Stashed in the northeastern corner of California, Lassen Volcanic National Park is a remarkable reminder that North America is still evolving and that the ground below is alive with the forces of creation -- and sometimes destruction. Lassen Peak is the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range, a chain that also includes Mount St. Helens and stretches all the way north to British Columbia.
Though the 10,457-foot Lassen Peak is quiet, the surrounding landscape is very much alive. The peak last awakened in May 1914, beginning a cycle of eruptions that spit lava, steam, and ash until 1921. The eruption climaxed in 1915 when Lassen blasted forth a 6-mile-high mushroom cloud of ash that was seen from hundreds of miles away. Though the peak has not erupted for more than three-quarters of a century, the park's hydrothermal features continue to boil with ferocious intensity; boiling springs, fumaroles (vents for volcanic steam and gases), and mud pots are all very active. Volcanologists cannot predict when any of the volcanoes in the area will erupt again, but they are fairly sure such an event will eventually take place.
Until then, the park gives you an interesting chance to watch a landscape recover from the destruction brought on by an eruption. To the north of Lassen Peak is the aptly named Devastated Area, a swath of volcanic scars steadily repopulating with conifers. Forest botanists have revised their earlier theories that forests must be preceded by herbaceous growth after watching the Devastated Area immediately revegetate with a diverse mix of eight conifer species, four more than were present before the blast.
The 106,000-acre park is a place of great beauty. The flora and fauna are an interesting mix of species from the Cascade Range, which stretches north from Lassen; species from the Sierra Nevada, extending south; and species from the Basin Range, to the east. The resulting blend accounts for an enormous diversity of plants, with 745 distinct species identified in the park. Though it's snowbound in winter, Lassen is an important summer feeding ground for black bears and transient herds of mule deer.
In addition to the dozens of volcanoes and geothermal features, Lassen Volcanic National Park includes 150 miles of hiking trails, more than 50 beautiful lakes, large meadows, cinder cones, lush forests, cross-country skiing, and great backcountry camping. In fact, three-quarters of the park is designated wilderness.
Four groups of American Indians inhabited the Lassen area before the arrival of Europeans. The Atsugewi, Maidu, Yana, and Yahi all used portions of the park as their summer hunting grounds. The white man's diseases and encroachment into their territory quickly decimated their population. By the turn of the 20th century, they were thought to be gone from the wilds of the Lassen area. In 1911, however, butchers discovered a nearly naked American Indian man at a slaughterhouse in Oroville. When they couldn't communicate with him, the sheriff locked the man in a cell.
News of the "Wild Man" found a receptive audience among anthropologists at the University of California at Berkeley, who quickly rescued the man. Ishi, as he came to be known, turned out to be the last of the Yahi tribe. He lived at the university's Museum of Anthropology for 5 years before succumbing to tuberculosis. Ishi, who shared his knowledge with anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and others, is responsible for much of what's known about Yahi culture in California.
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