Volcanic park shows off nature’s power
In the northeast corner of California, the Earth’s innards spurt, spit, squirt, gurgle and boil from seen and unseen orifices. Sulphur Works belches. Steam whirls out of Devil’s Kitchen. And occasionally a volcano erupts (most recently in 1915).
This is Lassen Volcanic National Park, where Earth’s ever-changing nature has been on display in this volcanically active region for three million years. Surprisingly, it is one of America’s least-visited national parks.
The 166-square-mile park surrounds Mount Lassen, the largest lava plug dome in the world and the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range. The 1915 eruption that rained volcanic ash as far as 200 miles to the east was the impetus to establish the park in 1916. That was the last eruption in the Cascade Range before Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980.
Lassen is located at the junction of the Cascade Range, the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Great Basin Desert. Because of this location and the elevation range of 5,000 to 10,000 feet throughout the park, there’s a rich variety of plants and animals.
To the area’s indigenous people, Lassen — or Waganupa, as the Yahi tribe called it — was a spiritual center and sacred land. Parts of the park are almost otherworldly, a landscape of thumping mudpots, steaming fumaroles and boiling pools connected by a complex hydrothermal system.
“In this park, one can safely witness the hints of the power of the Earth belching its matter upward,” said retired seismologist David Von Seggern.
Prudent visitors stick to marked trails and boardwalks to safely meander. “You may feel tempted to explore thermal features up close by walking beyond established trails and walkways,” the park’s website reads. “However, a venture to satisfy curiosity may land you in the hospital with severe burns,” it cautions, accompanied by a photo of the reddened, burned foot of someone who stepped off the trail through a deceptively solid crust of earth.
Attracts a variety of scientists
Since 1863, when experts conducted the first geological survey there, scientists have seen Lassen as an outdoor living laboratory. U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists have analyzed the eruptive history of the area, finding that in the last 100,000 years, at least 72 volcanos in and around the park have erupted.
USGS’s California Volcano Observatory monitors Lassen’s volcanoes for signals of an impending eruption.
Today, scientists at NASA are studying microbes in the park’s bubbling pools to gain insights into possible life on other planets. Hot springs, like those in Lassen, may have supported chemical reactions that linked molecules.
“It has very significant implications for the future of space exploration,” Natalie Batalha, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told Science magazine in 2020.
Other scientists take advantage of the park’s famously dark skies to study stars. Every August, the park hosts a Dark Sky Festival, when rangers, astronomers and astrobiologists host programs for visitors of all ages.
Still other researchers study climate change’s impacts on snowpack, precipitation and wildfires.
Exploring by car
A driving tour on the 30-mile highway in the western part of the park offers a good introduction to the region. Some sites’ names offer a hint of what to expect: Devil’s Kitchen, Brokeoff Mountain and Bumpass Hell.
The park has more than 150 miles of trails. Around Manzanita Lake, visitors might see wildlife along the lakeshore and do some catch-and-release fishing. Signs along Devastated Area’s trails explain Mount Lassen’s eruption.
Lassen has more than 700 flowering plant species. Paradise Meadow and Hat Creek explode with wildflowers in the summer. Plants such as mountain mule ears, corn lilies and silverleaf lupines and 12 species of pine tree thrive in the park.
At Chaos Crags, visitors can explore a moonscape jumble of rocks that tumbled down the incline 300 years ago at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. In the less-visited areas, visitors might encounter a mule deer or yellow-bellied marmot. Waterfowl visit the park’s 50 lakes.
There’s a restful side, too: snowy mountain peaks, crystalline lakes, peaceful forests and mountain breezes. Climbing to volcano tops brings panoramic vistas of northern California’s beauty.
Fiery, feisty, but tranquil too, Lassen is a place of geologic wonders.
If you go
Lassen Volcanic National Park is located three hours northeast of Sacramento and 50 miles from Redding, California. Round-trip flights from D.C. to Sacramento start at $475.
Aside from cabins and camp sites, the only lodging inside the park has been the Drakesbad Guest Ranch. Unfortunately, the ranch was affected by the 2021 Dixie Fire and is closed for repairs through the 2022 season.
In normal times, the working dude ranch features home-cooked meals and a swimming pool fed by thermal springs, where the water temperatures and pH are managed to ensure safety.
It’s best to visit Lassen from May to October, when roads are accessible. Most of the park was unaffected by the fire and will be open for the summer-fall 2022 season. Check the website at nps.gov/lavo for updates or to download an audio tour.
The year-round Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center has a café, film, exhibits and ranger programs. For more information, email email@example.com.