Lassen Volcanic National Park: Into the Cascades

Lake Helen beneath Lassen Peak

Lassen Volcanic National Park protects over 106,000 acres at the southern end of the Cascade Range in northern California, including Lassen Peak. Lassen Peak, southernmost in a string of legendary volcanoes (Shasta, Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, Baker) in a range that stretches north to British Columbia, is quiet today, but it was in the midst of an eruption just a century ago. In 1907, the year after passage of the Antiquities Act gave him the power, President Theodore Roosevelt declared two National Monuments in the Cascade Range east of Redding, California: Lassen Peak National Monument and Cinder Cone National Monument. Seven years later, in May 1914, long dormant Lassen Peak began to erupt (after an estimated 27,000 years of inactivity). The following year, in May 1915, the mountain exploded, sending a column of ash and steam 30,000 feet into the air and partially collapsing in on itself with flows of mud, ash, and pumice traveling some twenty-five miles from the crater. Major steam eruptions continued into 1921, with some 400 total eruptions between 1914 and 1921. In August 1916 with the eruption very much ongoing, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation combining the National Monuments and expanding them into Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Lassen Volcanic National Park had long been among the Parks I’d been most excited to visit in this whole journey. In fact, more often than not, I’d cited it as the Park I was most excited to visit. Now just past noon on Friday, September 13, having finished packing up our campsite on the beach, we were on our way there.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is some five hours by car west-southwest of Redwood National Park. We drove back down the coast, stopping for gas and to drop postcards at the post office in Trinidad. In Arcata, we truly left the Pacific Coast behind, turning inland on highway 299 and climbing into the coast ranges. We passed through parts of Six Rivers National Forest and Shasta-Trinity National Forest, listening to Radio Lab’s excellent series on the racist history of the concept of Intelligence Quotient. Occasionally we were stopped by roadwork.

Trinity River

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

As we descended toward the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, we reached Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, established in 1965 and centered on the reservoir Whiskeytown Lake.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

In July and August 2018, the Carr Fire, which began at Highway 299, burned 39,000 of the Park’s 42,000 total acres.

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

We were stopped by road work on a bridge over the reservoir, which afforded plenty of time to take in the astonishing fire damage.

Whiskeytown Lake, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Whiskeytown Lake, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Whiskeytown National Recreation Area

Once the roadwork cleared, we continued our descent into the Sacramento Valley. In the distance to the north, we got our first glimpses of Mount Shasta, the trip’s namesake peak.

We arrived in Redding, California, a city of 92,000 situated on the Sacramento River at the northern edge of the Sacramento Valley. It was very hot: 101 degrees. We partook of our California travel tradition of going to In-N-Out Burger before doing a Target run, where there had apparently been a run on kombucha before us. At both the fast food joint and the chain store, we ran into a young dad who reminded us of our friend Kam. At Target, he recognized us from In-N-Out and we laughed that we kept running into each other.

Back on the road, we departed Redding on the Lassen Park Highway, heading almost due east out of the valley and into the foothills of the Cascades. We stopped near the Park in Shingletown to top off the gas tank and to get some ice. There was no firewood to be had, though.

Image: Sean M. Santos

We arrived at Lassen Volcanic, our thirty-second National Park, a bit after 6:30pm. Not too bad a drive from the coast, considering the stops for food and fuel.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The first order of business was to stop at the camp store at Manzanita Lake, the bustling campground and facilities area at the Park’s northwestern entrance. There we picked up some very expensive firewood. We were now ready to set up camp.

California Tortoiseshell Butterfly

Although the photo above makes it look like it was overcast, it was actually clear, but the light and temperature were falling quickly, when we arrived at our incredible campsite at Summit Lake Campground South. My obsessive looking at Google Maps when selecting a site to reserve had paid off. The site was huge and pretty private with neighbors on only one side. Across a low depression, we even had a view of Summit Lake. Sean declared the very clean bear box “nifty.”

He built us a nice fire while I set up the tent. We had our supper and listened to laughter drifting toward us from the other campsites.

Then to bed. The night before, we’d slept literally at sea level. Now we were resting at 7,000 feet.

I woke up on Saturday, September 14 stiff and groggy. I’d slept terribly. Terribly. Mostly it was because I was fretting about the contract I’d not gotten and freaking out a little bit about having left my non-profit job to go it alone. At 3:45am, I’d climbed out of the tent to pee and had heard an owl. So at least that was neat. The tent was also on a slight incline, so we decided we’d switch positions a bit the next night.

But the morning light glinting off Summit Lake beyond our site began to make everything feel better.

Look! A National Park Service garbage truck

While I was brewing coffee, a National Park Service garbage truck rumbled through our loop picking up the trash. This only underscored that Summit Lake Campground was easily the cleanest National Park campground we’d ever seen.

When Sean emerged from the tent, he found me sitting at the picnic table sipping coffee and poring over maps of the Park. As we had our morning Breakfast Skillet, we decided to mirror our plan from Redwood National Park: we’d spend this first day getting the lay of the land, stopping at the visitor centers and touring the park road. Perhaps we’d do a hike in the afternoon. Then tomorrow we’d do our big hike in the Park, leaving Monday morning for a few more adventures before moving on.

Steller’s Jay

After breakfast, we gathered our day packs and climbed into the Cadillac (sigh). We headed southwest on the Park Road, and pulled over in Upper Kings Creek Meadow.

Reading Peak

North of us was the wide ridge of Reading Peak.

Upper Kings Creek Meadow

Lassen Peak

To the northwest, in the direction we were headed, Lassen Peak rose above the trees.

We continued on, and the road switchbacked up the flank of Reading Peak. From here, we had a misty view of the southern edge of the Cascades with the northern end of the Sierra Nevada beyond.

Lassen Peak

Lassen Peak beckoned us onward.

Reading Peak

View from Almanor Overlook

Now we were climbing the flank of Lassen Peak. We reached the summit of the park road on a saddle between Lassen Peak and Mount Helen. At 8,512 feet, the Lassen Park Road is the highest road in the Cascades.

Helen Lake

As we began our descent, we passed Helen Lake.

Helen Lake

Lassen Peak

We pulled over one last time on our way to the southern end of the road to check out a raptor at the top of a tree above Little Hot Springs Valley.

Red-Tailed Hawk

We got chatting with a couple who were also eyeing the bird. They were from nearby (South Lake Tahoe), and they were impressed that we were all the way from Chicago.

Ponderosa Pine

Little Hot Springs Valley

We wished them well, I snapped a few more photos, and we continued on toward the Park’s southern entrance.

1 thought on “Lassen Volcanic National Park: Into the Cascades

  1. Shaun Jex

    I just discovered your blog and I can’t wait to catch up on all your adventures so far! This was a great introduction and the photos were breath taking. Looking forward to seeing and reading more.


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