It could be easy to overlook Lassen Volcanic National Park, thanks to its location, tucked away in rural northeastern California. However, the devoted roadtripper who makes it here will enjoy a beautiful scenic drive through the mountains, and some interesting geothermal features.
Lassen Volcanic National Park may come as a surprise. You might not expect to find a miniature Yellowstone in this part of California. The park’s geothermal features, like fumaroles, vents, and bubbling mudpots are the most interesting piece of the park, but they’re not its centerpiece. That honor belongs to Lassen Peak, elevation 10,463 feet (3,189 meters). You’ll get a great view of Lassen Peak from most places in the park, since the scenic drive that takes you through the park circles partway around it, and passes directly below it.
The photo above shows Lassen Peak and Lake Helen, which is just south of the scenic road’s high point. You’ll get this view on the hike to Bumpass Hell, the oddly named center of the park’s steaming, bubbly sulfur attractions.
Let’s back up a bit. I started my drive through the park at the northwestern corner. Routes 89 and 44 both intersect here, so if you’re coming from I-5, you’ll probably arrive here, too. After the visitor center, the first few miles of the park road aren’t very interesting. The road travels through a wooded area, as it gains elevation and heads towards the middle of the park.
I stopped at Summit Lake, which you’d think would have a view of the summit. It didn’t. My next stop was more exciting:
This is the Upper Meadow. It’s the first place along the road that gives you a nice view of Lassen Peak. It’s also a good place to watch for wildlife. There are some unofficial trails that wander into the meadow, and it’s fun to walk around here a bit, while avoiding the marshy areas.
The scenic highway curves around Upper Meadow and continues its uphill climb on the far side. Keep going…
… and you’ll keep gaining elevation. The road passes a few spots where you can look back on the route you just finished driving.
This is the kind of view you’ll enjoy at the trailhead for Bumpass Hell. Without a doubt, this is the one and only trail you simply must hike, when visiting Lassen.
The trail is easy to moderate, and about 3 miles round-trip. The picture above gives you a hint at what you can expect to see. I’ll talk more about Bumpass Hell on a separate page.
Back on the road…
… you now have to head downhill, and that means you’ll be facing more curves and switchbacks.
This side of the park is probably more beautiful than the north side, since you have great views of Lassen Peak for much of the way (although they’ll be in your rear-view mirror, unless you drive the road both ways, which is not a bad idea).
There are a couple other hiking trails that are worth mentioning. You can hike to the top of Lassen Peak, 2.5 miles one way, with a 2,000 foot elevation gain. You also may want to try the trail to Kings Creek Falls, which begins near the upper meadow.
Interesting Fact: You probably won’t get blown away by an eruption of Lassen Peak, but it’s not out of the question. The most recent eruptions happened between 1914 and 1917, with a particularly big blast in 1915.
Near the southwestern end of the park…
… you’ll come across another geothermal area. This one requires no hiking — the road runs right over top of it. The area is called Sulphur Works, because it was originally developed as a sulfur mine, back in 1865.
Nowadays, the smell of sulfur hangs heavy in the air, as you walk past the steaming vents…
… and bubbling potholes at the edge of the road.
Heavy snow in the winter forces the park to close the scenic road through Lassen Volcanic National Park. Back in March, 2007, I tried to visit Lassen, but discovered that I couldn’t get very far.
The southern entrance to the park was open, but you could only drive as far as Sulphur Works. In the middle of a downpour of flakes, I walked around the area and saw everything I could.
I’m sure this road got a lot worse, just a mile or two ahead! You can see more of my 2007 winter visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park here.
Beyond Sulphur Works, there’s a big visitor center near the southwestern entrance. I arrived just as it was closing, and they didn’t seem to care that I wanted to spend some money. So, I turned around and drove back through the park, enjoying the scenery for a second time, before heading west to Redding on Route 44.
The Bottom Line
Lassen Volcanic National Park’s remote location means you’ll have to put some effort into getting there. And, you’ll need to do it in the summer months, before the snow arrives and shuts it down. But, Lassen is well worth the effort, and it provides a beautiful scenic drive with some good hiking opportunities along the way.
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.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive around Lassen National Volcanic Park: