 90 mph: Mudflows speed
  • 5,400,000 tons: Estimated ash
  • 2,200 square miles: Ash covered
  • 185 miles: Roads destroyed
  • 15 miles: Railways damaged
Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go deeper

Worth Pondering…

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish, which in due time is to be separately served.

—Clarence Edward Dutton, American geologist (1841-1912)

The Complete Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Explore the otherworldly landscape and see bubbling mud pots and hot springs in this northern California park

On May 30, 1914, Lassen Peak awoke from a 27,000-year sleep with a violent explosion, the first of hundreds that rocked this Northern California mountain over the course of the next year carving out a lava-capped crater 1,000 feet across.

But the biggest eruption by far came on May 22, 1915 when a tremendous plume of steam shot into the air shattering the lava cap and sending glowing chunks of molten lava high into the sky. As they fell back onto the mountain which was already blanketed in a record 30-foot snowfall the hot rocks triggered an avalanche a half-mile wide that thundered into the valley creating a mudflow of such tremendous force that it swept over hills and into more valleys beyond, burying farms and homesteads.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No lives were lost thanks to the early alert of the initial explosions but more than a century later that torn and blasted landscape known as the Devastated Area remains. Located just northeast of Lassen Peak, it’s one of the many attractions of the 106,000-acre Lassen Volcanic National Park, an awe-inspiring showcase for the sheer power of the Earth’s volcanic forces. The most popular attraction, Bumpass Hell—a hissing, bubbling expanse of sulfuric mud pots, hot springs, and fumaroles—on the park’s southern end serves as an eerie reminder that these forces are still active today.

Four kinds of volcanoes can be found in the world: cinder cone, composite, plug dome, and shield. Lassen Volcanic has all four along with chiseled rock spires, lava fields, and huge boulders tossed about like bowling balls by the formative explosions of 1914 and 1915. 

This magical landscape was protected in 1907 as two separate national monuments, Lassen Peak and Cinder Cone then Congress unified them into one national park in 1916. The park was created to protect all these amazing volcanic features after the eruption and ever since then people have come to see this otherworldly landscape.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps due to its out-of-the-way location, an hour’s drive on mountainous roads off Interstate 5, Lassen Volcanic National Park receives just 500,000 visitors a year. It’s kind of this gem that people don’t know about just three to four hours from San Francisco.

You’ll experience the eerie majesty of Lassen’s cratered landscape—and pass a series of geological wonders—as you drive the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway which makes a semicircle around Lassen Peak, still 10,457 feet high even after blowing its top.

To the east are three additional park sections—Butte Lake, Juniper Lake, and Warner Valley—all accessed by separate roads from the northeast and southeast. Since you can’t reach these areas from the park highway check maps beforehand to determine your route if you plan to visit them.  

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Two entrance stations at the park’s south and north ends provide access to Lassen Volcanic Park Highway which runs generally north to south making a horseshoe bend around Lassen Peak. 

Driving from San Francisco, the park is 247 miles to the north. Enter the park at the southwest gate and stop at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to get oriented. Here you’ll find maps and signage explaining what’s open in the park, current trail conditions, and information on ranger programming. If you’re driving from Portland, 453 miles to the north you’ll enter at the northern entrance and continue to the Loomis Museum where a smaller visitor center provides updates on park conditions and happenings.

Be sure to download the park app which provides a guided audio tour of 16 stops along the park highway almost all of which can be seen from pullouts on the road or from accessible parking areas. There’s no cell service in the park but you can use the free Wi-Fi at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee center to download the app. If entering from the north, you must download it ahead of time as the Loomis Museum has no Wi-Fi. “If you don’t download it in advance, the last reliable cell service north of the park is in Shingletown,” notes Arreglo, referring to a small community about 17 miles west of the north entrance. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late summer and fall of 2021, California’s devastating Dixie Fire burned 73,240 acres in the park. In addition to leaving behind huge swaths of blackened pine forest, the fire buckled park roads and destroyed lookouts and other facilities, some still closed for repairs. Nonetheless, the average visitor doesn’t experience many significant impacts. Most damage to attractions along the park highway was repaired before the park reopened this past summer. 

Lassen Volcanic gets snow early and it stays late often lingering well into June on the higher trails. Wildflowers which begin to emerge in late May and blanket the slopes and valleys all summer have become even more profuse since the fire. 

The 30-mile highway through Lassen Volcanic National Park has opened for the 2023 summer season though sections might seem like winter. A higher-than-average snowpack has been fully cleared. Visitors to the park should prepare for winter conditions at higher elevations and possible delays due to ongoing road work.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nights can be cool even in summer though daytime temperatures can climb into the 90s. By mid-fall, temperatures creep towards freezing. The park remains open year-round despite cold winters although most of the campgrounds close and the park highway isn’t plowed then. Rangers close the gates located just inside the north entrance and just past the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the south end with the first significant lasting snowfall typically in November. The Kohm Yah-mah-nee center remains open providing the only park services until the Loomis Museum reopens in May. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

Lassen Volcanic National Park’s only hotel-style lodging, the Drakesbad Guest Ranch in Warner Valley remains temporarily closed due to damage from the Dixie Fire. The pine-paneled cabins encircling the sunny meadow survived intact but infrastructure repairs are still necessary before reopening. 

​The park has seven campgrounds with all sites featuring picnic tables, fire rings, and lockable bear-proof cupboards.

Manzanita Lake Campground just inside the park’s northern entrance in a shady pine forest uphill from the lakeshore is the largest and best developed campground with 179 sites ($26 per night) and amenities including hot showers, an RV dump station, a laundry, and a camp store. It also features 20 uber-rustic one- and two-room camping cabins (both shower areas have an accessible stall with bench seat and hand rails) and a larger eight-bed bunkhouse ($76 to $101 per night) without electricity. They have beds but you’ll need to bring your own bedding and linens. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Summit Lake North and South campgrounds which bookend a pretty, pine-fringed alpine lake in the park’s center have 46 sites ($24 per night) between them. The 101 sites ($22 per night) at Butte Lake Campground cluster in a dense pine forest adjacent to the lake reachable by a 6-mile dirt road. 

​At Juniper Lake Campground 18 sites ($12 per night) line the shore of the deep blue lake shaded by tall ponderosa and Jeffrey pines and you’ll find a mostly level campground with wheelchair-accessible sites. 

​​Butte Lake and Manzanita Lake campgrounds have wider roads making them good choices for those traveling in an RV. Manzanita Lake, Summit Lake, and Butte Lake campgrounds will be reservation-only starting in 2023 (check the park website for exact dates). Make your reservations through recreation.gov. 

​The park’s only restaurant, Lassen Café & Gift inside the Kohm Yah-mah-nee center serves soup, salads, and other simple fare along with hot coffee and ice cream. You can pick up to-go sandwiches and snacks at the Manzanita Camp Store. 

​Picnicking is the way to go in Lassen so stock up on supplies before heading into the park. Devastated Area, Kings Creek Meadow, and Lake Helen are all in the park’s center. Manzanita Lake feature level picnic sites, accessible parking, and restrooms.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

Drive Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway. From the jagged cliffs of Chaos Crags and mounds of black lava boulders at Chaos Jumbles to the azure waters of Lake Helen and the viewpoints overlooking Hat Creek, Little Hot Springs Creek, and Diamond Peak every stunning stop on the 30-mile park highway route is indicated by a numbered road marker matching the numbers on the park map. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Visit geothermal spots

Lassen Volcanic is dotted with areas of constant geothermal activity where boiling water spurts from vents, pools of mineral-rich mud bubble and spit, and fumaroles release vaporous clouds of steam that hang in the air like a ghostly mist.

Not far past the south entrance, stop at wheelchair-accessible Sulphur Works located right on the park highway to marvel at the silica-crusted mud pots and breathe in the malodorous vapor that gives them their name. It’s a moderate 3-mile round-trip hike to Bumpass Hell, the largest and most active of the park’s geothermal areas named for hapless explorer Kendall Bumpass who fell into one of the mud pots and suffered severe burns. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Go stargazing

While not certified as an International Dark Sky Park, Lassen Volcanic’s high elevation, crystal clear air, and lack of light pollution make it a perfect setting for celestial viewing. As such, the park schedules numerous viewing activities including monthly full moon hikes, astronomy demonstrations, and an annual Dark Sky Festival in early August. Plan your trip to be here during a meteor shower like the Perseids and you’ll see quite a show from Summit Lake or another high point in the park. You’ll see more sky in wide-open spots like the Devastated Area and the Bumpass Hell parking lot.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Have fun in the snow

In winter, the park highway is plowed until just beyond the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and its expansive parking lot offering easy access for those who come to see the craggy landscape made even more dramatic when iced in white. Lassen Volcanic is also popular for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. The hill behind the visitor center also becomes a sledding area with people banking trails and going down on tubes, discs, and toboggans.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​Hit the hiking trails

Plunging 30 feet straight down from a rock shelf, Kings Creek Falls near Summit Lake is a must-see for those who can manage the 2.3-mile round-trip loop to the overlook. Rated moderate for its 486-foot elevation gain, the trail follows the creek through wildflower-strewn meadows and meanders through fire-damaged pine forests already showing optimistic regrowth. The final stretch, a series of cliff-hugging stone steps known as the Cascades Foot Section is more challenging but is easily avoided by doing the hike as an out and back rather than as a loop.  

​Another short but considerably more ambitious hike is the 2-mile round trip to the Ridge Lakes which leaves from the Sulphur Works parking lot and gains 1,000 feet of elevation reaching a string of impossibly blue glacier-scooped bowls on Lassen Peak’s shoulder. Then there’s Arreglo’s favorite, the Terrace, Shadow, and Cliff Lakes Trail, a moderate four-mile round trip with 700 feet of elevation gain which departs from a trailhead just north of Lassen Peak’s parking lot. “It takes you through Paradise Valley to three gorgeous subalpine lakes one after another with these incredible views of Lassen Peak rising above them.” 

Sun Dial Bridge, Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gateway towns

The closest lodging to the park is 10 minutes from the south entrance at the rustic-chic Highlands Ranch Resort. Stay in one of seven splurge-worthy, easy-to-access cottages, some with lofts to accommodate larger groups and dine at the all-American bistro in a firelit, high-beamed dining room.

​However, most non-camping park visitors stay in gateway towns on different sides of the park. 

Redding, the area’s largest town is popular with those driving north from San Francisco. Located on Interstate 5, 47 miles from the park’s south entrance, the town was founded as a rail hub for transporting minerals, lumber, and cattle from the surrounding mines, forests, and ranches and trains still whistle nightly through its quaint downtown.

Sacramento River from Sundial Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The area’s wealth of outdoor activities include Turtle Bay Exploration Park with the renown Sundial Bridge, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, Shasta Lake, and Lake Shasta Caverns. Turtle Bay Exploration Park is a 300-acre campus along the banks of the Sacramento River. Gateway to the city’s 220-mile trail system, the Park features a botanical garden, natural history and science museum, and exploration center in the guise of a traditional forest camp. The 300-acre complex is tied together by Redding’s jewel, the Sundial Bridge that was the first American project by celebrated Spanish bridge architect Santiago Calatrava. The supporting pylon and curving, translucent deck perform as the world’s largest sundial.

Surrounded by pristine mountains, lakes, and rivers, Redding offers a wide range of RV parks and campgrounds including Green Acres RV Park, Marina RV Park, Premier RV Park, Redding RV Park, and Win-River Resort.

JGW RV Park, Redding © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our home base while touring the Redding area was JGW RV Park, a big-rig friendly resort located 9 miles south of Redding on the Sacramento River. This is a beautiful 5-star RV park with water, sewer, and 30/50-amp electric service centrally located. The majority of pull-through sites are back-to-back and side-to side. Our site backed onto the Sacramento River. Interior roads are paved and in good condition with concrete pads.

Centrally located on the Sacramento River, Red Bluff is just 32 miles south of Redding on I-5.

Red Bluff KOA © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big-rig friendly, Red Bluff KOA Journey (formerly Durango RV Resort) is a 5-star resort located on the Sacramento River. The park is well laid out and designed. Most sites are pull-through, 70-90 feet in length, and 30-35 feet wide. In addition, there are 11 riverfront sites and 21 water-feature spaces (fountains); these sites have utilities on both sides of the concrete pads enabling fifth wheels and travel trailers to back onto the sites and motorhomes to drive forward maximizing the view and water features. In addition, there are several buddy sites.

​Farther from the park is the uber-photogenic former lumber company town of McCloud, 81 miles northwest of Lassen Volcanic’s north entrance. Here, pastel-painted clapboard buildings cluster in the shelter of Mount Shasta’s eastern slope. The McCloud Mercantile Hotel occupies the upper floor of the former McCloud Lumber Company store, each of its 12 antique-furnished rooms themed to reflect a colorful local resident or significant event. The moderately priced hotel offers two accessible rooms with open floor plans, roll-in showers, and whirlpool tubs. 

​On the east, 30 miles from the park’s south entrance, the tiny town of Chester borders Lake Almanor. It’s basically just a place to overnight with the Timber House Brewing and Lodge a favorite of those seeking a retro Wild West vibe enhanced by modern comforts. Accessible rooms are available. For breakfast, head to Cravings for homemade corned beef hash. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

​En route 

All routes to Lassen Volcanic National Park include at least one stretch of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway that encircles the park and continues north to link the park with Lava Beds National Monument and Crater Lake National Park. 

Check this out to learn more:

Facts box

​Location: Northern California

Size: 106,000 acres

Highest point: Lassen Peak, at 10,457 feet 

Lowest point: Hot Springs Creek, at 5,275 feet

Miles of trails: 150

Main attractions: Bumpass Hell, the Devastated Area, Lassen Peak, and other geothermal and volcanic features

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

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)

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. 

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.

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.

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

>> DIG DEEPER

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

Celebrate Volcano Week!

Volcano Week 2023 takes place during the first week of February

It’s Volcano Week! You may not have heard of this annual celebration hosted by the National Park Service (NPS) but it’s the perfect opportunity to learn more about the lava-filled peaks that continue to shape our Earth. 

There are about 1,350 potentially active volcanoes around the world, 161 of which are in the U.S. and its territories.

Volcano Week 2023 takes place February 5-11.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Some volcanic eruptions are witnessed by people who remember what they’ve seen by writing it down, painting about it, telling stories, or collecting detailed scientific data. Other eruptions go unseen, hidden in the distant past. How do we discover, learn about, and remember those eruptions? We have to look at many lines of evidence to reconstruct the activity and eruptions of volcanoes,” the park service said.

Volcanoes are diverse! They range from the majestic Mount Rainier to colossal shield volcanoes like Mauna Loa (Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park) and volcanic fields that can cover hundreds of square miles such as at Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Some volcanoes are picturesque, others less so. They vary in size from small cinder cones that stand only a few hundred feet tall to the most massive mountains on earth. Some have textbook-perfect conical shapes and others are more irregular in form.

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some volcanoes erupt only once and last for only a few days or less while others may have periods of activity that span expanses of time as great as a few million years.

Each volcano is somewhat unique, but most can be classified into several types. The most common types of volcanoes are cinder cones, composite volcanoes (stratovolcanoes), shield volcanoes, and volcanic domes.

Several other types of volcanoes exist and are part of the diversity of volcanic landforms found on land. Examples of these volcanoes are also found in national parks.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cinder cone volcanoes

Cinder cones are the most common type of volcano in the world. They may look like an idealized depiction of a volcano as they are steep, conical hills that usually have a prominent crater at the top. Cinder cones are the most common type of volcano in the National Park System.

Capulin Volcano and Sunset Crater Volcano national monuments were established specifically to preserve especially large and picturesque cinder cones. These volcanoes are the tallest cinder cones in the National Park System with a height of approximately 1,000 feet each. Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park is a cinder cone that formed after the caldera-forming eruption.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 24 units in the National Park System contain cinder cones, including:

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composite volcanoes

Composite volcanoes can be the most picturesque of all volcanoes. A classic composite volcano is conical with a concave shape that is steeper near the top. These mountains commonly have snow-covered peaks standing high above the surrounding mountainous terrain.

Composite cones are large volcanoes (many thousands of feet tall) generally composed of lava flows, pyroclastic deposits, and mudflow (lahar) deposits, as well as lava domes. Composite volcanoes are active over long periods (tens to hundreds of thousands of years) and erupt periodically. Composite volcanoes are also called stratovolcanoes.

Mount Rainier is an active volcano and the tallest peak in the Pacific Northwest. It is also considered to be the most dangerous volcano in the Lower 48. Brokeoff Volcano (Mount Tehama) in Lassen Volcanic National Park is a deeply eroded large composite volcano. It consisted of lava domes, lava flows, and pyroclastic deposits that are between 590,000 and 385,000 years old.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least eight units of the National Park System contain composite volcanoes, including:

Petroglyph National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shield volcanoes

Although shield volcanoes are the largest volcanoes on Earth, they do not form soaring mountains with conical peaks like composite volcanoes. Instead, they are broad volcanoes with gentle slopes and are shaped somewhat like a warrior’s shield lying flat on the Earth. Shield volcanoes have a convex shape as they are flatter near the summit.

Shield volcanoes are truly massive with volumes that dwarf other types of volcanoes even large composite volcanoes. Shield volcanoes are usually constructed almost entirely of basaltic and/or andesitic lava flows which were very fluid when erupted. They are built by repeated eruptions that occurred intermittently over vast periods (up to a million years or longer).

Mount St. Helens National Monument, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 13 units of the National Park System contain shield volcanoes, including:

Lassen Peak, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Volcanic Domes

Domes form from the slow extrusion of highly-viscous silicic lava. These lavas are too thick to spread out into a lava flow. Most domes are small and many do not have a crater. Domes are sometimes called lava domes.

Lassen Volcanic National Park contains multiple lava domes. Lassen Peak (see above photo) is the world’s largest dome with a peak elevation of 10,457 feet. It was emplaced 27,000 years ago. Chaos Crags are a set of six lava domes that grew during eruptions approximately 1,050 years ago. In Valles Caldera National Preserve, at least seven lava dome complexes formed along the ring fracture of the Valles Caldera during post-caldera volcanic activity.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Park, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 12 units of the National Park System contain volcanic domes, including:

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other types of volcanoes

Maars and tuff rings

Maars and tuff rings are low-standing volcanoes with wide, bowl-shaped craters. They commonly have a donut-like profile. Their low edifices consist of shallowly-dipping deposits of tuff made mostly of ash and angular, nonvesicular pebble-sized pyroclasts (lapilli).

A maar is a volcanic crater in which the crater lies below the surrounding ground level and is surrounded by a low pyroclastic cone. Because they are topographic lows, maars frequently contain lakes in their craters. A tuff ring is a pyroclastic cone with a crater above the surrounding ground surface. Tuff ring craters are usually dry.

Big Bend National Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least six units of the National Park System contain maars or tuff rings, including:

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fissure volcanoes

Fissure volcanoes are produced by eruptions that occur along elongated fissures versus at a central vent. Fissure eruptions occur when magma-filled dikes intersect the surface. Fissure eruptions usually do not build substantial edifices but instead, feed lava flows that can travel great distances. Fissure eruptions may also occur in rift zones on shield volcanoes. They also frequently occur in monogenetic volcanic fields.

Fissure eruptions may be large or small, depending on the magma supply and length of the fissure. Fissure volcanoes have been the site of the largest volume of volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history in terms of the magnitude of lava erupted.

Mount St. Helens, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least four units of the National Park System contain fissure volcanoes, including:

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monogenetic volcanic fields

Volcanic fields are clusters of volcanoes or areas covered by volcanic rocks. Monogenetic volcanic fields consist mostly (or exclusively) of monogenetic volcanoes. These volcanoes (cinder cones, maars, tuff rings, and eruptive fissures) each experience one period of activity. Most monogenetic volcanic fields include areas covered by basaltic lava flows and clusters of cinders cones and/or maars and tuff rings, sometimes with a composite volcano or shield volcano located near the center of the field.

Chiricachua National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 13 units of the National Park system contain all or parts of monogenetic volcanic fields, including:

Chiricachua National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Calderas

Calderas are collapse features that form during large-volume volcanic eruptions when the underlying magma chamber is partially emptied and the ground above it subsides into it. Calderas are large, generally with a diameter greater than 0.6 miles. The largest calderas are tens of miles wide. A defining characteristic of calderas is that they have diameters that are much wider than their included vents.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At least 16 units of the National Park System contain calderas, including:

Worth Pondering…

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish which in due time is to be separately served. We have instances of vents within hailing distance of each other pouring out totally different kinds of lava, neither sympathizing with the other in any discernible manner nor influencing other in any appreciable degree.

—Clarence Edward Dutton, Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah (1880)

On the Road to Mount St. Helens

Before Mount St. Helens blew its top it was a beautifully symmetric rounded snow-capped mountain that stood between two jagged peaks, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams

The tranquility of the Mount St. Helens region was shattered in the spring of 1980 when the volcano stirred from its long repose, shook, and exploded back to life. The local people rediscovered that they had an active volcano in their midst and millions of people in North America were reminded that the active—and potentially dangerous—volcanoes of the U.S. are not restricted to Alaska and Hawaii.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the largest landslide in recorded history, sweeping through the Toutle River Valley and removing 1,306 feet from the top of the volcano. The powerful lava flow, savage winds, and deadly heat destroyed much of the previous landscape. What the mountain left behind is the history of a violent eruption that shook the surrounding region and left many with stories of that tumultuous day on May 18, 1980.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens, located in southwestern Washington, is one of several lofty volcanic peaks that dominate the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest; the range extends from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in northern California. Geologists call Mount St. Helens a composite volcano (or stratovolcano), a term for steep-sided, often symmetrical cones constructed of alternating layers of lava flows, ash, and other volcanic debris.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most people visit the area around Mount St Helens by leaving Interstate 5 in Washington state at exit 49 and traveling East along a road called Spirit Lake Highway. The road is so-called, because, before 1980, it used to terminate at Spirit Lake. The lake is no longer accessible by road from the West, and even from the East, a substantial hike is required. So, I like to refer to Spirit Lake Highway as the Road to Mount St Helens.

Four visitor centers tell the story of the mountain and the people living in the region surrounding it. The awesome views from each of the centers bring you face to face with a monumental natural event. These centers are located along the 52-mile-long Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, the only scenic byway in the United States that penetrates a fresh volcanic blast zone.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Like a book with four chapters, each visitor center tells a different part of the story: the mountain as it was before the blast at Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center; first-hand accounts from survivors who experienced the explosion at Johnston Ridge Observatory; the recovery of the mountain and the region at the Forest Learning Center; and its present state at the Silver Lake Visitor Center. Each center offers a unique experience that brings visitors face-to-face with one of the most memorable natural phenomena of our era. 

Mount St. Helens Visit Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center

Located 5 miles from I-5, Silver Lake Visitor Center is a world-class facility located on the western shore of Silver Lake. With its high ceilings and massive windows, the outdoors becomes a part of the architecture. Your senses will come alive as you enjoy the interactive exhibits, a step-in model of the volcano, and theater programs. Outside, a mile-long trail takes you into marshy plains surrounding Silver Lake where you can see waterfowl and picture-perfect views of the mountain. 

Hoffstadt Bluffs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center

Located 27 miles from I-5, Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center offers an up-close view of the mountain and the flood plain where mud rushed down into the valley, raising it a mile higher than it was prior to May 18, 1980. Take a short walk to another viewing point where a grove was dedicated in 2000 in memory of the 57 people who perished during the eruption. 

Hoffstadt Bluff Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A large post-and-beam structure, Hoffstadt Bluff houses the “Memories of a Lost Landscape” exhibit, which provides an excellent depiction of the mountain prior to the blast, when the area was full of youth camps and visitors enjoying the outdoors.

Forest Learning Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forest Learning Center

The Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, at milepost 33, describes the work of foresters before, during, and after the eruption, with an emphasis on the rebirth of the forest.

Walkthrough the forest, hearing the sounds of the birds and animals on the mountain prior to May 18, 1980. Enter the “eruption chamber” to view a video of what the forest looked like immediately after the eruption. Breathtaking photographs and life-size models of loggers working in the blast zone bring the experience to life.

Johnston Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Johnston Ridge Observatory

At the end of the scenic byway, 52 miles from I-5, Johnston Ridge Observatory is tucked into the side of Johnston’s Ridge, a mere 5 miles from the north side of the mountain. Providing visitors the opportunity to come within a stone’s throw of the crater, the observatory is unparalleled. Walkout on the viewing deck or take a stroll along one of the trails and feel the energy of the mountain as it continues to puff steam into the sky.

Johnston Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 16,000 square-foot structure offers a fully-equipped theater where visitors can watch a video about the eruption. Just as the mountain surprised the world with its blast, the movie does likewise as the show concludes and the screen rises to deliver a picture-perfect view of the mountain.

View the many exhibits and read through personal survival stories from that fateful day in 1980. For more detailed information, catch a formal talk or join a guided walk led by one of the observatory’s volunteers.

Worth Pondering…

Looking back across the long cycles of change through which the land has been shaped into its present form, let us realize that these geographical revolutions are not events wholly of the dim past, but that they are still in progress.

—Sir Archibald Geikie, Scottish geologist (1835-1924)

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.

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. 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Camping

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.

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.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Lakes

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! 

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 

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.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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)

Mount St. Helens: On the Eruption 40 Years Ago & Future Eruptions

Before Mount St. Helens blew its top it was a beautifully symmetric rounded snow-capped mountain that stood between two jagged peaks, Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams

Mount St. Helens, located in southwestern Washington, is one of several lofty volcanic peaks that dominate the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest; the range extends from Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia to Lassen Peak in northern California. Geologists call Mount St. Helens a composite volcano (or stratovolcano), a term for steepsided, often symmetrical cones constructed of alternating layers of lava flows, ash, and other volcanic debris.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forty years ago, Mount St. Helens erupted, killing 57 people and leveling the surrounding region. At 8:32 a.m. that fateful day, a 5.1 earthquake rattled the volcano, triggering an explosion of fluid. The north face of the volcano collapsed altogether. The eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the largest landslide in recorded history sweeping through the Toutle River Valley and removing 1,306 feet from the top of the volcano.

Mount St. Helens from Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The powerful lava flow, savage winds, and deadly heat destroyed much of the previous landscape. What the mountain left behind is the history of a violent eruption that shook the surrounding region and left many with stories of that tumultuous day on May 18, 1980.

Mount St. Helens from Hoffstadt Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Four visitor centers tell the story of the mountain and the people living in the region surrounding it. The awesome views from each of the centers bring you face to face with a monumental natural event. 

People remember the thick, dark plumes of clouds that day, the choking ash and lightning bolts that catapulted across the skies. That terrifying, apocalyptic scene is forever seared in the memory of so many.

Mount St. Helens from Lowitt Viewpoint © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since that natural disaster, scientists have made considerable progress in tracking volcanic activity, but more still needs to be done. Seismologist and former University of Washington professor Dr. Steve Malone was one of many experts who had been tracking warning signs of the eventual eruption for months in advance. He said there’s a real threat for another eruption in the decades ahead.

Mount St. Helens from Lowitt Viewpoint © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While he says Mount St. Helens is the most likely to erupt next, Mt. Rainier is considered the most dangerous volcano of the Cascades, largely because it’s surrounded by communities that are heavily populated.

There are five major volcanoes in the Washington Cascades, including Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and of course, Mount Saint Helens. Mt. Hood in Oregon also poses a threat.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The one we think is sort of the most frightening in many respects are what are called lahars or volcanic mudflows, that can travel down valleys and be totally devastating to anything within that valley,” Malone said.

While scientists can’t predict volcanic explosions with any precision, there can be warning signs up to a week in advance of an eruption.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“I think Mount St. Helens triggered that awareness, that says ‘hey, we really need to pay more attention to these’ and there’s not just Mount St. Helens, but the other cascade volcanoes as well,” Malone said.

Seismologists say scientists will likely never be able to predict future volcanic eruptions with a great level of accuracy and precision, better monitoring stations on the volcanoes can help. While there’s an adequate number of volcano monitoring stations at Mount St. Helens and Mt. Rainier, more are needed on other Washington volcanoes like Glacier Peak.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) says we cannot forget the message that Mount St. Helens communicated all those years ago. The mountains are beautiful, but they also have the potential to create these hazardous eruptions.

On the road to Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congress has authorized $55 million to better track volcanoes across the country, but they have yet to invest that money. Even still, the PNSN says it’s working on plans to implement those monitoring devices for once those funds are appropriated and any permits have been granted.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish, which in due time is to be separately served.

—Clarence Edward Dutton, American geologist (1841-1912)

Rivers of Ancient Fires: El Malpais National Monument

Come discover this land of fire and ice!

The richly diverse volcanic landscape of El Malpais National Monument offers solitude, recreation, and discovery. There’s something for everyone here. Explore cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs, and hiking trails. While some may see a desolate environment, people have been adapting to and living in this extraordinary terrain for generations.

Known as “the badlands” in Spanish, El Malpais was used by early Spanish map makers to describe areas of volcanic terrain. El Malpais preserves an ancient volcanic landscape and a history of human habitation.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lava that once poured from five separate magma flows produced the black, ropy pahoehoe, and clinkers of a thousand years ago. Islands of earth that were surrounded, rather than covered, by lava are spots of undisturbed vegetation called kipukas.

El Malpais National Monument and Conservation Area was established in 1987. Its 114,277 acres is managed in a joint effort between the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). El Malpais hosts more than 100,000 visitors annually; visitation is highest in July and August and lowest in December and January.

There is much to see. You’ll find expansive lava flows, cinder cones, complex lava-tube cave system more than 17 miles long, fragile ice caves, as well as sandstone bluffs and mesas, easily viewed from Sandstone Bluff’s Overlook. Inhabited for 10,000 years, the area also contains historical and archaeological sites.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many points of interest are accessible from New Mexico Route 117. The Sandstone Bluffs Overlook is reached by a short walk from a parking area along the highway. Excellent overviews of the lava flows as well as the surrounding terrain are seen from this vantage point.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can look south to the Zuni-Acoma Trail, a 15-mile round-trip hike over the rugged Anasazi trade route, which crosses four of the five major lava flows.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In El Malpais many trails are actually routes marked with cairns. Instead of a well-defined path clearly visible on the landscape, a series of rock piles called cairns are used to trace a route across the land. These routes are common on lava landscapes, where creating a traditional trail or footpath is not possible due to the extreme nature of the terrain.

Hiking cairned routes requires more attention to navigation. As you travel, make sure you have the next cairn in sight before leaving the one that you are at. Keep your eyes on the land while walking; the uneven nature of the terrain demands that you pay more attention since the surface is not even.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To enjoy the views, stop, get a secure footing, and then look around. Look back frequently to stay familiar with the landscape as it changes. Sturdy hiking boots are advised as is ample drinking water.

La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest of New Mexico’s accessible natural arches, is visible from the parking lot. Trails lead up to the bottom of the free-standing arch for a closer look at this natural wonder.

East of the highway are some 62,000 acres of lush, pine-covered rimrock called the Cebola Wilderness. Exploration of this area of the park will reward visitors with prehistoric petroglyphs and historic homesteads.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Continuing down the highway, you’ll drive through The Narrows; here lava flowed past the base of 500-foot sandstone cliffs. A picnic area is located here, and hikers will be intrigued by the unusual lava formations they’ll find.

At the Lava Falls Area, you can explore the unique features of the McCarty’s flow and marvel at the plant life that is adapted to life in the lava.

If you have a high-clearance vehicle, you can drive to the Big Tubes Area, where you can explore two of the network of gigantic caves formed by the flowing lava: Big Skylight and Four Windows.

El Malpais National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the area known as Chain of Craters, 30 cinder cones can be found across the landscape.

Come discover this land of fire and ice!

Worth Pondering…

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in, for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

—Wallace Stegner

Geothermal Weirdness, Volcanic Landscapes, and Stunning Beauty

Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to steaming fumaroles, meadows freckled with wildflowers, clear mountain lakes, and numerous volcanoes

When it comes to National Parks with steamy geothermal features, people usually think of Yellowstone National Park—but it’s certainly not the only park that’s hot to trot.

There’s also California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park.

On June 14, 1914, three men climbed Lassen Peak to see why a seemingly dormant volcano had started rumbling 16 days before. Now, peering into a newborn crater, they felt the ground tremble. As they turned and ran down the steep slope, the mountain erupted. Rocks hurtled through the ash-filled air. One struck a man, knocking him out. Ashes rained down on the men. They seemed doomed. But the eruption stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and the three men survived.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From 1914 to early 1915, Lassen spewed steam and ashes in more than 150 eruptions. Finally, on May 19, 1915, the mountaintop exploded. Lava crashed through the 1914 crater. A 20-foot-high wall of mud, ash, and melted snow roared down the mountain, snapping tree trunks.

Three days later, a huge mass of ashes and gases shot out of the volcano, devastating a swath a mile wide and three miles long. Above the havoc, a cloud of volcanic steam and ash rose 30,000 feet.

Eruptions of steam, ash, and tephra continued until June 1917, when the volcano resumed its quiet profile, with minor steam clouds occasionally reported. Since 1921, Lassen Peak has remained quiet. But it is still considered an active volcano, the centerpiece of a vast panorama, where volcanism displays its spectaculars—wrecked mountains, devastated land, bubbling cauldrons of mud.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the only places in the world that has all four types of volcanoes—cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome—so you know a park that’s packing that much heat is definitely gonna have some cool sights to see. Here are some of the park’s best other-worldly landscapes and hidden gems to explore.

Explore the Hydrothermal Areas. Boiling pools, steam rising from the ground, bubbling mud pots—these are just some of the types of hydrothermal areas that can be found within Lassen Volcanic National Park. One of the most popular of the park’s natural attractions is Bumpass Hell, a 16-acre bowl of mud pots, pools, and steam vents accessible via a three-mile roundtrip hike.

Others to check out include Devil’s Kitchen, Boiling Springs Lake, and Cold Boiling Lake.

Sulphur Works is a trail that will get you a little closer to the bubbling mudpots and steaming pools. It’s also right off the main road, so if you’re short on time but still want to check out some hot and heavy geothermal weirdness, this is your best bet. The main attraction here is a 5-foot mudpot—it’s all that remains of an extinct volcano known as Mount Tehama. Definitely be cautious here—this is an area known for looking deceptively safe, but stepping off the boardwalk could mean falling into boiling mud.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go for a drive and see Lassen Volcanic from the comfort of your car—the 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway is a terrific way to do just that. Allow at least an hour to do the drive non-stop, or build in more time to stop at the various highlights along the way, including Bumpass Hell Overlook where you can see the former Brokeoff Volcano, or Mt. Tehama; Kings Creek Meadow Scenic Pull-out; and Hat Creek, which is a must during fall foliage, to name just a few.

