Lassen Volcanic National Park: The Complete Guide

Lassen Peak in winter

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Occupying the southernmost reach of the Cascade Mountain range and surrounded by the Lassen National Forest, Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park is a vast geologically active swath of wilderness where black bears and mountain lions roam and campers can find primo stargazing, trout fishing, miles of hikes, and winter snow.

Established in August 1916, its 166 square miles contain one of only two volcanoes that were active in the twentieth century in the lower 48 states (Lassen Peak), tons of lakes, coniferous forests of fragrant pines and Douglas firs, glacial valleys, wildflower-covered meadows, Yellowstone-like hydrothermal zones full of bubbly mud pots, sulfur vents, and steamy fumaroles, all at an elevation range from 5,650 to 10,457 feet above sea level.

Given harsh winter conditions, high elevation, and transient deer population, no Native American tribes chose to live in the Lassen area year-round. However, when the snow melted and hunting and foraging improved, four groups (Atsugewi, Yana, Yahi, and Mountain Maidu) all frequented the territory. Their descendants have remained active at the park. Selena LaMarr, an Atsugewi, became the park’s first female naturalist in the ‘50s. Tribal members have served as summer interpreters, cultural demonstrators, and exhibit/artifact authenticators and factcheckers since its creation. And in 2008, the Kohn Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center (Mountain Maidu for “snow mountain”) became the first park facility to receive its name from an American Indian language. Several of the anthropological tribes have since banded together with others to create present-day tribes including the Pit River Tribe and the Redding Rancheria. You can learn more about the region’s indigenous history and future here.

Things to Do

Get your bearings and decide how to spend your time in Lassen at the Kohn Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center, one mile from the southwest park entrance. Inside, guests will find exhibits, a help desk, auditorium, an amphitheater, a park store, patio, café, and a gift shop.

What you do during your time in the park is highly dependent on the season during which you visit. Summer (mid-June to early September) offers the most variety of activities and easiest access. The whole park is open for hiking, non-motorized water sports, fishing, horseback riding, birding, auto-touring, and more. Summer also offers the most ranger-led programs including evening chats, junior ranger activities, a junior firefighter program, stargazing, are held spring through fall and include talks, evening programs, stargazing, and public bird-banding demonstrations. A beautiful exception are the two-hour guided snowshoe hikes in the Southwest Area, which can be enjoyed January through March.

The 30-mile park highway, connecting Manzanita Lake in the northwest and the southwest entrances of the park, is the main route to explore the park and most of the must-sees are along it. There are three additional roads that go to more remote areas of Warner Valley, Juniper Lake, and Butte Lake. Fill up the tank before you get to the park as there is only one gas station within park borders (behind the Manzanita Lake Camper Store). It’s only open late May through mid-October. 

Sulphur Works, a former mineral mine founded by an Austrian immigrant in the mid-19th century turned roadside attraction run by his descendants, is one such point of interest. The park's most easily accessed hydrothermal area, its brant colors, shifting earth, intense smells will engage all of your senses as you wander the short paved path.

The remote location means little to no light pollution which in turn means Lassen is a great place to stargaze. Rangers lead Starry Night programs throughout the summer and the park hosts an annual Dark Sky Festival. 

The Loomis Museum—open only during the summer—was built in 1927 by area resident and photographer Benjamin Loomis and his wife Estella. It houses his images of the park including those documenting the 1914-1915 Lassen Peak eruptions, which helped drum up support to establish the park, a film, exhibits on eruptions and park history, a shop, and a working seismograph. The Lily Pond Nature Trail is just across the highway from the historic stone building.

Bumpass Hell in LVNP

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Best Hikes & Trails

More than 150 miles of trails crisscross LVNP and deposit hikers at breathtaking hydrothermal features, alpine lakes, volcanic peaks, and meadows. To preserve the wild vibe, abide by the leave-no-trace philosophy, stay on the trail, and never feed the wildlife like bears or the rare Sierra Nevada red fox. In winter, paths are covered in powder and usually require skis or snowshoes. Snow has even been known to hang around some trails into June and July.

Trails worth putting on your list are:

• A 17-mile chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail that bisects the park. 

Manzanita Lake Trail winds around the namesake loch and is perfect for beginners as the elevation gain is negligible and it’s less than two miles long.

• The 2.3-mile Kings Creek Falls loop includes some steep slopes, a marsh crossing, a log bridge, and a high elevation but rewards hikers with a 30-foot-tall cascade.

• Don’t let the name scare you. Those who brave the three-mile Bumpass Hell Trail will gain access to the largest hydrothermal area in the park. Before you drop down into a basin of bubbly pools and sulphury smells, you’ll pass the remnants of a volcano and a serene lake. 

• To learn more about the 1914-1916 eruptions, hit the short Devastated Area Trail. Interpretive signage and views of Lassen Peak, and its trashed southeast slope, are peppered throughout the .2 miles. 

Snag Lake Loop is the longest single trail at 13 miles.

• The Lassen Peak and Cinder Cone trails are recommended for full-moon hikes.

Boating and Fishing

Lassen is a land of lakes, several of which are open for exploration via non-motorized watercraft like kayaks, SUPs, or canoes. Boating is prohibited on Helen, Emerald, Reflection, and Boiling Springs lakes. Manzanita, Butte, Juniper, and Summit lakes are the most popular for water sports. Single and double kayaks are rentable from May through September from the Manzanita Lake store. Fishing is another popular pastime in the park, especially on Manzanita and Butte lakes, as a variety of trout species reside here. Kings and Grassy Swale creeks also have populations of brook trout. A valid California fishing license is required.

