Lassen Volcanic National Park: Park Highway

Brokeoff Mountain

Sean and I arrived at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at about a quarter after eleven on the morning of Saturday, September 14. The LEED-certified platinum building only opened in 2008 and was Lassen Volcanic National Park’s first formal visitor center. Our intention was to check out the visitor center and then drive the Park Highway all the way to the northwest entrance at Manzanita Lake, stopping at the interpreted sites along the way.

Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center

We parked and walked up the broad sidewalk to the center.

Inside, we were greeted with a sign that indicated that the Bumpass Hell Trail was open. It had been closed most of the season so far. We’d have to add it to our list of things to do, but perhaps not today.

I took note of a map indicating the area of damage from the Reading Fire. It cut through a large portion of the loop trail I’d been thinking we’d do the next day as our big hike in this Park. I made a mental note to perhaps rethink our route.

The de rigueur modeled Park map was cooler than most, with buttons that lit up geologic and volcanic features in the Park.

We strolled about in the interpretive areas. I was impressed with the displays oriented to kids and families that discussed climate change and even food and recycling.

The heart of the interpretive area, though, was the extensive display about the Park’s volcanism. Although a small Park in terms of area, Lassen Volcanic is stuffed with examples of the full range of volcanic systems. The density of types of volcanic and geothermal features is crazy.

That a dramatic, years-long eruption occurred within photographic memory at this Park, when it was already protected as Lassen Peak National Monument, makes the volcanism of the place all the more thrilling. It’s one thing to understand that Yellowstone is a Caldera or that Mount Rainier is a volcano. But this place actually exploded.

At the bookshop, we got our pin and patch, and I got an armload of books about the Park, including the auto touring guide, which Sean read to us while we drove through the Park.

Brokeoff Mountain

Diamond Peak

Back outside, we strolled the half-circle sidewalk that had examples of each major type of volcanic rock in the Park.

Every National Park should have a recycling bin for propane canisters!

We said goodbye to the visitor center and drove a short distance up the Park Highway to the Sulphur Works.

The visitor center, this part of the Park Highway, and this whole southwestern section of Lassen Volcanic National Park were once in massive, eleven-mile-wide Mount Tehama, which erupted for 200,000 years, finally ending around 400,000 years ago. The Sulphur Works, here in what was once the caldera of the gigantic volcano, was part of the main vent of the volcano. That it is a place of active hydrothermal features like mudpots and fumaroles is evidence of continued volcanic activity.

Video: Sean M. Santos

The steam in these particular mudpots comes from snowmelt coming into contact with hot rocks some three miles below the surface.

Greenleaf Manzanita

Brokeoff Mountain

Farther up the Park Highway, at the first southerly facing pulloff, we were treated to a sweeping view of the remnants of Mount Tehama, particularly of Brokeoff Mountain, second highest peak in the Park, to the southwest.

The remains of Mount Tehama: Brokeoff Mountain

Brokeoff Mountain

Little Hot Springs Valley
Rubber Rabbitbrush

Mount Conard

To the south, Mount Conard was also part of what had been the flanks of Mount Tehama.

Little Hot Springs Valley

We continued on, climbing out of the ancient caldera of Mount Tehama toward its successor volcano, Lassen Peak.

Bigleaf Lupine

Diamond Peak

Mount Conard (center) and Diamond Peak (right)

Mount Conard Peak

Wooly Mule’s Ears

Lassen Peak

The remains of Mount Tehama: Mount Diller and Pilot Pinnacle

Diamond Peak, also a remnant of Mount Tehama

Emerald Lake

We arrived at the shores of Emerald Lake, shallower of two glacial lakes along the highway beneath Lassen Peak.

Mountain Hemlock


Pearly Everlasting

Emerald Lake with Lassen Peak peeking out to the right

Ski Heil Peak

Lake Helen

We passed the parking area for Bumpass Hell, which was overflowing along the Park Highway. We resolved to return and see Bumpass Hell on Monday morning before leaving the Park. The area around Lake Helen was also crowded on this early Saturday afternoon. But we pulled over briefly for the view of Lassen Peak.

Lassen Peak

From this angle, it was easy to see the dacite lava flows that extruded from Lassen Peak’s core. On the western flank, a feature on one of the hardened flows is whimsically known as “Vulcan’s Eye.”

