Lassen Volcanic NP: Fire in the Ring of Fire

If you have no curiosity about a national park with places called Bumpass Hell, The Big Boiler, Devil’s Kitchen, Fantastic Lava Beds, and Fart Gulch, then we can’t be friends. It’s that simple. Mudpots and cinder cones and fumaroles, ohhhh myyyy! It’s Lassen Volcanic!

Lassen was proclaimed a National Park shortly after Lassen Peak blew its top in a series of eruptions in 1914-1915. It was the first eruption in the lower U.S. since it had become a nation, and the last until the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Lassen is one of 16 volcanoes in the Cascades that are part of the Ring of Fire, which as everyone knows, is the best Johnny Cash song evah.

Lassen’s volcanic-ness make it kind of a baby-mini-Yellowstone, but without Old Faithful, the gigantic crowds, and 100% fewer bison. Its active geothermic oddities indicate the potential for further eruptions in the future. The surface is beautiful, but three miles beneath, the volcanic fire still burns hot in the belly of the beast.

Hardy hikers take the barren, steep hike to the 10,457-foot top of Lassen Peak, but we preferred to gaze at it comfortably from below. Being centered in the park, there are many different views of Lassen, including this 500′-tall formation on the south side, called the “Vulcan Eye,” after the Roman God of Fire for whom volcanoes are named. Why they didn’t stay with “vulcano” instead of “volcano,” I couldn’t say.

A 30-mile highway traverses the middle of the park, rising to 8,500 feet elevation at its highest point. The most popular of Lassen’s delights can be accessed from this twisty, turny highway.

Fire in the hole! Sulphur Works is just a short walk from the road, and as you might expect from the name, the stink of rotten eggs lingers in the air … and in your nose. It’s not boiling diarrhea, it’s water being super-heated a few miles below Lassen and working its way back up under extreme pressure, manifesting as bubbling pots of mud.

The most popular hiking trail, Bumpass Hell, leads to a safe, aboveground boardwalk path from which you can view even more evidence of Mother Earth’s endless cycles of steaming, hissing, and boiling destruction and rejuvenation. See the little people on the little boardwalk on the right?

The Bumpass Hell trail was truly hell for poor Kendall Vanhook Bumpass. In 1864, Bumpass discovered this area and was all set to develop it as a tourist attraction. Those hopes were dashed when he broke through a section of thin earth crust to extreme injury below. The mud underneath? Oh, it was 240 degrees F. Hence, Bumpass Hell, and the end of Bumpass dreams. Me, I’m stayin’ out of harm’s way., here on the boardwalk.

This 16-acre area is set in the eroded vent of an extinct dome volcano. A fumarole is a fancy name for a steam vent, and here in Bumpass Hell, the Big Boiler is the star of the show. It’s not only big, but hot — really hot — in fact, one of the hottest fumaroles in the world, at 322 degrees F, just slightly cooler than Phoenix has been all this summer.

“Nature is ever at work … creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing … out of one beautiful form into another.”

~Rock Star Environmentalist John Muir

Isn’t this a beautiful photo? No? You don’t like it? Well, if you were a NASA scientist, you might. It’s a hot, murky pool of acid with some fascinating residents. “Extremophiles” are high-temperature, acid-loving little weirdos living in this harsh pool of grossness. NASA is studying them because they believe they might be similar to organisms living on Mars!

If you still find farts hilarious, Fart Gulch is your place, identifiable by the chalky hills … and telltale stinky smell.

Unfortunately, much of Lassen fell victim to the largest fire in California history, the 2021 Dixie Fire, which scorched 963,000 acres over three months. In fact, some of the most popular attractions, including Devils Kitchen and Terminal Geyser, are currently inaccessible because of effects from the fire. Note tiny Philip standing on the rock in photo below … these were some BIG trees, now lost, in this BIG area.

And yet, despite the destruction, beauty abounds and the regeneration of the landscape has already begun.

Here, even in mid-August, high temps are in the 60’s and snow remains. In fact, the main road through the park often doesn’t open until late June because of all the High Sierra snow, which arrives early and stays late.

Every single rock in the park has originated from a volcano, and then likely been rearranged by a glacier. This big, lonely rock is called a “glacier erratic” … a boulder out of context. The rocks around it have been ground smooth by the friction of a glacier passing through, and this big rock was deposited at a later date.

Multiple high mountain lakes of crystal-clear water reside in the park, like roadside Lake Helen (named for the first white woman to summit Lassen Peak way back in 1864), offering chilly recreational opportunities and beautiful picnic sites, alongside emerald waters.

Prefer a creek to a lake? Kings Creek is just the ticket, especially if you’re a golden retriever.

The Devastated Area tells the dramatic story of the 1914-1915 eruptions. This area has many huge boulders (former hot lava) which roared down the hillside from Lassen Peak. The cloud of ash rose 30,000 ft. in the air and volcanic ash fell on places as far away as 200 miles away. 

A lucky (or unlucky, depending on your viewpoint vis-a-vis violent volcanoes) local businessman named Loomis was here for the biggest eruptions, and took photos at the time. He labeled his photo of this several-ton rock “Hot Rock,” reporting it still too hot to touch a full three days after it was ejected from the Lassen Peak crater. You can see Lassen in the background — three miles away — and yet tons and tons of debris landed this far.

Our favorite hike in the park was to a trio of lakes on the Terrace Lakes Trail. The steep trails definitely set our thighs on fire to reach them, but we were virtually alone in this gorgeous wilderness.

And thus concludes our visit to our 70th National Park Service-managed site (parks, battlefields, seashores, historical sites and more). We’re on fire with our goal of visiting all 47 of the National Parks themselves located in the lower 48 states of the U.S., this being #41!

From Lassen, we continue south through the tiny town of Graeagle, where we will investigate how to pronounce that weird name, and on to Donner Pass outside Truckee, where we will learn more about the morbid past of the Donner Party, who were stranded here in the dead of winter and resorted to cannibalism. Ooooh, mysteries and more!

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