Do hike to the peak. Lassen Volcanic National Park offers more than 150 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy to strenuous. The keystone of the park is the peak itself, and the recent completion of the four-year Reach the Peak project restored the five-mile roundtrip Lassen Peak Trail. The hike is strenuous. Allow six hours for a terrific family experience with fantastic views of the valley and the High Sierras from the top.

Take the subway. Take the self-guided trail to Subway Cave, which is in Lassen National Forest and accessible via the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, near the town of Old Station. The cave was formed about 20,000 years ago when lava flow from Hat Creek cooled and hardened on top, while hot lava continued to flow underneath, eventually leaving tube-like caves.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, extend your trip and drive the 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway All American Road from Lassen Volcanic National Park north to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

Worth Pondering…

Miles of its flanks are reeking and bubbling with hot springs, many of them so boisterous and sulphurous they seem ever ready to become spouting geysers…

—John Muir, Mountains of California (1894)

Spirit Lake Memorial Highway: Scenic Byway to Mount St. Helens

Spirit Lake Memorial Highway takes travelers through land shattered by Mount St. Helens’ eruption in 1980

The Spirit Lake Memorial Highway is the only scenic byway in the U.S. that penetrates a fresh volcanic blast zone. This scenic and historic route is a 52-mile journey into the scene of epic destruction that Mount St. Helens caused when it erupted on May 18, 1980.

Along the way, experience the enormous geologic, economic, and personal impact the eruption had on this area, and witness the region’s recovery.

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Rebuilt and reopened in 1992, the byway continues to carry its original name but no longer leads to Spirit Lake. Rather, it ends at Johnston Ridge and affords a striking view of the post-eruption lake and the volcano’s crater.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Along the byway are four distinct interpretive and tour centers: Silver Lake, Hoffstadt Bluffs, the Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, and Johnston Ridge. Each one tells a different part of the story from the natural history prior to the May 1980 eruption, the aftermath, reforestation efforts, and natural recovery of plants and animals. Above all, the devastated landscape is an extraordinary lesson about our planet’s ferocious power and miraculous powers of regeneration.

Mount St. Helens Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Five miles east of I-5 is the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake. The center describes each chapter of the mountain’s history from pre-eruption years to today. It also features exhibits about the region’s history and culture as well as offering geological background on the volcano and the surrounding area’s slow but steady recovery.

Nature trail at Mount St. Helens Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Look down the valley where the bleached remains of a blown-down forest are in view. See the evidence of an unimaginable force that flattened 150 miles of old-growth timber as if the trees were toothpicks.

Nature trail at Mount St. Helens Nature Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A nature trail at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center leads to beautiful Silver Lake and its wetlands.

Five miles past the visitor center is the Toutle River, which the byway parallels for the remainder of the route. The river became a nightmarish mudflow during the eruption as massive amounts of sediment poured into the water.

Toutle River Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

You can find some of that mud today on the walls of the North Fork of the Toutle River, and you can get a closer look from a viewpoint on Stewart Dam Road (turn right just before the Toutle River Bridge).

Spirit River Memorial Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A small, spirited community that survived the blast, Kid Valley was once a town of logging camps and mining claims. When Mount St. Helens blew up, many families in Kid Valley’s outlying areas lost their homes. Mudflows buried logging camps and the Green River Fish Hatchery.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Today, Kid Valley has reestablished its character and charm. A local family turned one of the original homesteads into the Kid Valley Campground, a convenient base for sightseeing, hiking and biking the Mount St. Helens area.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

About 27 miles along the byway, Mount St. Helens becomes spectacularly visible. The Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, the second of four visitor centers, offers an opportunity to take a good look at the volcano and surrounding valley. Large elk herds can often be seen in the mudflats below the parking lot.

Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A memorial trail through a nearby grove pays tribute to 57 people who lost their lives in the eruption.

Forest Learning Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Continue east over the half-mile-long bridge over Hoffstadt Creek, and enter the blast zone. The Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, at milepost 33, describes the work of foresters before, during, and after the eruption, with an emphasis on reforestation and conservation projects. One of the interesting goals of the learning center is to not interfere with the destruction caused by the eruption and let nature take its course as much as possible.

Forest Learning Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

At the end of the Spirit Lake Scenic Byway is Johnston Ridge Observatory, where visitors are only five miles from the crater and lava dome of Mount St. Helens. Stands of dead trees, stripped of their bark, and the remains of Spirit Lake, its surface still covered by a mat of logs, leave a lasting impression. The entire lake was tossed 800 feet up the opposing mountainside during the blast and now rests where it returned, half as deep and with twice the surface.

Mount St. Helens from Lowitt Viewpoint © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Experience the power of this place by taking a short hike. The Coldwater Lake Trail is an easily navigated boardwalk leading to a lake that was formed after the eruption. The Hummocks Trail—hummocks are mounds of volcanic debris—takes an hour to walk and is moderately strenuous, winding through lupine fields and beaver ponds on what was once the site of the largest landslide in recorded human history.

Johnstone Ridge Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Each volcano is an independent machine—nay, each vent and monticule is for the time being engaged in its own peculiar business, cooking as it were its special dish, which in due time is to be separately served.

—Clarence Edward Dutton, American geologist (1841-1912)