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It’s Not Too Late for Lassen

There’s still time for enjoying some mountain scenery—if not this Labor Day weekend then soon, before winter makes high-country travel more challenging. Northern Californians happen to have a world-renowned destination just up the road: Lassen Volcanic National Park. The park’s most hospitable season is summer, from mid-June or July into October. Which makes right now a perfect time for that Lassen road trip.

In addition to spectacular scenery and alpine wildflowers from summer into fall, the park also offers unique outdoor geology adventures. Lassen Peak is the southernmost outpost of the Cascade Range, which runs almost due north from here to British Columbia. Much of the peak is cradled within a huge caldera formed by the volcano’s collapse 300,000 years ago. Lassen Park features all four types of volcanoes found in the world: plug, cinder cone, shield, and at least remnants of composite volcanoes. An excellent example of a composite or stratovolcano—and a classic Cascades version, at that—is nearby Mount Shasta.

That Lassen Park is relatively untouched by the contemporary hand of man is a fluke, a confluence of human and geologic history. California’s growing demand for lumber in the early 1900s was deflected from the park’s rich forests only by the unexpected volcanic eruptions of Lassen Peak in 1914-15—an ongoing event that created such a national stir that the area was granted national park status in 1916.

Lassen Peak, the world’s largest “plug” volcano, today offers relatively subtle reminders of its fiery nature. Hot springs, hot lakes, fumaroles or steam vents, and boiling mudpots are found in seven thermal areas within the park. Though no one is comfortable predicting when, or even if, Lassen will wake up again, another volcanic eruption—perhaps from an entirely new volcano created from the churning magma below—will probably occur in the general vicinity in the fairly near geological future, meaning: maybe at some point in the next few hundred years.

Unlike other wilderness areas, many of Lassen’s more notable features, including major volcanic peaks and glacial lakes, are easily appreciated from the one paved road that traverses the park—making a tour of Lassen enjoyable for families with small children as well as for anyone with physical limitations. See examples of Lassen’s explosive personality at The Sulphur Works, Little Hot Springs Valley, Bumpass Hell (where the unfortunate Mr. Bumpass lost a leg to a mudpot), Devil’s Kitchen, Boiling Springs Lake, Terminal Geyser, and Drakesbad. The Road Guide to Lassen Park (available at park headquarters and visitor centers) gives a useful overview of what you’ll see along the park road, whether walking, biking, or driving.

Lassen Sunset from Cinder Cone, Joe ParksIf you have the opportunity, get out and hike. Lassen’s 150 miles of interconnecting hiking trails—including 19 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail—offer up-close access to most park features, both short, easy strolls and rigorous backcountry treks. Bring water on all walks, and pack a lunch or high-energy snacks on longer hikes. No dogs, no mountain bikes on any trails.

Come over Labor Day weekend to climb the steep switchback, when the trail will definitely be open. Bring water and a jacket or sweater. From the summit you can see majestic Mt. Shasta to the north, Brokeoff Mountain to the southwest, and Lake Almanor (“Little Tahoe”) just south. On a clear day the broad Sacramento Valley and the Sutter Buttes are also visible. A hike up Brokeoff Mountain, the park’s second-highest peak, affords great views of Lassen plus strolls through thick woods and blooming meadows—a less stark experience than hiking Lassen itself. In ancient times, Brokeoff was the southwestern peak of mighty Mt. Tehama before most of that ancient mountain collapsed into a caldera.

A park admission pass, good for one week, is $10 for cars, $5 per person if you hike or bike in. Pick up the pass and a current tabloid guide at either the north or south park entrance, or at Lassen Park Headquarters 38050 Hwy. 36 East in Mineral, 530/595-4444. Or see the park’s website.

To enjoy Lassen for free, come on September 27, for the fourth annual Art and Wine Festival. This celebration of local art and wine, held at the new Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the Southwest Entrance to the park, features wines from the nearby Manton Valley viticulture area, known for its volcanic soils and up-and-coming estate wineries.

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