Lassen Peak may seem cool and calm, but there’s trouble bubbling under the surface. This volcano still has a core of hot magma that’s heating groundwater and producing lots of smelly steam. If you want to see this highly active geothermal area, you’ll need to go on a short hike to the oddly named Bumpass Hell area of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Lassen Volcanic National Park offers a perfectly nice scenic drive, with views of Lassen Peak and a handful of steam vents. But, it would be unfortunate if you came to Lassen and didn’t see the park’s most active geothermal area: Bumpass Hell.
A name like that deserves some explanation. The “hell” portion makes sense — it’s hot, steamy, sulfur-ey, just like the real thing. “Bumpass” is the name of a local cowboy who had the misfortune of scalding his leg in one of the area’s hot sulfur pools, which was hidden under a thin crust of dirt. Kendall Vanhook Bumpass described the area as “hell”, and his story got the attention of a local newspaper reporter. Bumpass took him on a tour of the area, but once again, his leg cracked through the soil and into a boiling pool. This time, it had to be amputated.
So there’s your history lesson — now, let’s get to the hike.
From the parking area, you might expect that the trail is going to drop down into the valley below. You’ll have a great view of the surrounding landscape, from this boulder, which is perched on the edge of the hill near the parking lot. This isn’t the start of the trail, though. The trailhead is to your left, near the road, and for the first few minutes you’ll be hiking parallel to the highway. (Parking at Lake Helen would make the hike to Bumpass Hell a bit shorter, but space is limited.)
For at least half of the journey to Bumpass Hell, the trail gives no clue of where you’re actually headed. You’d think you’d be seeing some steam or smelling some sulfur, but no, it’s all hidden behind a hill…
… and you have to skirt around it, before you start to see some telltale yellow-stained land.
Then, Bumpass Hell appears in a break through the trees. You have to do some downhill hiking from this point, to get down to the geothermal area.
Once you’re closer, you’ll be restricted to boardwalks — just so your leg doesn’t end up the same poor Mr. Bumpass’s.
Once on the boardwalk, you’ll be regularly bathed in sulfur-smelling steam. Don’t be surprised if the smell lingers with you for the rest of your day.
There are more than 75 fumaroles (steam vents), hot springs, and mudpots in the 16-acre Bumpass Hell area. The entire area is an old, eroded vent of a dormant dome volcano. The only feature Lassen doesn’t have is geysers, such as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful.
The entire hillside is covered with pockets of steam and trickling water.
This is the kind of thing to look out for. It looks harmless, but the water in this hole is probably near the boiling point.
Hike all the way out to the end of the boardwalk…
… for a great view of a colorful hot-water pond. You may have to wait for the wind to shift, and the steam to clear, before you can get a clear photo.
The Bottom Line
You absolutely must make the hike out to Bumpass Hell, during your visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park. If you don’t, you’ll be missing one of the most impressive collections of geothermal features outside of Yellowstone.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is located along California Highway 89, in the mountains east of Redding. To get here, you can take Route 89 from Mount Shasta, Route 44 from Redding, or US 395 and Route 44 from Reno, Nevada.
The trailhead for the Bumpass Hell trail is located slightly south of the road’s high point, near Lake Helen.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive around Lassen National Volcanic Park: