Quick Trip through Lassen National Park


If it hadn’t been for a comment made by my son-in-law, I might never have considered going to this national park in Northern California. He said that it was underrated and that it deserved to be visited by more people. I can understand his opinion because as a geologist, the park is a showcase for the volcanic upheavals that have wracked the Pacific Northwest, caused by the subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate under the North America plate. For vulcanologists, the park has within its boundaries all four major types of volcanoes. As if these weren’t enough, there are Yellowstone-like hydrothermal attractions, such as mudpots, fumaroles, hot springs and boiling pools. Highway 89 is the main driving route through the park with northern and southern access points.

We were originally going to visit the park yesterday, but the stiff winds and overcast conditions were enough for us to postpone the excursion until today. The sky in the morning was partially sunny with puffy clouds, so we exited I-5 at Red Bluff and took Highway 36 eastward for 50 miles to the park entrance. Much of the southern portion of Hwy 89 is surrounded by terrain littered with boulders from an immense flood created by an eruption that sent millions of gallons of instantly melted ice and debris to this portion of the park. From various clearings along this route, we could get a peak of Brokeoff Mountain, a remnant of ancient Mount Tehama.

Brokeoff Moutain from the southern approach on Hwy 89

Brokeoff Moutain from the southern approach on Hwy 89

Before long, the highway ascended in elevation and the fog started getting thicker. We would find that almost the entire section of the paved highway was shrouded in cloud cover, making it hard to see beyond 20 feet in some areas.

Fog made it difficult to see very far

Fog made it difficult to see very far

If it weren’t for the fact that the Sulphur Works viewpoint was close to the road, we would not have seen any of the hydrothermal features. The odor of hydrogen sulfide gas was very strong.

Boiling pool at Sulphur Works

Boiling pool at Sulphur Works

For the reason above and muddy conditions, we abandoned plans to hike the trail at Bumpass Hell, along which are the park’s most accessible fumaroles of venting gas and steam, reminders that the ground underneath is close to hot magma.

It wasn’t until we rounded Hwy 89 along the northern route that the sky became clear of fog. We stopped at Hot Rock, from where we could get a partial good look at Lassen Peak, still largely covered by cloud. An easy trail looped through part of the vast area that was devastated by the last eruptions of Lassen in 1915. The first explosion sent a lahar (mudflow of volcanic debris) down the mountainside that covered the ground on which we were standing. The second, only days after the first, was even bigger than the first, sending an ash cloud 30,000 ft into the air. Strewn along the footpath were giant boulders that were torn from the mountain and carried here.

Lassen Peak from Hot Rock parking area

Lassen Peak from Hot Rock parking area

Red dacite boulder carried here by a pyroclastic flow from Lassen Peak

Red dacite boulder carried here by a pyroclastic flow from Lassen Peak

All we managed to do was to take a drive through the park, knowing full well that we wouldn’t do it justice. What we saw convinced us to make a special trip back here in combination with stops along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway.

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