Lassen National Park: California's Youngest Volcano

View of Mount Lassen

 Tripsavvy / Betsy Malloy Photography

Lassen National Park had a spectacular beginning. It happened in 1914 when 10,457-foot-tall Mt. Lassen blew up. The eruption blew ash up to 30,000 feet in the air, threw house-sized boulders miles away, and devastated a vast forest, killing four times as many trees (by volume) as Mt. St. Helens.

Today, the volcano lies dormant, and Lassen is the place to go to see what a landscape looks like a century years after a volcano erupts. That includes boiling steam vents and pools - and a geyser.

If you're visiting Lassen for the day, this guide is all you'll need. If you want to take several days to explore the area, use this guide to spending a weekend around Mount Lassen.

Will You Like Lassen National Park?

People like Lassen Volcanic National Park's volcanic and hydrothermal landscape. It's also uncrowded compared to California's better known national parks, with only about 400,000 visitors per year.

Seventeen miles of the Pacific Crest Trail passes through Lassen Park and the park has more than 150 miles of trails total. Overnight hikes require a free permit.

Touring Lassen Volcanic National Park

Most people see the park on a driving tour. It's roughly 25 miles from between the entrances and takes about an hour with no stops. Take a look at the things you'll see along the way below.

The road's high point is 8,512 feet. The visitor center near the south entrance has a small cafe if you're hungry. There's also a small store near Manzanita Lake and the north entrance.

Start your drive at the park's south entrance on CA Hwy 89 which goes north from CA Hwy 36 between Mineral and Chester. 

You need a vehicle pass to visit Lassen National Park. If you plan to visit more than one National Park within a year, an annual pass will save you money. Park entry is also free a few days per year. Current fees and details are on the Lassen Park website.

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Sulphur Works

Lassen Sulphur Vent
Donald E. Hall / Getty Images

The steam you see escaping here is sulfur-scented (think rotten eggs). Magma deep below the surface heats the water, which escapes as steam through fumaroles like this (that's the fancy word for steam vents).

Tread carefully and stay on the trails.  You don't want to be THAT person who's saying "it looked solid" as you're being airlifted to a hospital because your foot broke through the thin crust and you ended up ankle deep in boiling, acidic water.

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Mud Pots

Hot spring and mud pot in the solfatara field of Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park, northern California, USA
Horst Mahr / Getty Images

The Sulphur Works also has lots of these gurgling, bubbling mud pots. They make fun videos.

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Bumpass Hell

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, USA
marcoisler / Getty Images

It's a three-mile round trip hike to get to Bumpass Hell, with a  300-foot elevation gain. Why do you want to go to hell, you might ask — and that's a good question.

Bumpass Hell the largest geothermal area in Lassen National Park, but it's also a fantastic place to be surrounded by 16 acres of fumaroles, mud pots, and hot springs. And hear them belching, bubbling, and hissing. You won't find anything quite like it outside of Yellowstone National Park.

Why Bumpass? It's named for pioneer Kendall Vanhook Bumpass. He was the explorer who first saw these hydrothermal features in the 1860s.

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Eagle Peak and Glacial Erratic

Eagle Peak and a Glacial Erratic Rock
©Betsy Malloy Photography

From the parking lot for Bumpass Hell, you can walk to this vista point.

Most of the rocks at Lassen got thrown around during the volcanic eruption in 1915, but that big one got here in a different way. See how smooth the rock beneath it is? It was worn down by a glacier that passed through about 18,000 years ago. It carried that big rock here and dropped it, creating a "glacial erratic," or a rock that doesn't belong where it's found.

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Hike Lassen Peak

The Lassen Peak trailhead below a barren mountain in the Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Stephen Saks / Getty Images

From 8,500 feet elevation at the trailhead, you can hike to the 10,457-foot summit of Mount Lassen. It's five miles round trip that takes three to five hours.

Before you start, check the national park website, which includes a trail guide and a fitness challenge to help you decide if you're ready for it.

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Upper Meadow and Kings Creek

Upper Meadow and Kings Creek, Looking North
©Betsy Malloy Photography

The landscape of the Upper Meadow is a welcome bit of flatness among all the mountains. Kings Creek meanders through the meadow. 

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Devastated Area

Puzzle Rocks at Lassen Volcanic Park
©Betsy Malloy Photography

The Devastated Area was the hardest hit in the 1915 eruption. On an easy, half-mile loop trail you can see what happened when Lassen blew its top.

These volcanic rocks pieced together like a puzzle, but they're also puzzling. You'll find them on the short, self-guided trail. This lava rock got its unique shape because of the way it cooled after the hot rock landed, fracturing into pyramid-shaped pieces like a jigsaw puzzle.

The other puzzle? Only a fraction of the rocks in the area look like this. It turns out that some rocks are formed from molten lava. Others were thrown out during the explosion, are much older and were already solid when they landed. For the rock hounds reading this, the sign posted nearby says most of the rock formations in this area are some form of dacite or pumice.

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Chaos Crags

USA, California, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Chaos Crags, view of mountains, trees growing out of dried volcanic rock
Lee Foster / Getty Images

The Chaos Crags are the peaks in the background. They're the youngest lava domes in Lassen.

The rocks in the foreground are the Chaos Jumbles, a cold rock avalanche that happened about 300 years ago. The rocks traveled down the mountain at about 100 miles per hour., riding on a cushion of air. They flattened everything in their path, then they dammed up Manzanita Creek and formed today's Manzanita Lake.

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Manzanita Lake

Fisherman at Manzanita Lake
©Betsy Malloy Photography

Located near Lassen's north gate, Manzanita Lake is very popular for fishing and is often featured in photographs with the mountain reflected in the lake's surface. To get that view, follow the lakeside path to the north end.

If you want to fish in Manzanita Lake, you need a California fishing license (which you should get before you reach the park). If you bring a boat, be prepared to paddle or row because motors (including electric ones) are not allowed.

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Cinder Cone Hike

Crater atop Cinder Cone, dormant volcano with popular trail to summit.
Michael Benanav / Getty Images

To see this crater, enter the park from the northeast on CA Hwy 44 and go south toward Butte Lake. The trailhead is on the southwest side of the Butte Lake boat ramp.

The Cinder Cones crater is a dormant volcano. It's a fascinating landscape, but a challenging hike. You'll walk four miles round trip, with takes most people about 3 hours. The elevation gain is 846 feet, starting at 6,601 feet. Expect a challenging hike as the loose rocks keep sliding you down as you try to go up.

You can get a leaflet for the Cinder Cone Nature Trail a visitor center or at the trailhead. Numbered posts on the trail correspond to stops in the leaflet and explain what you'll see along the way. Find out more about hiking Cinder Cone.

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Painted Dunes from Cinder Cone

Lassen Volcanic National Park (Painted Dunes)
by Chakarin Wattanamongkol / Getty Images

This has got to be the most beautiful place in all of Lassen National Park.

From the summit of Cinder Cone, you can see the Painted Dunes. The rock is called pumice, and the color is caused by oxidation as it fell on hot lava during the eruption.

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Where to Stay in or Around Lassen Volcanic Park

Lodge at Drakesbad Guest Ranch
Courtesy of Drakesbad

To get more than a day-long look at Lassen, it's best to stay in the park. If you're sensitive to altitude, keep in mind that all of the park's campgrounds are above 5,650 feet elevation. 

The campgrounds are closed from late November through late May, but it's too snowy and cold to camp then, anyway.

Manzanita Lake Campground

Manzanita Lake Campground is the largest in Lassen, with more than 150 sites for tents and RVs. They provide electrical hookups, water spigots nearby and dump stations and have flush toilets and pay showers.

You can also rent cabins in the Manzanita Lake Campground which offers a way to stay overnight. They provide beds, propane heaters, and battery-powered lanterns but no bedding, bathroom or kitchen. You can rent an amenity packages that are handy if you aren't bringing all your camping supplies with you, but otherwise,  think of them as camping without bringing the RV or tent.

Other Campgrounds at Lassen

The national park has six more campgrounds. To get to some of them, you have to drive on a rough gravel road. Most have minimal facilities. You can see all of them with their features on the Lassen National Park website.

Drakesbad Guest Ranch

Drakesbad Guest Ranch is at the end of an unpaved road near the south entrance to Lassen Park. It's open in the summer only. They offer horseback riding and have a hot spring-fed swimming pool. Some people love it, enough of them that making reservations far is advance is recommended. But it's not for everyone - rooms have no electricity, and the place barely has telephone service.

Where to Stay Outside the National Park

Options for places to stay are available within a 30-minute drive of each park entrance in Shingletown, Redding, Red Bluff or Chester. 

These places also offer options for camping:

Highlands Ranch Resort offers some nice-looking cottages, and it has a restaurant and bar. You'll also find a few campsites and cabins near it at the Village at Childs Meadow.

Mineral Lodge has an RV campground with a few tent sites and 20-room motel. 

Mill Creek Resort has housekeeping cabins (that means you do your own housekeeping), a restaurant and grocery store. They also have an RV campground.

St Bernard Lodge is a bed and breakfast lodge with seven rooms.

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