Editor’s note: this is such a beautiful description of a place I love, Lassen Volcanic National Park. To read all of Christian Grand’s articles here on The Royal Tour, visit his index here.
I’m from San Diego, but I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for about ten years. Over the last decade, I’ve been on enough road trips up and down the western edge of the nation to have lost track. Many of the trips were centered around visiting family who still live in the Golden State, some have been rambling solo camping trips, and some have left me stranded in random cities because of car trouble or snowstorms (Lebec and Redding, respectively).
The first time I visited Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park I was on a solo roadtrip a few weeks prior to my wedding. I was driving in a rambling way between America’s Finest City and Rose City (San Diego and Portland, respectively).
I slept in a highway turnout the night before my visit to Lassen. While this is an inexpensive and scenic way to sleep, it also sometimes leads to a fitful night’s rest. I woke up from a less-than-peaceful slumber in the middle of the night to bright headlights in my rear view mirror and a flashlight being shined into my car. As it turned out, it was a highway patrolman. He asked what I was doing there by the side of the road; rather than explaining to him I was saving the $50 dollars I would otherwise spend on a motel, I told him that I was too tired to drive and was making an effort to make the safest decision available to me. He let me know he’d check on me every couple hours during his shift and drove off into the summer night.
The following morning I ate the remaining half of a soggy Subway sandwich I’d purchased in Klamath Falls the night before and headed northbound towards Lassen.
Despite the fact I aim to eventually visit every national park, I don’t always do much research before I visit a new one and didn’t know what to expect. It was late July of 2017, and a lot of the park was still coated with a thick mat of snow. At the visitor center I discovered that the park has all four types of volcanoes. (I also learned that there are four types of volcanoes.) Lassen Peak itself is one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world, which erupted as recently as 1921.
A snowfield in July
I drove out to the Sulphur Works trailhead first. Along the way I passed big snow fields, filled with shimmering, bright blue pools of melted snow. I hiked the Sulphur Works Trail and quickly learned why it was so-named. At many points along the trail, the earth is actively emitting sulphur, and I passed portions of trail that smelled like rotten eggs and where plants didn’t dare to grow. The ground here looks solid, but is sometimes just a thin crust hiding pools of boiling acidic water.
From the Sulphur Works Trail
There was a fellow named Kendall Bumpass who found this out the hard way in 1865. He was giving a tour when the crust beneath his boot gave away and he found himself in a pool of boiling acid water. Where he crashed through the earth is now named after him–aptly titled Bumpass Hell.
At the crest of the Sulphur Works Trail are the Ridge Lakes. In truth, when I saw the forested lakes for the first time I was almost overwhelmed. Standing in front of these high altitude lakes I found myself awestruck, in the truest sense of the word. I went to a few more trailheads on this trip, but many of the trails, even in July, were closed due to heavy snowfall during the prior winter. There are a couple of viewpoints where you can watch boiling mud pits. I stood amongst the crowd, took in the not-beautiful-but-really-interesting sight, and drove northbound towards Portland.
My more recent trip to Lassen was during July of 2020. Lassen is beautiful any time of year, but the vibe here (and everywhere) is different during a pandemic. This time I did not stand in a crowd to watch the boiling mud pots. Instead, I tried to stand at a distance and cringed under my mask whenever someone got within a few feet of me.
We didn’t visit the alpine lakes at the crest of the Sulphur Works Trailhead and instead opted to see the park primarily from vista points. In truth, after spending most of the preceding months at home, I still found a great deal of joy in Lassen, even if we weren’t able to hike or experience the park like we normally would. After being stuck at home for a few months, there is a sense of calm that comes from seeing the natural world still going about its business as usual. The snow keeps melting, the bees keep buzzing, and the mud pots keep boiling.
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