There are some travelers who just can’t settle for the best known U.S. National Parks. For instance, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park are a must-see destination for any great road trip, but their exceptional popularity makes them a bit cliché and can definitely get overcrowded, especially during the peak tourist season. The “rare species” of travelers I’m telling you about are not snobs, since they too have visited the classic parks at least once. They are simply impelled to discover all the other natural treasures that are hidden in this corner of incredible beauty in North America.
Raise your hand if you think you know California well! Wow, there’s so many of you! So let me ask you, have you heard of Lassen Volcanic National Park? Here’s where the hands go down immediately. Lassen is just one of those parks I was talking about above; it’s located in northeastern California, an area that is normally not included in road trip itineraries, but listen, it’s a real treat!
So let’s find out everything you need to know to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park, California’s smaller version of Yellowstone National Park.
What to Expect
The scenic road that cuts through this park (practically the only one, with the exception of some secondary roads, as we will see) will allow you to traverse a very unique mountain landscape, dominated by the massive volcano called Lassen Peak (10,433 ft). Inside this landscape, there are boiling lava pools, craters and puffing fumaroles that provide a stark contrast to the emerald lakes and lush coniferous forests. There are trails of varying lengths and difficulty, but the layout of the park makes them all easily accessible from the main road.
Lassen Peak, one of the largest volcanic domes on earth, is in a dormant state. The last eruption dates back to 1915. In a section of the park called Devastated Area, where there is also an easy trail, there is still evidence of this eruption.
Best Time To Visit Lassen Volcanic National Park
If you’re traveling by car (how else would you get up here anyway?) you are forced to make a choice. In the winter, (December to May) all roads in the park are closed to car traffic, so you can only visit Lassen Volcanic National Park from June to October. To tell the truth, the safest months for the visit are August and September. Especially in the case of this park, you need to monitor the official website to find out if there are any sudden road closures, even during the time of year that the park is open (there could still be snow in July). If you decide to reach the park during the months when it is likely to snow, and you have checked on the official website that the roads are open, don’t forget to still bring snow chains.
Where is Lassen Volcanic National Park
- The main town near Lassen Volcanic National Park is Redding, which is located 50 minutes from the park’s north entrance. To enter from here, you need to drive on Hwy 44 for about 50 miles (about 50 minutes) to the junction with the CA-89 S, which becomes the scenic Lassen Park Rd, the only one that cuts through the park from north to south.
- If you’re coming from Sacramento and you don’t want to pass through Redding, get off of I-5 N at Red Bluff (where there are a few convenient hotels and several gas stations) and drive along Hwy 36 for 40 minutes to Mineral, a tiny town with three houses, a supermarket and a lodge. After Mineral, take Lassen Park Rd and access the park via the Southwest Entrance Station.
- If you’re coming from the east, you’ll have to pass Chester and stay on Hwy 36 until you turn onto Lassen Park Road.
Please note: If you have not refueled in Redding or Red Bluff and you are close to running out of gas, keep in mind that the only gas station in the area is at Manzanita Lake Camper Store (North side of the park). During the winter months, the gas station is closed. At Old Station, north of Manzanita Lake, there is another gas station, but it’s a bit out of the way.
Hiking Lassen Volcanic National Park: Trails Not to Be Missed
Here are the recommended trails and itineraries for those visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park for 1 or 2 days. The itinerary is from the south (Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center) to the north (Manzanita Lake):
- Mill Creek Falls: as I was saying, Lassen can be considered a miniature Yellowstone… so it is no surprise to find a waterfall here! Lassen can’t boast the beautiful waterfalls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, but the trail leading to Mill Creek Falls is a very popular family hike. The trail begins near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center; it’s 3.2 miles long (2.5 hours) and passes mostly through flowery meadows and through the thick Red Fir Forest, along the course of East Sulfur Creek.
- Sulphur Works: The area of the park that is mostly visited by those who enter from the south. As soon as you park your car, you can take a short trail where you can see the intense hydrothermal activity that characterizes this park. Give yourself less than an hour for this instructive walk through bubbling mud pools and fumaroles.
- Bumpass Hell: This is another area of great interest for hydrothermal activity, but the panorama is more beautiful and the hike is a bit more demanding, requiring more time and energy. The length of the trail (round-trip, 295 ft difference in altitude) is about 3 miles and it takes 2 hours to cover it all. The first part, starting from the parking lot (6 miles from the south entrance), goes through the woods and leads to a clearing where the ground boils and trembles. The main attraction of Bumpass Hell is the Big Boiler, the biggest fumarole in the world inside a volcano that has never erupted. Stay on the boardwalk!
- Lake Helen: Near the parking lot mentioned above, you will also see the stunning Lake Helen. Its crystal clear waters reflect the coniferous forest surrounding it and spotlights the great protagonist of the park, Lassen Peak. It’s worth stopping here to take a picture. You won’t be the only one who had this idea!
- Lassen Peak Trail: Some hikers do not just want to see Lassen Peak from below. Therefore, I would like to mention the Lassen Peak Trail, a very challenging trail that you can take to reach the top of the volcano by climbing a rock staircase. The elevation gain is astounding. There are almost 1970 ft to be covered in a total of about 4-5 hours roundtrip. This trail is recommended for those who have an adequate experience level and a little more time to spend in the park.
- Devastated Area Interpretive Trail: The name is not encouraging at all, but this short trail in the area northwest of the park is really enlightening for those who want to get a closer look at the devastating effects of a volcano eruption. To reach the parking lot of this trail at the foot of Lassen Peak from the south entrance, you need to drive 19 miles to the Emigrant Pass. From here, there is an easy paved trail that takes half an hour and is suitable for the whole family. There are informational panels that may be useful to read.
- Manzanita Lake: Mountain lake lovers can venture out on the trail that wraps around the entire Manzanita Lake (1.8 miles; 2 hours), right at the park’s northern entrance. The walk is restful and offers beautiful views of Lassen Peak.
Other Places to Visit Not on the Scenic Drive…
As mentioned above, Lassen Park Road is not the only road in the park. There are other areas of exceptional beauty hidden in the park rarely visited by tourists. I will mention two of them, but my advice is to consider them only if you are really interested and especially if you have a little more time.
- Butte Lake Area: To get here, you can take Hwy 44, about 24 miles east of Manzanita Lake, after Old Station. Near the enchanting Butte Lake is Cinder Cone, an impressive volcano with a crater at the top. You can reach the top by hiking a challenging trail (4 miles, 3 hours) that starts from the parking lot near the lake, runs along the incredible lava beds that touche the shores of the lake (Fantastic Lava Beds) and climbs up the solidified lava mass to the crater. From up there, you can enjoy an exceptional view of the surrounding Painted Dunes. The road is closed from November to June.
- Juniper Lake Area: On the southeastern side of the park you will find Juniper Lake, the largest lake in the whole of Lassen. This area is also located off of the main road and takes about a 90-minute drive from the south exit. Take Hwy 36 to Chester. From there, take CR-312, a side road that leads right to the lake (Chester-Juniper Lake Road). Just above the campsite, there is a short trail that I like very much that leads to Crystal Lake, an enchanting mountain lake resting in a rocky basin surrounded by a classic mountain panorama. The road is subject to seasonal closures.
Map of Lassen Volcanic National Park
Where to Stay Near the Park?
Inside the park there are several campsites and only one lodge, Drakesbad Guest Ranch (Warner Valley) which is located in a spectacular scenic position, but it’s not necessarily in a strategic location.
The best options for an overnight stay are in the three cities mentioned below: