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AARP Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Explore the otherworldly landscape and see bubbling mud pots and hot springs in this northern California park

Painted dunes and Mount Lassen as seen from the Cinder Cone at Lassen Volcanic National Park
Pierre Leclerc Photography/Getty Images

On May 30, 1914, Lassen Peak awoke from a 27,000-year sleep with a violent explosion, the first of hundreds that rocked this Northern California mountain over the course of the next year, carving out a lava-capped crater 1,000 feet across. But the biggest eruption by far came on May 22, 1915, when a tremendous plume of steam shot into the air, shattering the lava cap and sending glowing chunks of molten lava high into the sky. As they fell back onto the mountain, which was already blanketed in a record 30-foot snowfall, the hot rocks triggered an avalanche a half-mile wide that thundered into the valley, creating a mudflow of such tremendous force that it swept over hills and into more valleys beyond, burying farms and homesteads.

No lives were lost thanks to the early alert of the initial explosions, but more than a century later that torn and blasted landscape, known as the Devastated Area, remains. Located just northeast of Lassen Peak, it’s one of the many attractions of the 106,000-acre Lassen Volcanic National Park (LVNP), an awe-inspiring showcase for the sheer power of the Earth’s volcanic forces. The most popular attraction, Bumpass Hell — a hissing, bubbling expanse of sulfuric mud pots, hot springs and fumaroles — on the park’s southern end serves as an eerie reminder that these forces are still active today.

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Four kinds of volcanoes can be found in the world: cinder cone, composite, plug dome and shield, and LVNP has all four, along with chiseled rock spires, lava fields and huge boulders tossed about like bowling balls by the formative explosions of 1914 and 1915. 

locator map of Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeastern California
Getty/AARP

Facts box

Location: Northern California

Acreage: 106,000 

Highest point: Lassen Peak, at 10,457 feet 

Lowest point: Hot Springs Creek, at 5,275 feet

Miles of trails: 150

Main attractions: Bumpass Hell, the Devastated Area, Lassen Peak and other geothermal and volcanic features

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

When to go to avoid the crowds: Late August through mid-June

This magical landscape was protected in 1907 as two separate national monuments, Lassen Peak and Cinder Cone, then Congress unified them into one national park in 1916. “The park was created to protect all these amazing volcanic features after the eruption, and ever since then people have come to see this otherworldly landscape,” says Carlo Arreglo, supervisory park ranger.“The first time I drove the park highway, my jaw just kept dropping passing these majestic mountains — there was so much to see.” 

Perhaps due to its out-of-the-way location, an hour’s drive on mountainous roads off Interstate 5, LVNP receives just 500,000 visitors a year. “It’s kind of this gem that people don’t know about just three to four hours from San Francisco,” says Arreglo.

You’ll experience the eerie majesty of Lassen’s cratered landscape — and pass a series of geological wonders — as you drive the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway, which makes a semicircle around Lassen Peak, still 10,457 feet high even after blowing its top.

To the east are three additional park sections — Butte Lake, Juniper Lake and Warner Valley— all accessed by separate roads from the northeast and southeast. Since you can’t reach these areas from the park highway, check maps beforehand to determine your route if you plan to visit them.  

Image of the exterior of the Loomis Museum in Lassen Volcanic National Park in California
The Loomis Museum
Wendy White / Alamy Stock Photo

Plan your trip

Two entrance stations, at the park’s south and north ends, provide access to Lassen Volcanic Park Highway, which runs generally north to south, making a horseshoe bend around Lassen Peak. 

Driving from San Francisco, the park is 247 miles to the north. Enter the park at the southwest gate and stop at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to get oriented. Here you’ll find maps and signage explaining what’s open in the park, current trail conditions and information on ranger programming. If you’re driving from Portland, 453 miles to the north, you’ll enter at the northern entrance and continue to the Loomis Museum, where a smaller visitor center provides updates on park conditions and happenings.

Be sure to download the park app, which provides a guided audio tour of 16 stops along the park highway, almost all of which can be seen from pullouts on the road or from accessible parking areas. There’s no cell service in the park, but you can use the free Wi-Fi at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee center to download the app. If entering from the north, you must download it ahead of time as the Loomis Museum has no Wi-Fi. “If you don’t download it in advance, the last reliable cell service north of the park is in Shingletown,” notes Arreglo, referring to a small community about 17 miles west of the north entrance. 

