More Lava, Less Crowds: A Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Peak stays snow-covered late into the season.
Lassen Peak stays snow-covered late into the season. LassenNPS
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Hidden in California's remote northeast corner, Lassen Volcanic National Park marks the southern extent of the beautiful and volatile Cascade Range. Created by the subduction of the ocean floor beneath the North American plate, the Cascade volcanoes—including the park’s namesake, Lassen Peak—make up the infamous Ring of Fire. As recently as 1917, the 10,457-foot Lassen Peak spewed lava and ash over the surrounding landscape during the second-most recent explosion of one of the Cascade volcanoes. Still an active volcanic zone, the park contains four types of volcanoes, as well as boiling mud pots, gaseous fumaroles, and churning hot springs—in short, a fascinating landscape that will delight outdoor lovers who make the approximately four-hour trip from San Francisco.

Created to protect this dramatic landscape, Lassen Volcanic National Park beckons visitors to explore 106,000 acres of rugged peaks, sunny meadows, pine forests, and unusual hydrothermal features. Hikers and backpackers will enjoy 150 miles of maintained trails, and all visitors will appreciate scenic camping options.

Another reason to visit? The park, located in Shasta County, is only slightly farther from San Francisco than Yosemite, yet sees roughly one-tenth of the the number of visitors per year as its celebrity neighbor. If you've had it with the crowds and RVs that pack Yosemite Valley, especially in the high season, the first-come, first-serve camping options and lack of trail quotas in Lassen will come as a welcome surprise. Here, a starter list for planning your next adventure to this enchanting spot in northern California.

1. Explore geothermal wonders.

The park is bubbling with geothermal wonders. Don DeBold

For a unique hiking experience through the heart of the park’s volcanic zone, hike the Bumpass Hell trail as it passes steam vents, boiling mud pools, and fumaroles. This gentle 3-mile trail traverses the high-elevation landscape, offering access to the bizarre hydrothermal wonders created by groundwater percolating into a hot magma chamber. For a longer hike, continue through Bumpass Hell to Kings Creek Picnic Area, passing by Cold Boiling Lake, where gas bubbles to the surface giving the impression of boiling water.

For hydrothermal action in the Warner Valley area, hike the Pacific Crest Trail to view Boiling Springs Lake and the Terminal Geyser. Also from the Warner Valley Trailhead, make your way into the Devil’s Kitchen—the park’s second-largest geothermal area—featuring boiling springs and steam venting from cracked yellow and red earth. Though the landscape is recovering, be sure to visit the “Devastated Area” to learn about the Lassen Peak eruptions.

2. Find solitude backpacking.

Overlook lava flows and the Painted Dunes from Cinder Cone peak. Akos Kokai

The network of 150 miles of trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park provides scenic options for multi-day loop hikes or shorter overnight trips. Regardless of how long you plan to be on the trail, expect plenty of solitude, as the park ranks as one of the country’s least visited national parks, and even fewer people make it far from the road.

For an epic two-to-four-day loop, hike from the Summit Lake Trailhead toward the Cluster Lakes, continuing past more than 10 lakes as you cover 22 miles through lush landscapes. The lakes provide frequent opportunities for a refreshing dip (and also create a paradise for mosquitos earlier in the summer, so be sure to bring repellent). For a shorter, two-day option, hike a 14-mile loop around two of the park’s largest lakes and the distinctive Cinder Cone peak. The route offers standout views of Lassen Peak and nearby summits, skirts the Fantastic Lava Beds, and overlooks the Painted Dunes, stained red and orange by oxidized cinder and ash.

3. Summit volcanic peaks.

Climb Lassen Peak, the park's namesake. LassenNPS

No trip to Lassen would be complete without summiting Lassen Peak, the park’s namesake and the largest plug dome volcano in the world. The five-mile round trip trail climbs steeply from about 8,000 feet to the Peak’s summit at 10,457 feet. From the summit, expect expansive views of Mt. Shasta, Lake Almanor, the Cascade Range, and everything else within 100 miles in any direction.

The second-highest mountain in the park, Brokeoff Mountain, offers a stunning alternative to Lassen Peak. During the 7.2-mile round-trip climb, you will pass through the lodgepole pine and red fir forest, open fields of wildflowers, and unobstructed views of the stunning summit of Mt. Shasta 100 miles to the north. The shorter trail to the top of the Cinder Cone winds around the classically conical volcano, overlooking massive basalt flows from its 6,900-foot peak. As the trail circles toward the summit, you will be rewarded with views of Lassen Peak and the Painted Dunes.

4. Relax at scenic campsites.

Campers stargaze near Manzanita Lake. Alison Taggart-Barone, LassenNPS

Looking for a basecamp for day-hiking explorations and other adventures in the park? Lassen has you covered with a variety of excellent front-country camping options. The eight campgrounds range from developed to primitive, and four are first-come, first-served, while the rest are reservable. Sites at popular campgrounds like Manzanita Lake book up well in advance, and with good reason, as the campground is adjacent to Manzanita Lake.

If you are craving a less rugged camping experience, reserve one of Manzanita Lake’s new cabins, which sleep up to eight people. You also can't go wrong camping at the scenic Summit Lakes campgrounds, which flank Summit Lake near the center of the park. The 20-site Southwest Walk-In Camp is the only campground in the park that's open year-round. Other campgrounds include Warner Valley, Butte Lake, Juniper Lake, and Lost Creek.

5. Take advantage of seasonal activities.

Cyclists cruise the park road. LassenNPS

Partially open year-round, Lassen offers exciting outdoor recreation opportunities during all four seasons. In the winter, the Manzanita Lake area at the north end of the park road and the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center area at the south end have marked snowshoe trails. Cross-country skiers can cruise along the snow-covered park road to visit the geothermal attractions. Experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders can climb and ski many of the park’s summits.

In the spring after the road is clear of snow and ice, the park opens the road for one weekend to cyclists, runners, and hikers before opening to vehicles. The ride through Lassen is unparalleled for its alpine scenery, gentle climbs, and winding descents. Out-and-back through the park totals 56 miles with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. Around the time that the road is cleared, wildflowers will emerge, perfuming your ride. Summer is prime hiking time in the park, with the road fully open and snow absent from all but the highest peaks. In the fall, the aspens turn color as the weather gets crisp, and hikers should be prepared for early storms.

_ If You Go: _

  • There are five separate entrances to the park, and one Main Park Road that runs north-south through the park. The park is about 230 miles from downtown San Francisco to the southwest entrance.

  • Park officials do not recommend using GPS units for directions in and around Lassen. If you do use a GPS unit, keep in mind that if there is a conflict between it and what the road sign says, the road sign is correct.

  • Backpackers, hikers, and anyone planning to drive through the park should note that the road opens after crews clears it of the snow, rock, and ice deposited by winter storms, which can be as late as mid-July. You can monitor the status of the road here, and keep an eye on snow conditions here.

Written by Charlotte Dohrn for RootsRated.

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