Visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park & Forest

For this year's fourth of July weekend, we took a trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is surrounded by Lassen National Forest. This turned out to be one of my favorite places we have ever visited in California. Aside from Yosemite, LVNP is by far the most unique, interesting, and beautiful national park I have been to on the west coast. In many ways it is actually more enjoyable than Yosemite - with comparable vistas, amazing geothermal features, and, significantly, a lack of "Disney World level" crowds, LVNP is a wonderful place to visit.

As part of the Ring of Fire, you can see a lot of very cool geothermal features like boiling mud pits and steam geysers, and even explore a lava tunnel. The hike to the peak of Lassen Volcano is also fantastic. The hike, and the views from the top of Lassen Volcano, are now my favorites in California, second only to Mt Talloc. I actually think the vistas are even better than the views at Yosemite. Looking at Yelp, many people agree with my high opinion of the park.

In short, it is a fantastic park, absolutely worth the visit, and I highly recommend making the trip. When you go, there are four things that I would consider "must-dos". In order of awesomeness:

  1. Summit Lassen Volcano
  2. Hike Bumpass Hell Trail
  3. Walk the Lava Subway Tunnel
  4. See Sulfur Works and Visitor Center

Lassen Volcano Peak Trail

The hike to the peak of Lassen Volcano is relatively short, but it's intense. It's 2.5 miles to the top and a 2000 foot climb - if you do some quick math, you'll note that is steep. The peak is at 10,457 feet, so the high altitude will weigh on you, as well, unless you are acclimatized. The trail isn't too terribly steep until you get to the "0.9 miles left" sign, at which point it gets a bit more difficult. When you see the "0.5 miles left", sign, prepare for the gauntlet. You can see a picture of the last half mile, below.

The vistas during the hike, and the view from the top, are phenomenal. Here's a shot from the top:

If you are an experienced hiker, you can expect to make the summit in 1.5 to 2 hours. Inexperienced hikers should plan for around 3 hours to reach the top. There is no reprieve from the sun, so be sure to wear sunscreen or other forms of sun protection. The temperature at the top is about 10F cooler than the temperature at the base, and while we found it to be very comfortable, I would recommend bringing a light wind-breaker to wear at the top - the breeze can be quite chilly.

Bumpass Hell Trail

Bumpass Hell Trail is an easy hike; we saw a lot of families with young children on the hike, and everyone could do it comfortably. The trail leads to an area of geothermal activity that is really quite amazing. I've never seen anything like it, and it's worth the trip to LVNP, on its own. Here's a shot of some of the awesome things you'll find at the end of the trail:

Lassen Lava Subway Tunnel

This is part of a lava tunnel that was created during the last major eruption of Lassen. Two parts of the tunnel's ceiling collapsed, about 1/3 of a mile apart, and you can explore the tunnel between the two openings. It isn't actually in LVNP, but is just north of the park in Lassen National Forest.

There is no lighting in the tunnel, and if you don't bring your own flashlight you will never make it through. The floor is also very craggy and it is easy to roll your ankle, so try to wear something that supports your ankles when you head there.

The tunnel itself is amazing. It's the only place like it I have ever been that hasn't been wired for electricity and commercialized. It's literally a lava cave with a few informational sign posts - the rest is up to you. It's a truly unique thing to experience.

You'll know you are getting close when you drive through Old Station, and see JJ's Cafe on your right. If you're hungry, it's worth stopping in for a burger!

Sulfur Works and Visitor Center

The LVNP Visitor Center is fairly nice, and along with maps, a shop, informational shows and the like, it provides a fantastic source of cool, clean water - be sure to stop in when you enter the park! Plus, just up the road is 'The Sulfur Works'. This is small area of geothermal activity just off the road. You'll see more impressive geothermal features at Bumpass Hell, but the Sulfur Works is a nice appetizer for what is to come!

Planning Your Visit

While you probably could do everything in one day, it might be tough. I recommend planning for a day and a half of visiting. We booked our trip just a couple of weeks beforehand, so most of the places to stay in the immediate vicinity of the park were already booked. If you are heading there, try to grab a spot at St Bernard's Inn or The Bidwell House. We stayed in Red Bluff, California, which is about an hour away from the park. While not ideal, it actually worked out quite well; the drive between Red Bluff and the park is relatively easy. We actually found a number of other groups in our hotel doing the same, so don't fret if you end up in the same boat.

The hardest thing to reach in my list above is the lava tunnel. While it is a bit of a drive, it really is worth the trip. Here is a Google Map that pinpoints each of the items above:

Have a great trip, and enjoy =)

Ben Hilburn

Ben Hilburn

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D.C. Metro Area