Story and photos by Carly Nairn
On a clear July afternoon, the repaving of the road through Lassen Volcanic National Park is halfway finished. The work – and the new road – stops near one of the trail entrances for the highest peak in the park, the eponymous Lassen Peak. Tractors and orange cones are haphazardly parked a couple hundred feet above where the road turns for an outstanding view of Lake Helen, with a blue so blue one might imagine being painted with its hue – if you’re brave enough for a dip into its chilly depths. The road is a 30-mile stretch from the northwest entrance of the park to the southwest, with many of its attractions an easy stop along the way.
And the road is one of several changes after 2021’s devastating Dixie Fire burned approximately 73,240 acres in the park (out of a total 963,309-acre footprint, the largest single fire in California’s history). Biologists, fire ecologists, rangers, nearby residents and park visitors are still processing what it may mean for the park long-term, but within a few seasons after the fire, there are already signs of how the park’s resiliency continues to shape its landscape and give people hope.
Although the roads leading into the park, especially near the north and southeast entrances were heavily scorched, Kevin Sweeney, chief of interpretation, education and volunteers and public affairs officer at the National Park Service, sees the fire recovery and prevention as a positive story – at least compared to some of the fire damage he has seen in other areas of northern California.
“We’ve been pretty progressive in terms of prescribed burns and fuel reduction in Lassen,” he said. “There’s been fire management since the mid-1980s.”
Sweeney said some areas around Summit Lake and a few of the southeastern hiking trails and camps were heavily impacted by the fire, but many of the park’s big trees didn’t burn, and the park itself was – on a whole – moderately affected.
If the ongoing threat of fires in Northern California, due to severe drought, increased temperatures, climate change, and in some areas, shoddy forest management, is going to continue to be ever-present, it should act as a powerful reminder of how heat has shaped Lassen to what it is today, always from below, and now, from above.
A Witch’s Brew
Lassen is rather the perfect place for the witchy in life. The powdery black sand-like ash of its cinder cone, the bubbly mud pots of its sulfur pits and its steaming vents all conjure an image of underground hag at work, using the elements of the earth to make a boiling brew.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise one of the most notable stops in Lassen is called Bumpass Hell. Named after Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, the man who “discovered” it in the 1860s while doing some mining, it was originally thought to be a great tourist destination – he may have been on to something there – and over the years boardwalks were carefully erected so visitors could walk above the volcanic crust.
And what a crust – full of fumaroles, which are cracks or vents in the ground near active volcanoes and emit gases such as sulfur dioxide. If you were to accidentally place a foot on the thin crust, like Bumpass did one day in 1865, and it broke into the 200 degree Fahrenheit hot mud or acidic water below, it would cause burns so harsh the skin would peel right off it.
An approximately 1.4-mile hike to the area brings you to an otherworldly place, something more akin to the pages of science fiction than geological fact. Yet, Bumpass Hell’s panorama showcases exemplary volcanic hydrothermal activity. Its 16-acre moonscape contains boiling hot springs, acidic pools and bubbly mud pots, all heated by magma three miles underground. Including the park’s other geothermal sites such as Sulphur Works a few miles away from Bumpass Hell following the main road, Devils Kitchen, Cold Boiling Lake and Terminal Geyser, among others, Lassen is one of the most volcanically active areas in the world.
Before the Dixie Fire burned through the southeastern corner of the park and the park service closed some the Juniper Lake campgrounds and surrounding area for rehabilitation, the northeastern corner of Lassen was the least-visited section of the park, most likely due to it not being a part of the main road cutting through the park. Instead it’s tucked away, with a 45-minute drive from the northwestern entrance to Butte Lake and its campsites.
However, the northeastern section of the park is home to its Cinder Cone volcano, a relatively short hike that is chimerically difficult, and its progeny, the Fantastic Lava Beds. The Cinder Cone last erupted in 1666 and created the Fantastic Lava Beds. (The Cinder Cone isn’t the most recent active volcano in the Park; that title goes to Lassen Peak, which erupted in series of explosions from 1914-1917.)
Due to its remoteness, it’s more likely a visitor to the northeastern side of the park may see one of its most endearing features – the Sierra Nevada red fox. The animal is endemic to Lassen and nearby Yosemite. And Sweeney noted that some of the foxes have returned since the fire pushed them out.
“A couple of them are collared, and we watched their movement during the fire,” he said. After evacuating and coming back to the park, they were successful in birthing kits this past year. Sweeney also mentioned an increase in bear sightings throughout the park since the fires.
The Road to be Traveled
Once the main road is fully repaved, and it will be by the time you read this, spend some time stopping along its myriad sites, from the oh so blue Lake Helen, to the aptly named Emerald Lake, from the Chaos Crags to the Little Hot Spring Valley.
And maybe the new road, and the rehabilitation of the park’s scorched forest, will bring more volcano lovers and steadfast hikers to this hidden luminous gem.
In 2019, before the pandemic and the Dixie Fire, Lassen was ranked number 41 out of 62 designated national parks for visitation with approximately 517,000 visits. (West Virginia’s New River Gorge National Park & Preserve became the 63rd in 2020.) And in 2021 it was ranked 132 out of a total 380 sites within the National Park system, according to NPS visitation statistics.
But for people like Sweeney, Lassen’s deserted feeling is one of its attractions. Far from the high summer tourist crowds to its most popular spots, Sweeney said his favorite thing about the park isn’t the burping mud or the sulfuric steam, but it’s still all about heat – of one kind or another – even in the middle of winter.
Sweeney enjoys vast night sky views on a cold Tuesday night in February. “There may be 30 or 40 feet of snow on the ground,” he said. “And the stars are the main show.”