In the late summer and fall of 2021, California’s devastating Dixie Fire burned 73,240 acres within the park. In addition to leaving behind huge swaths of blackened pine forest, the fire buckled park roads and destroyed lookouts and other facilities, some still closed for repairs. Nonetheless, the average visitor doesn’t experience many significant impacts. Most damage to attractions along the park highway was repaired before the park reopened this past summer. 

LVNP gets snow early and it stays late, often lingering well into June on the higher trails. Wildflowers, which begin to emerge in late May and blanket the slopes and valleys all summer, have become even more profuse since the fire. 

“The park is a living laboratory for fire ecology, and it has been amazing to watch the recovery process underway, especially all the flowers coming up under the burned trees,” says Arreglo. 

Nights can be cool even in summer, though daytime temperatures can climb into the 90s. By mid-fall, temperatures creep towards freezing. The park remains open year-round despite cold winters, although most of the campgrounds close and the park highway isn’t plowed then. Rangers close the gates, located just inside the north entrance and just past the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the south end, with the first significant lasting snowfall, typically in November. The Kohm Yah-mah-nee center remains open, providing the only park services until the Loomis Museum reopens in May. 

Manzanita Lake in Autumn, Lassen Volcanic National Park
Manzanita Lake and Lassen Peak
MB Rubin/Getty Images

Where to stay and eat

LVNP’s only hotel-style lodging, the Drakesbad Guest Ranch in Warner Valley, remains temporarily closed due to damage from the Dixie Fire. The pine-paneled cabins encircling the sunny meadow survived intact, but infrastructure repairs are still necessary before reopening. 

​The park has seven campgrounds, and all sites feature picnic tables, fire rings and lockable bear-proof cupboards.

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​Manzanita Lake Campground, just inside the park’s northern entrance in a shady pine forest uphill from the lakeshore, is the largest and best developed campground, with 179 sites ($26 per night) and amenities including hot showers, an RV dump station, a laundry and a camp store. It also features 20 uber-rustic one- and two-room camping cabins (both shower areas have an accessible stall with bench seat and hand rails) and a larger eight-bed bunkhouse ($76 to $101 per night) without electricity. They have beds but you’ll need to bring your own bedding and linens. 

​Summit Lake North and South campgrounds, which bookend a pretty, pine-fringed alpine lake in the park’s center, have 46 sites ($24 per night) between them. The 101 sites ($22 per night) at Butte Lake Campground cluster in a dense pine forest adjacent to the lake, reachable by a 6-mile dirt road. 

​At Juniper Lake Campground, 18 sites ($12 per night) line the shore of the deep blue lake shaded by tall ponderosa and Jeffrey pines and you’ll find a mostly level campground with wheelchair-accessible sites. 

​Butte Lake and Manzanita Lake campgrounds have wider roads, making them good choices for those traveling in an RV or with a trailer. Manzanita Lake, Summit Lake and Butte Lake campgrounds will be reservation-only starting in 2023(check the park website for exact dates). Make your reservations through recreation.gov. 

​The park’s only restaurant, Lassen Café & Gift inside the Kohm Yah-mah-nee center, serves soup, salads and other simple fare along with hot coffee and ice cream. You can pick up to-go sandwiches and snacks at the Manzanita Camp Store. 

​Picnicking is the way to go in Lassen, so stock up on supplies before heading into the park. Devastated Area, Kings Creek Meadow and Lake Helen, all in the park’s center, and Manzanita Lake feature level picnic sites, accessible parking and restrooms.

Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park
Bumpass Hell
John Elk III/Getty Images

Things to do

Drive Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway. From the jagged cliffs of Chaos Crags and mounds of black lava boulders at Chaos Jumbles to the azure waters of Lake Helen and the viewpoints overlooking Hat Creek, Little Hot Springs Creek and Diamond Peak, every stunning stop on the 30-mile park highway route is indicated by a numbered road marker matching the numbers on the park map. 

Visit geothermal spots. LVNP is dotted with areas of constant geothermal activity, where boiling water spurts from vents, pools of mineral-rich mud bubble and spit, and fumaroles release vaporous clouds of steam that hang in the air like a ghostly mist. Not far past the south entrance, stop at wheelchair-accessible Sulphur Works, located right on the park highway, to marvel at the silica-crusted mud pots and breathe in the malodorous vapor that gives them their name. It’s a moderate, 3-mile round-trip hike to Bumpass Hell, the largest and most active of the park’s geothermal areas, named for hapless explorer Kendall Bumpass, who fell into one of the mud pots and suffered severe burns. 

Go stargazing. While not certified as an International Dark Sky Park, LVNP’s high elevation, crystal clear air and lack of light pollution make it a perfect setting for celestial viewing. As such, the park schedules numerous viewing activities, including monthly full moon hikes, astronomy demonstrations and an annual Dark Sky Festival in early August. "Plan your trip to be here during a meteor shower like the Perseids and you’ll see quite a show from Summit Lake or another high point in the park,” says Arreglo, adding that you’ll see more sky in wide-open spots like the Devastated Area and the Bumpass Hell parking lot.

Have fun in the snow. In winter, the park highway is plowed until just beyond the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and its expansive parking lot, offering easy access for those who come to see the craggy landscape made even more dramatic when iced in white. LVNP is also popular for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.“The hill behind the visitor center also becomes a sledding area, with people banking trails and going down on tubes, discs and toboggans,”says Arreglo. 

Hit the hiking trails. Plunging 30 feet straight down from a rock shelf, Kings Creek Falls near Summit Lake is a must-see for those who can manage the 2.3-mile round-trip loop to the overlook. Rated moderate for its 486-foot elevation gain, the trail follows the creek through wildflower-strewn meadows and meanders through fire-damaged pine forests already showing optimistic regrowth. The final stretch, a series of cliff-hugging stone steps known as the Cascades Foot Section, is more challenging, but is easily avoided by doing the hike as an out and back rather than as a loop.  

​Another short but considerably more ambitious hike is the 2-mile round trip to the Ridge Lakes, which leaves from the Sulphur Works parking lot and gains 1,000 feet of elevation, reaching a string of impossibly blue glacier-scooped bowls on Lassen Peak’s shoulder. Then there’s Arreglo’s favorite, the Terrace, Shadow and Cliff Lakes Trail, a moderate four-mile round trip with 700 feet of elevation gain, which departs from a trailhead just north of Lassen Peak’s parking lot. “It takes you through Paradise Valley to three gorgeous subalpine lakes, one after another, with these incredible views of Lassen Peak rising above them.” 

A luxury cabin in the meadow at the Highlands Ranch Resort located just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park, California.
Rachid Dahnoun / Alamy Stock Photo

Gateway towns

The closest lodging to the park is 10 minutes from the south entrance at the rustic-chic Highlands Ranch Resort. Stay in one of seven splurge-worthy, easy-to-access cottages, some with lofts to accommodate larger groups, and dine at the all-American bistro in a firelit, high-beamed dining room.

​However, most non-camping park visitors stay in gateway towns on different sides of the park. 

Redding, the area’s largest town, is popular with those driving north from San Francisco. Located on Interstate 5, 47 miles from the park’s south entrance, the town was founded as a rail hub for transporting minerals, lumber and cattle from the surrounding mines, forests and ranches and trains still whistle nightly through its quaint downtown. You’ll find the widest variety of budget-friendly lodging options here, including the La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Redding, where broad, paved paths make it easy to navigate the property. Its pool, sauna and business center are wheelchair-accessible, TVs feature closed captioning, and assistive listening devices are provided with advance notice.

​But one of Redding’s best-kept lodging secret is the four-room Bridgehouse Bed & Breakfast, an intimate guesthouse with handcrafted copper tubs and views of the Sacramento River from its rooftop deck and verandas. One drawback: No accessible rooms. 

​Diners might have the best view in Redding, though, from the patio of justifiably monikered View 202, where the cauliflower-crust pizza is a standout. Come morning, before heading into the park, fuel up on omelets, eggs Benedict or waffles at Déjà Vu, a café and restaurant beloved by locals. 

​Farther from the park is the uber-photogenic former lumber company town of McCloud, 81 miles northwest of LVNP’s north entrance. Here, pastel-painted clapboard buildings cluster in the shelter of Mount Shasta’s eastern slope. The McCloud Mercantile Hotel occupies the upper floor of the former McCloud Lumber Company store, each of its 12 antique-furnished rooms themed to reflect a colorful local resident or significant event. The moderately priced hotel offers two accessible rooms with open floor plans, roll-in showers and whirlpool tubs. 

​On the east, 30 miles from the park’s south entrance, the tiny town of Chester borders Lake Almanor. It’s basically just a place to overnight, with the Timber House Brewing and Lodge a favorite of those seeking a retro Wild West vibe enhanced by modern comforts. Accessible rooms are available. For breakfast, head to Cravings for homemade corned beef hash. 

En route 

All routes to LVNP include at least one stretch of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, which encircles LVNP and continues north to link the park with Lava Beds National Monument and Crater Lake National Park. 

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