National Park Primer: Lassen Volcanic

Long before Mt. St. Helens had her cataclysmic tantrum and the lava-spewing volcanoes of Hawaii and Alaska became part of our country’s geothermal heritage, Lassen Peak was the American volcano. The national park named after this formerly restless mountain may not be at the top of most adventurers’ bucket list, but within this lesser known park lie the most extensive collection of visible geothermal features outside of Yellowstone. It is absolutely worth a visit.

Park: Lassen

How to get there: Fly into Redding, CA, and then enjoy the pleasant 50 mile ascent into the mountains via Highway 44. Or if you are in the Reno/Tahoe neighborhood, just drive 2.5 hours north to reach the park. With Lake Tahoe as your base camp, you can easily visit Lassen and Yosemite (3 hours south), thereby taking in three of America’s most fantastic places in one trip. If you’ve never been to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fully prepare yourself to fall in love; they are exquisite.

Where to stay: Make reservations and stay at one of the park’s eight campgrounds, which range from primitive to fully developed. I camped at Manzanita Lake and recommend it highly. You will be a short drive from the main road that transects the park and your campsite time will be enhanced by Lassen Peak serving as a scenic backdrop.

Relaxing at your campsite is made even easier when you have stunning scenery to gaze upon.

Park highlights: The story of the eruption and its aftermath are the main theme, and are worth exploring in detail.

Lassen first stirred in the spring of 1914 and grew progressively more restless. The initial rumblings were mostly smaller steam explosions and minor releases of ash, not nearly cataclysmic, but enough of a spectacle to draw in reporters. Then on June 14th, 1914, huge billowing clouds of hot ash blasted into the sky. Six miles away, at Manzanita Lake, very near where I camped, an amateur photographer named Robert Loomis captured the ferocity and grandeur of the eruption in a series of spectacular images. Wall-sized enlargements of these pictures now dominate the main room in the Loomis Museum visitor center, showing the rise and fall of the exploding ash cloud. Lassen had trumpeted its arrival.

For the next eleven months, the mountain continued to have outbursts, growing increasingly violent as the days passed. Through the winter, cloudy weather prevented an accurate count of the number of eruptions, while an astounding thirty–three feet of snow fell on the northeast side of the peak, a record-breaking amount that laid the foundation for the immense destruction to come.

The first major eruption occurred on May 19th, 1915. As Stephen Harris recounts in Fire Mountains of the West, Lassen spewed hot rocks and lava, which melted the deep snow on the northeast face, creating a flood. This torrent of water and debris rushed down into the Hat Creek valley, straight for the homes and ranches of settlers. But thanks to an unlikely group of heroes no one died that day. These are heroes that many of you know well, a group distinguished by their bravery, selflessness, and desire to hump your leg: dogs. Warning their owners by barking, yelping, and generally going crazy enough to make it obvious that something was very, very wrong, the perceptive pooches woke their sleeping owners. This early warning allowed the settlers to scramble to the safety of higher ground just in time to see a wall of water sweep away their homes. I sure hope those real-life Lassies got a few extra steak bones and belly rubs for their life-saving efforts. I know I felt safer after learning of this, because along with keeping predators and morons away from the campsite, my dog Ursa was also now on lahar patrol.

After over a year of spewing appetizers, Lassen Peak finally served the main course on May 22, 1915. In an arresting image taken forty-five miles away in Red Bluff, CA, Lassen Peak’s towering ash column looks eerily like a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb. Robert Loomis and other witnesses reported automobile–sized rocks displaced by the lahar that were hot to the touch and sizzled the surrounding ground water for days after the blast. Finally, in 1921, after six years of relatively tame activity, Lassen Peak fell silent.

Here is one of the giant rocks that Lassen tossed into the air like a pebble. This rock was hot to the touch for several days after its rude displacement.

What this episode has left for park visitors is a collection of mind-bending views and features that challenge even the brightest among us to put in perspective. To wit, a visit to the Devastated Area will leave your jaw hanging as you attempt to comprehend the power and violence of the eruption. When I first arrived at the Devastated Area, I expected to find a bunch of recently-dumped teenagers and Minnesota Vikings fans moping about, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that this place was where Lassen’s detached mountainside came to rest.

The ground at the Devastated Area is a flat, hard plain made up of material that used to be part of Lassen Peak.

Although trees have grown in the 100 years since the eruption, the ground is like a paved parking lot. Everything in the path of the 1915 lahar was completely plowed over. Devastating really is the only word to describe what happened.

 

 

 

View of the collapsed mountainside from the Devastated Area.

 

As you walk the short interpretive trail, boulders ranging from the size of basketballs to minivans are scattered about, looking out of place, their colors varying widely: jet black, stark white, muted oranges, and dull-to-intense reds. The random uniformity developed by eons of moving water or glaciers is not found here; the forces of nature did not labor for millennia to create this. Instead of using a dainty rubber mallet and a fine–edged chisel to steadily chip out the landscape, a giant stochastic sledgehammer smashed this place flat.

I visited in early July, and due to the record snows the winter before the main park road was still impassable beyond the Devastated Area. This kept me from visiting some of the enchanting thermal oddities found in the west side of the park. Place with splendid names like Devil’s Kitchen, Sulphur Works, and Cold Boiling Lake. I had visited Yellowstone a few weeks earlier, so I wasn’t overly crestfallen to miss out on the bubbling mud pots, spewing fumaroles, and stinky hot springs.

But I was disappointed that I could not visit Bumpass Hell. Not because of its sixteen acres of magma-heated features, but because of how it received its name. In 1864, a cowboy named Kendall VanHook Bumpass stumbled upon the area. While he was walking through his newfound volcanic playground taking a closer look at one of the mud pots, he broke through the thin crust, plunging his leg into scalding mud that left him with some nasty burns. In excruciating pain but nevertheless excited by his find, Bumpass told the local townsfolk about his discovery and word soon spread. The story reached a nearby newspaper editor who thought it would make good copy, so he hired Bumpass to take him on a tour of the steaming oddities. But it seems as though our friend Bumpass wasn’t a real fast learner, and as he was showing the editor around the area he once again broke through and his leg once again sank into the boiling mud. This time his burns were much more severe and ultimately Bumpass’ leg had to be amputated. So while later recounting his bad luck (see: idiocy), Bumpass declared, “The descent to hell is easy.”

After you’ve taken in all the hydrothermal highlights, spend some time on the shores of fetching Manzanita Lake. Or hop in a float tube and fly fish for some of the lunker rainbow and brown trout lurking beneath the surface. Lassen also offers plenty of hiking trails of all lengths to please mountain pedestrians. Because I was with Ursa, I wasn’t able to hit the trails, so I settled for an equally satisfying outdoor activity: lounging at the campsite.

Ursa hamming it up around the campsite.

If you do bring your dog, you can still hike along the park roads and other paved surfaces as long as you have a six-foot leash. Your pooch won’t know the difference between these civilized trails and those found in the backcountry, so they will revel in the endless interesting smells while getting their daily exercise.

The shade of a huge Ponderosa pine is the perfect place to chill after several miles of hiking Lassen’s park roads.

 

Lassen Volcanic National Park will not disappoint. With scenery, activities, and natural curiosities abound, several days can be filled up with ease. Lassen is an underrated gem in our stable of national parks and well worth discovering for yourself.

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