Mt. Lassen: Another world — in our backyard
I retired in May 2020, right in the middle of the COVID lockdowns. I had been dreaming of retirement and traveling for many years. Many of our plans were postponed, but we have been taking more localized trips.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is less than 3 hours from Ashland. You can go down for a day hike, but we went for three days and two nights.
When we were planning this trip, I had suggested Yellowstone, but my husband said, “Let’s go to Lassen, it’s closer and is a mini-Yellowstone.” He was right.
We left Ashland around 6:30 a.m., and took Highway 89. We stopped in the little burg of Old Station to buy some lunch (tip: make lunch ahead of time as there is really nothing here) and set off for our first stop at the northeast corner of the park — Cinder Cone.
The trailhead is at the Butte Lake campground and boat launch area. The water at Butte Lake was a bit low and the winds created dust clouds, but we went on to our goal of Cinder Cone. The hike is rated moderate to strenuous and starts at an easy pace through the woodlands. After about 1.2 miles, we saw the winding trail curving up the side of Cinder Cone.
The trail is part of the Nobles Emigrant Trail, which was used by emigrants traveling west to California. There were only a few hikers, and temperatures were in the mid to upper 70s. That last 0.8 miles took about 20-25 minutes, slipping along a trail of cinders with an elevation gain of nearly 900 feet and plenty of stops along the way — to see the views, of course.
Once at the top, the views of Mount Lassen to the west, the Painted Dunes and Fantastic Lava Beds immediately to the east and Snag Lake to the south make the trip well worth the workout. We chose not to hike down into the crater, which appeared to be easily doable — but then again, you would have to hike back up. We stayed and walked the rim, enjoyed the views, then made our way down the cinder path, a much easier trip than on the way up.
There are several trails that take off at Cinder Cone, one of which goes down from the rim to the Painted Dunes and then on to Snag Lake. Knowing that it was another hour and a half drive to our “ranch,” we consumed our previously purchased snacks at Butte Lake, drove around to the town of Chester, had a cold beer, then continued to our overnight accommodations.
There are eight campgrounds in the park, but we selected a very nice small “ranch” just south of the Lassen Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. Highlands Ranch Resort is outside the park just a few miles from Mill Creek on Highway 36/89. There are only seven rooms in five cottages, and a full breakfast is included. We had dinner there the first night, and the food, service, sunset, views of the meadow, cows — and even watching the marmots play — was a perfect ending to day one.
Day two was planned as a longer series of hikes and another drive around the southern end of the park to the Warner Valley area. After a filling breakfast (spinach and mushroom omelet with home-fried potatoes and fruit), we were ready to hit the road.
Our goal was to hike to three of the hydrothermal areas; Devils Kitchen, Boiling Springs Lake and Terminal Geyser.
Devils Kitchen was a relatively easy 4.5-mile round-trip hike. We parked at Drakesbad Lodge and started the hike out across the boardwalk in the meadow. We were advised there was a mother bear and two cubs around the meadow, but we did not see them.
Once again, there were few hikers and we had the area to ourselves. Devils Kitchen is full of sulfur pits, a few boiling cauldrons and incredible colors.
After lunch outside on the patio of the small dining hall, we set off again, this time to Boiling Springs Lake and Terminal Geyser; six miles round-trip. The first part of the trip to Boiling Springs Lake was through the forest with lots of shade, leading to a total change in scenery. Once at the lake the landscape is vivid red earth with a pale, milky, green-colored lake. The lake has several fumaroles and mud pots that you can hear before you see them.
Apparently, the lake can reach 125 degrees Celsius, but we didn’t think about testing that theory.
As we kept going, the sky darkened and there was a bit of thunder followed by rain.
The additional mile and a half to the end of the trail at Terminal Geyser seemed a little longer and it was downhill the majority of the way, reminding us that we had to go back up. The trail merges with PCT in several areas.
Terminal Geyser is not really a geyser, but a vent with a big plume of steam that moves around some, but not the true build up of a geyser. We were glad we persevered and finished the trail, and by the time we got back to the car, we were mostly dry from the rain.
Day three was planned as a full day in the interior of the park. We were fortunate, as the Bumpass Hell trail had opened up the day before we arrived. It is often closed into July due to snow, yet that was one of the main reasons we had wanted to go to Lassen. After another great breakfast at the ranch (smoked trout bagel with cream cheese, red onion, ripe tomato and capers), we headed to the main park entry.
On the way we stopped at Sulfur Works, and all of the marked vista points before getting to the trailhead parking lot. We planned to drive Highway 89 all the way through the park, so we knew we had to stop along the way as we would not be going back this direction, at least not on this trip. Just before the trailhead was Emerald Lake, which was quite perfect in the emerald description.
Bumpass Hell trail did not disappoint. It is a fairly easy trail with great views of Mount Lassen, Brokeoff Mountain, Pilot Pinnacle and other peaks along the way. The trail can be narrow in places, so be aware of those coming at you from the opposite direction. The trail leads to a boardwalk across the hydrothermal areas dotted with boiling mud pits, steam and beautiful colors. There are actually two ways to go toward the boardwalk. The round trip was just over three miles.
We then headed to the Kings Creek picnic area to access the trails for Cold Boiling Lake and on to Crumbaugh Lake; a round trip of just over three miles. We saw much more in the way of wildflowers and more lush green trails, a deer and several bugs and mosquitoes.
After that we drove to Summit Lake, ate lunch, watched kids play in the lake and continued with our drive through the park; stopping at the marked points of interest along the way: the Devastated Area, Hot Rock and Chaos Crags before a final pit stop at the Manzanita Lake Campground. I think we had had enough hiking — 18 miles or so in the last three days.
We headed home by way of Highway 44 and Redding. We made it home in time to pick up the dog from the R&R Pet Resort and take a shower before relaxing on the first day of the Pacific Northwest heat wave.
Paula C. Brown is retired Ashland public works director, retired rear admiral, U.S. Navy, and co-owner of Dana Campbell Vineyards.
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