Lassen Volcanic National Park
Mount Lassen is an active volcano with a recorded history of eruptions, the last of which took place in 1914 and 1915. The mountain is a remote and beautiful sight, one that’s only accessible to large numbers of visitors in the short summer months when the temperatures rise and the snow melts.
A wonderful loop drive through Lassen Volcanic National Park (530/595-4444, www.nps.gov/lavo, open daily year-round, Headquarters Information Desk open Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m.) takes you from the stark slopes and jagged brand-new rocks of the most recent eruption, around the back to an enormous ancient crater, the remains of a long-gone volcano as big or bigger than Mount Shasta.
Ample hiking trails, wonderful pristine ponds, and many campsites that let visitors settle in and really enjoy the amazing panoramas of Mount Lassen. Beyond the bounds of the state park, national forest lands allow for additional exploration.
Do be aware that the “lower” elevations of Mount Lassen trails sit more than 7,000 feet above sea level. If you’re planning serious hiking, come up a day early and camp on the mountain to acclimate to the elevation. The next day you’ll be better able to take the longer and higher trails without succumbing to altitude sickness.
For true, unspoiled California wilderness, it’s hard to beat the backcountry at Lassen. Even the most traveled roads and “front side” sights will seem empty to travelers who’ve visited Yosemite Valley or Lake Tahoe.
But (you knew there had to be a catch to such an amazing place), the only time to visit Lassen is the height of summer. Snow chokes the area from as early as October until as late as June, closing the main road through the park and making even the lower altitude campground snowy and cold. Most determined mountain-lovers pick August and early September as the best time to come to Lassen.
On the other hand, active snow lovers will make the trek up the mountain in the wintertime to enjoy snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, or bring their sleds and their kids for a fun afternoon playing on the mountain slopes.
The new Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center (Hwy. 89, year-round) is scheduled to open in fall 2008 at the south entrance station of the park. A ranger’s station is located at the Highway 44/89 entrance. At each of these you can obtain wilderness permits for backcountry camping, any other necessary permits, and advice about where you can and should (and cannot and should not) hike, ride, swim, fish, and camp in Lassen.
Park rangers can provide first aid and help you get phone access to emergency services in Redding. If you’re planning to hike seriously or camp, bring a well-stocked first-aid kit for minor injuries and illnesses.
On Mount Lassen, winter begins in November and continues through May. Highway 89 through the park closes from about October to May, June, or July depending on the weather and snowfall in any given year. Highway 89 serves as the main road through the park, and the visitors center, campgrounds, trailheads, and lakes cluster along it. You can actually get a decent feel for Lassen just by taking a day trip along Highway 89.
On the northeast side of the park, Highway 44 brings in visitors from the remote town of Susanville; dirt roads lead from Highway 44 into the park.
South of Lassen, roads run out of the tiny town of Chester up to the park. The Warner Valley Road is paved, but other roads out of town to the park are good old-fashioned dirt.
However you get to Lassen, be sure to bring a good map and possibly a GPS device as well. (Garmin GPS does work even on the dirt roads of Mount Lassen. I got lost up there once and was glad to have mine!)
Note that there are no gas stations in the park. Gas up in Redding, Chester, or Susanville before driving up to Mount Lassen.
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition