If you only have one day at Lassen, take the 35-mile scenic drive through the park on Highway 89. Frequent stops and short walks on interpretive trails will give you a taste of this park, but will have you longing for a more extended stay. We were lucky to be at Lassen for a week, and took the better part of one day to explore Highway 89 within Lassen from north to south, but the drive can be taken either way.
A mile beyond the northwest entrance station, stop at Loomis Museum/Visitor Center to view the historic buildings, displays, and film about the park. The Road Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park mentioned in the park brochure was not available during our visit, as it is currently (July 2006) being revised. If time permits, wander out to nearby Reflection Lake (north of the road) or Manzanita Lake (south of the road) and head for the northwest shore for superlative views of Mt. Lassen.
Hot Rock and the Devastated Area can be viewed from pullouts and a short trail. Loomis Hot Rock is a large granite boulder that was carried down in a 1915 mudflow. It stayed too hot to touch for days. Mt. Lassen’s pyroclastic flow and thick ashes of the "Great Explosion" of May 22, 1915 completely denuded the Devastated Area’s forest cover. Ninety-one years later, natural re-vegetation is well underway. Higher elevation conifers grow here along with those appropriate to this level, as their seeds were carried down in the lava and mud flows.
Hat Creek and Hat Lake: The Atsuwegi Indians were also called "Hat Creek Indians", fishing, hunting, and gathering food in the rugged country along this creek. Their name for Mt. Lassen is Wikuhirdiki. Yana and Yahi Indians lived along tributaries of the Sacramento River, in the foothills, stretching to western regions of the park. The Yana, no longer existing, called Mt. Lassen Waganupa, considered to be the center of the world and creation. Mountain Maidu populated the area south of Mt. Lassen; their name for Mt. Lassen was Kohm Yah-Mah-Nee, "snowy mountain". This Maidu name was chosen for Lassen’s new visitor center, which will be built at the southwest entrance during the next two years.
Past lushly green Dersch Meadows, the road climbs to Summit Lake, 7000 feet elevation. A trailhead to a network of backcountry trails is found here, as well as two campgrounds, one on the north shore, another on the south. Both were still closed when we left Lassen on July 13th, but were about to open. As the road continues its climb, patches of snow give way to thicker snowdrifts on both sides of the road. We pull over to enjoy the view of Kings Creek meandering through snowy Upper Meadow, with glaciated Reading Peak in the background.
Soon we’re viewing creek and meadow from high above, and the snow banks lining the road are now more than twice as high as our car. Above us on the mountainsides, tips of young hemlock are barely poking through the deep drifts. Less than a week ago, we were broiling in the Central Valley at well over 100 degrees, and this coolness is wonderfully refreshing.
We almost miss the turnoff to the Lassen Peak trailhead parking lot because the snow’s so high. But we turn in and find a flurry of activity. Tourists are gaping at huge snow-removing machinery being operated by park staff. At first it appears they’re just digging away at one portion of the massive snow bank on one edge of the parking lot. We’re amazed as bit by bit the front of a dark brown vault toilet hut is slowly and carefully revealed. Kids are frolicking in the snow that covers the start of the trail up Lassen Peak. The parking lot is glistening black with rivulets from the melting snow.
Now the road descends from its high point (8512 feet) past still-frozen Lake Helen. The Bumpass Hell parking lot and view area offer incredible vistas of the remains of ancestral Mt. Tehama, a massive strato-volcano with a base more than 11 miles wide. Remnants of its caldera exist as Brokeoff Mountain, Mount Diller, Pilot Pinnacle, Diamond Peak, and Mount Conrad. Lassen, a plug-dome volcano, emerged from a vent on Tehama’s northern flank. A huge lava bomb, twice as tall and many times as wide as a man, balances precariously on one end of the view area.
As we drive alongside the Little Hot Springs area, we stop frequently at turnouts to gaze upon and photograph interesting rock formations on the cliffs above. Don’t miss Sulphur Works, a highly active geothermal area and believed to be the remains of the central vent of ancestral Mt. Tehama. Sulphur Works was our endpoint. Just south of that there used to be a dilapidated and falling-apart 1970’s landmark called Lassen Chalet. It provided food service, gift shop, and overnight RV parking. The old chalet was demolished in May 2005. A contract was awarded in June 2006 to build the new Kohm Yah-Mah-Nee Visitor Center on the grounds. Groundbreaking is tentatively scheduled for May 2007, and hopefully the facility will be open in October 2008. Main park headquarters information center and book nook is located 9 miles outside of the park in the town of Mineral, and is open all year excluding holidays.