Painted Dunes in Lassen NP

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Where to Camp

There are seven campgrounds offering a total of 424 designated campsites within the park. All campsites are equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, and a bear-resistant storage locker. (Food can also be stored in a hard-sided vehicle.) Group sites are equipped with three picnic tables, three fire rings, and three bear-resistant lockers. All campgrounds except Juniper Lake offer spigots and/or sinks for drinking water. Some have flush toilets (including Butte Lake, Summit Lake North, and Lost Creek Group) and include utility sinks for dishwashing. All campgrounds have trash and recycling bins. Only four have RV hookups. The Manzanita Lake area campgrounds have the most camper services including a camp store with food and supplies, showers, laundromat, and the park’s only dump station.

Most campsites are available by reservation only between June and September through Juniper Lake, Warner Valley, Southwest Walk-in Campgrounds are always first-come, first-served (FCFS). Reservations can be made up to six months before travel dates for individual sites and up to a year for group sites at Recreation.gov. Sites range from $22 to $72 a night unless dry camping is in effect and shuts down drinking water and flush toilets. Fees are reduced during dry camping, which occurs in winter when water systems are seasonally turned off. Visitors with access passes receive a 50 percent discount on camping. Most campgrounds fill up by April and stay full all summer. If you fail to nab a reservation and all of the FCFS sites are taken, the surrounding Lassen National Forest also has numerous campgrounds.

Because a majority of the park is set aside as designated wilderness, a status given to only five percent of the country’s public lands, there are lots of great opportunities for backpacking and backcountry camping. To do either, you must get a free permit and signing said permit means you agree to adhere to all the rules including locking all food and toiletries up in a bear-resistant container and packing out trash and toilet paper. Campsite are not designated in wilderness areas but again there are rules to where you can make camp. Learn more about backcountry recreation here.  

Where to Stay

If you prefer to not rough it, there are a few options. Set in the glacier-carved Warner Valley, the Drakesbad Guest Ranch provides accommodations in the historic lodge (originally homesteaded in the 1880s by namesake Edward Drake), cabins, and several bungalows. You don’t have to be a guest to dine, get a massage, or go horseback riding at DGR but a room key is key to enjoying the pool.

The same concessioner, Snow Mountain LLC, oversees the rustic Manzanita Cabins as well. With one-room, two-room, and bunkhouse options that sleep between one and eight people, each cabin includes beds, a propane heater, lantern, bear box, fire ring, access ramp, stairs with handrails, and an extended picnic table. They are within walking distance to the lake, require reservations, and are open between late May and early October. Must bring your own bedding.

Where to Eat

Drakesbad has a full-service sit-down restaurant that requires reservations. The Lassen Café at the visitor center serves soups, salads, sandwiches, coffee, and soft serve in a very casual setting that includes a fireplace and a patio. Grab-and-go items can be picked up at the Manzanita Lake Camper Store.

Sulphur Works in Lassen Volcanic NP

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How to Get There

Lassen is located outside of Red Bluff and Mineral, Calif., on CA-89, a few miles north of the junction with CA-36. By car, the drive is just shy of three hours from Sacramento International Airport. Redding Municipal Airport is a 44-mile drive to the park and it offers direct flights to LA and San Francisco. 

Accessibility

The visitor center is fully accessible with tactile exhibits, parking spaces, captioned film, restrooms, and audio descriptions for the exhibits (ask at the desk). The front desk also lends listening devices for use with the short paved geologic walk through time exhibit just outside. The Loomis Museum and the Discovery Center both have wheelchair-accessible entrances and restrooms. Service animals are allowed in all facilities and on trails as long as they are leashed and you pick up their waste. Some picnic areas—Manzanita Lake, Lake Helen, Devastated Area, and Kings Creek—offer level sites, accessible restrooms, and accessible parking. 

Many of Lassen’s big sites are viewable from the car. Sulphur Works is the most accessible of the hydrothermal areas with a paved sidewalk connecting the parking area and the points of interest. Some trails are hard-packed and relatively flat like Double Arch Trail and therefore considered barrier-free. Devastated Area has a half-mile hard surfaced loop trail with views of Lassen Peak and the 1915 mudflow.

Three campgrounds contain campsites suitable for people in wheelchairs: Manzanita Lake, Butte Lake, ad Summit Lake North. in Devils Garden. They are rented first-come, first-served.  Four cabins adjacent to Manzanita Campground have ramps. 

Milky Way views in Lassen NP

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Tips For Your Visit

• Fees: LVNP charges a fee year-round. From December 1 to April 15, a seven-day winter pass will set you back $10. The rest of the time, it’s $15 per individual on foot or bicycle, $25 per motorcycle, or $30 per car. There is a one-year Lassen Annual Pass for $55, which also grants access to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. Guests can also use system-wide annual America The Beautiful passes ($80). Active military, fourth graders, and citizens/permanent residents with permanent disabilities are eligible for a free pass while seniors qualify for a $20 annual pass or lifetime pass ($80). 

• The park is open all year though some road access is limited during winter months (approximately November to May) when snow is present. The high season is the short summer session (July through September) when the highest number of visitors come through and the greatest number of activities, services, and points of interest are available. Peak hours ate between 9 am and 3 pm.

• Traveling off-trail or too close to hydrothermal areas has resulted in many serious injuries so stay on boardwalks and trails at all times. The water and mud found in those areas is acidic and can burn skin. Also, remember that altitude sickness affects many visitors as the elevation ranges between 5,650 to 10,457 feet above sea level. 

• Before you go, download the free NPS app through the Apple Store or Google Play. It has info on more than 400 national parks including maps and information for this park. Save them for offline use in case you don’t have cell service.

• Cell phone and internet access are extremely spotty or nonexistent in the park. Best bets for service are in the Bumpass Hell parking lot, the Lassen Peak lot, and the Chaos Jumbles pullout. Free WiFi is available inside the visitor center. 

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