40.4977° N, 121.4207° W
Sitting in the far northern corner of California - a state that has plenty of other spectacular natural areas and national parks on offer - Lassen Volcanic National Park easily stays under the radar. But while it doesn't get the fanfare like other parks do, it is still just as worthy of a visit. In fact, since visiting in June of 2019, we have told everyone who would listen that Lassen should be on their list of places to explore in California. It is not only beautiful, but it is incredibly unique. In fact, it is one of only a few places on Earth where you can explore all four types of volcanoes: plug dome, shield, cinder cone, and stratovolcano. Similarly, the namesake mountain of the park - Lassen Peak, is the largest plug dome volcano in the world, and the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range (another volcano in that range includes the much more famous Mt. Saint Helens).
So if you are looking for a spot in the western United States, and California in particular, that is not overrun with tourists but still offers plenty of outdoor adventure then head north and explore this incredible national park.
| Fast Facts
\\ Year Established: 1916
\\ State: California
\\ Size: 166 square miles
\\ # of Visitors: 519,000 visitors in 2019
\\ Cost to Enter: $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle, and $15 per person (all valid for 7 days)
| History of Lassen Volcanic National Park
Native American tribes had inhabited the area now known as Lassen Volcanic National Park long before any Europeans arrived west. The natives knew that the peak (Lassen Peak) was full of fire and water and believed that one day it would blow itself apart. Jump forward to the mid 19th century and a few white settlers were using Lassen Peak as a landmark on their trek to the fertile Sacramento Valley, which lies to the south of the area. The name of the park actually comes from a Danish blacksmith, Peter Lassen, who worked as a guide - helping the settlers navigate their way through the area.
There were some questionable accounts of intense volcanic activity occurring in the park in the 1850s, though geologists would later prove the last eruption had occurred in the late 1600s or early 1700s. The area was protected in 1907 under two different National Monuments: Lassen Peak and Cinder Cone. But weirdly, after increased volcanic activity starting in 1914 the park was designated a national park in 1916.
| When to Visit
Lassen Volcanic National Park is open 365 days a year, though some services are not available during the winter months (December-March). The busiest time of year for the park is the summer (July-September), though even then, due to the park’s relative lack of visitors it won’t ever get too crazy.
We visited in late June and found that parts of the park were still covered in a deep layer of snow - including Mount Lassen itself. Even though we were there in the busier season we never felt cramped or like we were being herded around in packs of tourists. So no matter the time of year you choose, prepare to feel like you have much of the park to yourself.
Note: in winter parts of the park do close, so make sure to do some research ahead of time if you are thinking of visiting between December and March.
| How to Get There
Lassen is pretty far north in terms of the state of California, so there are not a lot of options for flying in. The closest airports are San Francisco, almost 4 hours away, and Sacramento, just under 3 hours away. There is an option to fly into the town of Redding, just to the west of the park, but we don’t expect flights to be very regular.
If you are already in the state of California or are okay with renting a car, driving up to Lassen is an okay experience (we want to be honest with you here). While you can definitely make the drive quite scenic - notably going along the coast until you reach the town of Fortuna then beelining it east, we would say the majority of people will head up Interstate 5, which is pretty darn boring. Luckily, once you reach the outskirts of Lassen it gets much, much prettier.
| What to Not Miss
The park is home to approximately 300 species of vertebrates, which include birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. This richness of species is due to the variety of habitats found within three specific ecological zones: mixed conifer, red fir forests, and subalpine. Some of the most common animals you will find in the park include pika, Douglas’s squirrel, chipmunks, mule deer, Steller’s jay, and Clark’s nutcrackers. One interesting thing to note is that this park is one of only two known habitats for the threatened Sierra Nevada red fox.
Points of Interest
Lassen Volcanic National Park is full of unique landscapes, many having to do with volcanoes. Some of the neatest spots are Cinder Cone, a once active volcano that you can now hike to the top of (and down to the inner caldera if you like). The top of this volcano gives you fantastic views of the surrounding mountains, including Lassen Peak. Also, don’t miss its next door neighbor, the Fantastic Lava Beds - a basalt flow that was created from its base (and the reason it no longer erupts).
Other unique points of interest are Bumpass Hell (which is possibly the craziest name for a place ever) and Sulphur Works. Both give you the chance to see some fumaroles, which are steam and volcanic-gas vents that rise from far below the ground. In both of these areas of the park, you can see rainbow-colored landscapes, bubbling mud pots, and boiling pools of water. If you are looking to explore more of these unique areas consider hiking to places such as Boiling Springs Lake, Terminal Geyser and Devil’s Kitchen.
| Top Adventures
With over 150 miles of trails within the park, you could spend multiple days here and not see everything. Like many other national parks, you have the option to choose how difficult and how far you would like to hike. We believe some of the best trails to explore are:
\\ Lassen Peak (Mount Lassen): it would be almost sinful to come to the park and not hike the namesake peak. Luckily, while it is part of the Cascade Range (which stretches north and includes peaks such as Mt. Rainer and Mt. Saint Helens) it is a relatively easy hike and one that requires just a day to complete. Mount Lassen stands at an elevation of 10,457 feet or 3,187 meters. The hike up to the top is 2.5 miles long (5 miles roundtrip) and climbs approximately 2,000 feet. While you can hike up and down the mountain, we suggest - if the conditions are right - to instead glissade down one of the sides. Tip: while you can do it on your butt, you can also bring up a sled to make it even more exhilarating (aka faaaast).
\\ Brokeoff Mountain: if you are looking to tackle another peak in the park, consider doing Brokeoff Mountain - which sits at 9,235 feet. The hike up to the peak is just over 7 miles roundtrip and affords you some stunning views of the surrounding peaks (including far off Mount Shasta). It is also relatively unpopular, so if you are looking to get more off-the-beaten-path then this is a great option.
\\ Cluster Lakes Loop: one of the longest hikes in the park (about 11 miles roundtrip), this loop is perfect for people wanting to visit numerous lakes within Lassen. It is also a fantastic trail to do during the wildflower season (the late summer months). While you can do the loop in a single day, some people instead choose to make it an overnight trip. Note: if looking to camp along the loop you do need a permit.
While spending time hiking around the peaks is fun, if you are looking to do something a bit more “cool” consider bringing your own kayak or canoe (or renting them at the park) and heading out on one of the numerous lakes in the park.
The most popular lake to boat around (no motorized boats are allowed) is Manzanita Lake, a beautiful large body of water with great views of nearby Mount Lassen. You can also stay at the Manzanita Campground, which sits on the shores of the lake. Other popular lakes to head out onto include Butte, Juniper, and Summit. The only lakes you cannot actually boat around are Helen, Emerald, Reflection, and Boiling Springs. Learn more about boating in Lassen here.
While summers are the busiest time in the park, if you are looking to escape the crowds and experience the park in a whole new way, consider visiting during the snowy months. While most of the park is closed off - roads are not plowed past the visitor centers - that does not mean you cannot explore it either on snowshoes, cross country skis or backcountry skis.
There are two popular areas to head within the park: the Southwest Area and the Manzanita Lake Area.
\\ Southwest Area: this part of the park is steeper and more challenging during the winter. But if you are willing to push yourself, you will be rewarded with glorious mountain vistas. This region is more popular with backcountry skiing, snow camping (the Southwest Campground is open year-round) and intense sledding.
\\ Manzanita Lake Area: if you are looking for gentler slopes and lake views, head to this region. Popular activities include cross country skiing and snowshoeing. The most popular cross-country skiing route is actually up the snow covered highway from Manzanita Lake.
| Where to Stay
Staying Inside the Park
There are seven campgrounds inside Lassen, though only one of them (the Southwest Campground) is open year-round. The other six are open between May/June through to September/October (depending on snow). The cost per site is entirely dependent on the location (which campground) whether it is dry or not (are water and flush toilets available) and the size of the site (group sites cost more). While most campgrounds require reservations (which can only be made online here) there are a few that are first-come, first-served.
Other options if you are looking to stay in the park, but don’t want to rough it in a tent, are cabins at Manzanita Lake (which start at $76 per night) or at Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a secluded lodge nestled in Warner Valley that also has a restaurant, pool and spa.
Staying Outside the Park
Another option is to stay right outside the park, either in a tent or in a van/RV. The park is surrounded by national forest land, meaning it is pretty much free to camp in - though there are regulations on where to camp (only in established sites), fires and of course, Leave No Trace principles. We always use iOverlander when looking for spots (it is free to use), though you can usually get a good idea of places to camp when looking at forest roads.
Other options include staying in hotels or motels in one of the nearby towns. The closest ones with really any amenities include Mineral (there is Lassen Mineral Lodge), Red Bluff and Redding.
| Must-See Spots Nearby
While Lassen National Park feels like it is in the middle of nowhere, in truth there are a lot of great areas nearby worth exploring and adventuring in. This includes Redwoods National Park, located about 4 hours away along the California coast, Mount Shasta, another mountain in the Cascades Range that sits at over 14,000 feet (less than 2 hours away), Castle Crags State Park, a great spot to go hike around in near the town of Redding and finally, another volcanic-centric area, Lava Beds National Monument, which is located just over 2 hours away to the north of the park.