Vulcan’s Eye

Lassen Peak

We continued on, again passing over the highest point on the highway and highest road in the Cascades.

Pride of the Mountains

Up here near treeline, it was cool to see the patterns of rock and water and protection that allowed the forest to extend in bands toward the peaks.

Reading Peak

As we began our descent, we stopped for lunch at an overlook with an east-northeasterly orientation dominated in the foreground by Reading Peak.

Mountain Hemlock

Munch munch munch peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips munch munch.

Sean observed, “This is a very picturesque Park.”

Caribou Wilderness

Reading Peak

Mountain Hemlock, bowed but not broken


We rapidly descended on the shoulder of Reading Peak to Kings Creek Meadow.

Kings Creek

We would see this gentle little creek the next day when we’d struggle mightily to cross it. But here in the meadow, it would have been easy.

Kings Creek

Kings Creek

Bigleaf Lupine

Western Mountain Aster

One-Seeded Pussypaws

Lassen Peak

We continued on.

Lassen Peak

Our next stop was the Devastated Area on the northeast side of Lassen Peak.

A half mile loop interpretive trail wends its way through forest still recovering from the explosions, mudflows, pyrostatic flows, and avalanches of late may 1915. As the photo above indicates, the immediate area around the trail was completely destroyed by the two largest eruptions.

Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel

We parked and started our walk, choosing to follow the loop clockwise.

Interpretive signage indicated both that the many larger boulders in the area were carried to this spot by the force of the eruptions and avalanches and that they are comprised on an array of rock type. All of the trees in the area grew up since 1915.

This boulder traveled a long way from the top of Lassen Peak.

Lassen Peak

Ponderosa Pine

As we were walking, we ran into the couple from Lake Tahoe whom we’d met earlier in the day as we were gazing at the young Red-Tailed Hawk. We chatted with them further, and he recommended the hike we had been planning for the next day as a spectacular route with little elevation gain or loss. But he had not hiked it since the Reading Fire.

Ponderosa Pine

Golden Mantled Ground Squirrel

This rock was first captured in a famous photograph by B.F. Loomis, who documented the eruptions of Lassen Peak. He took a photo of this rock on the afternoon of May 22, 1915. The rock was still hot after being blasted off the mountain and carried to this spot three days earlier during the eruption of May 19. After capturing the image, Loomis packed up his gear and left the area. Then at 4:45pm that afternoon, the mountain exploded again, sending a column of ash and steam 30,000 feet into the air and sending another devastating flow of burning rock, mud, and snowmelt off the mountain and through the area. Had Loomis sill been in the area, he would have almost certainly been killed.

Wolf Lichen

We continued on down and around the northern flanks of Lassen Peak.

Chaos Crags

We stopped beneath Chaos Crags, massive lava cliffs that erupted from the mountain only 1,100 years ago.

Rubber Rabbitbrush

Mountain Hemlock and Rubber Rabbitbrush

White Fir

Chaos Crags and Chaos Jumbles

Here beneath Chaos Crags, the road passes through Chaos Jumbles, a mass of rocks carried down from Chaos Crags some 350 years ago by a series of avalanches that topped one-hundred miles per hour.

Chaos Jumbles

Chaos Jumbles and Lodgepole Pines

We ended the drive at the northwest corner of the Park near Manzanita Lake. Here, although there isn’t a formal visitor center, there is the Loomis Museum. B.F. Loomis donated the land that comprises this portion of Lassen Volcanic National Park. For years he and his wife operated a photography studio and shop that is now the Loomis Museum.

Oops. We probably shouldn’t have been using pinecones as kindling for the campfire.

Well that’s not ominous.

Inside, the exhibitions are less up-to-date than those at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center, but they are more artifact focused with objects like Native American basketry and Loomis’ camera.

It was about ten minutes to three. Our tour of the Park Highway had taken a little under three hours. We had plenty of daylight left, so we decided to continue our auto tour by driving out of the Park and back into it at its northeast corner to see Butte Lake and the Fantastic Lava Beds.

3 thoughts on “Lassen Volcanic National Park: Park Highway

    1. Brandon Hayes

      They reprinted the book of photographs that he made for the 100th anniversary of the eruption in 2015. It’s available through the Lassen Association bookstore, and it’s pretty cool.


Leave a Reply