Lassen Volcanic National Park

Visitors to Lassen Volcanic National Park may wonder why they’ve come to this remote location in the northeastern part of California. For eco-traveling enthusiasts and vulcanologists, the answer won’t be difficult to find. Lassen is the only place on earth that has all four types of volcanoes within the confines of the park.

Part of the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” and although you won’t see fire, by the end of your self-guided tour, you’ll know that hot magma blazes far beneath your feet. It’s best to stop first at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitors Center for maps and information about open roads and trails. The center itself is a wonderful first stop since it’s an eco-architectural marvel. A photo-voltaic system generates 30-40% of its electricity, an in-floor radiant system heats the space, incandescent lamp fixtures are controlled by a daylight harvesting system and the building materials were recycled from the 1960′s Ski Chalet that once existed here.

Kind volunteer docents will suggest you visit Sulphur Works first, only a stone’s throw from the visitor’s center. You’ll know you’ve reached the destination by the foul odor, better known as hydrogen sulfide. Steam fumeroles endlessly belch sulphuric plumes through the air. Mud pots also bubble at temperatures of 196 Fahrenheit. Bacteria thrive in these murky waters. You can see similar activity inside the park at Bumpass Hell, Little Hot Springs Valley, Devil’s Kitchen, and Terminal Geyser. All of these places are linked to an underground network of heated water. Sulphur works, in particular, is where Brokeoff Volcano, a composite volcano with alternating lava flows, once stood here 600,000 to 400,000 years ago. Rising at 11,500 feet and measuring 11 miles across, today it’s eruptions can only be imagined.

Lassen Peak is the second volcano here and also the largest plug dome volcano in the world. A plug dome has a dome that rises directly over its vent. As the dome grows, its outer surface cools and hardens, then shatters, spilling loose fragments down its sides. The peak itself was created about 27,000 years ago when dacite lava extruded upwards. Lassen Peak’s last eruption occurred in 1914.

On May 19, 1914, the explosion launched red-hot lava blocks out onto the mountain’s slopes and triggered a massive half mile wide avalanche of melting snow, rocks, and debris that roared four miles down the volcano’s steep flank. The entire mass became a mudflow (called a lahar). Then on May 22, Lassen Peak exploded again, blasting rock and pumice into a column of ash that rose more than 30,000 feet.

The Devastated Area has an interpretive walk where visitors can see the large boulders that the lava flow carried down from Lassen Peak. For a long time the rocks stayed hot to the touch. The lava flow left a kind of desert, trees destroyed and vegetation gone.

B.F. Loomis happened to be there on the day of the eruption and took pictures. At Manzanita Lake (one of several lakes within the 30 mile park), a museum has been named after him. This is the spot where he once lived with his wife, dedicating himself to photography and measuring the volcanoes seismic activity. Today, rustic cabins are available for those who want to bring along camping equipment. You can also see the Jeffrey Pines that date back 300 years.

Lassen National Forest surrounds the volcano park and just a little inside, you can visit a Subway Cave or lava tube. The Atsugewi (Hat Creek) Indians knew about this place, but they believed an evil ape creature lived inside, so they made no use of it. The Subway Cave formed when, 30,000 years ago, rivers of molten red hot rock crawled 16 miles north, covering Hat Creek Valley. While the top crust cooled and hardened, lava rivers underneath continued to flow. When the lava drained away, tube-like caves remained.

The third volcano is back in the Lassen Volcanic National Park. It’s called Cinder Cone, appropriately, because you can see layers of cinders blown out by volcanic ash. To get there, you must first walk through a vast lava desert and painted dunes (ash fields that look like sand dunes.)

At the top of Cinder Cone, you can view the shelf volcano called Prospect Peak where flow after flow of fluid lava built a broad gently sloping cone.

Finally, make sure to take in the sight of the dark night sky. Lassen prides itself on conserving our ability to see the galaxy without the ambient light that cities usually have to obstruct this full view.

Learn more about California Travel. Stop by Barbara Zaragoza’s site where you can find out all about Lassen Volcanic National Park and other travel adventures.