Timeline: September 27-28
We ate breakfast in the room at the Budget Inn, checked out, gassed up next door at the Pilot, topped off the coffee mug and headed south on Highway 97 towards Klamath Falls and our destination for the next two nights, Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park. It is centered around Lassen Peak, the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range, rising 3,500 ft. above the surrounding terrain and one of the largest lava domes on Earth.
Created from the long destroyed Mount Tehama, a volcano that was at least 1,000 ft. higher than Lassen Peak, it is part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc which stretches from southwestern British Columbia to northern California. On May 22, 1915, Lassen Peak erupted spreading volcanic ash as far as 200 mi to the east. Lassen Peak and Mount St. Helens are the only two volcanoes in the contiguous United States to erupt during the 20th century.
We stopped to shop for groceries at a Walmart in Klamath Falls, then turned onto Highway 39 to travel through Modoc National Forest (bordered by Lava Beds National Monument, Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge). We picked up Highway 299 which took us into Fall River Mills where we stopped at Ortegas (La Cocinita) for lunch, figuring that we’d have a light meal in camp for dinner later that day.
We parked across the street, entered and were seated in the side dining room at a booth by the windows. After perusing the menu, we ordered a wet Carnitas Burrito and shredded beef taco along with two Coors Light draft beers. We demolished a basket of chips and when the food came we dug right in. I was a little disappointed in the taco as it was made with a pre-formed corn shell, like something I could get back in North Carolina. But the quality of the meat was good and so forgave them this one small transgression. The Burrito was stuffed full of juicy tender Carnitas complimented nicely by the green chili sauce on top.
We finished up the meal and waddled out to the car to complete our drive down to the Manzanita Lake campground at Mt. Lassen. This late in the season and midweek we weren’t worried about needing a reservation and were correct in that assumption, arriving to many open sites. Using our National Parks and Recreational Lands Senior Pass, admission to the park was waived and the campsite was half price, just $12 a night instead of $24.
We set up camp and while Joanna took a stroll around Manzanita Lake, I spent some time in camp reading and then setting up our simple dinner of a bagged salad and baguette we’d purchased earlier in the day at the Walmart. With just two nights and one full day in the park we’d need to hustle the next day to cover as much as possible.
Sitting at nearly 6,000 feet in elevation on the western slopes of the Cascade Range in late September meant it was the first time on the trip we’d encountered cold temperatures and so the heavy jackets came out, including my Patagonia Shelled Synchilla, a gift to me from Jessica a Christmas or so ago. In what is known as foreshadowing in literature, it would be the last time I’d ever get to wear that jacket.
Cold weather aside the next morning we got up as early as we could stand it, made breakfast, and then set out for a full day of sightseeing. Our first stop was the Manzanita Lake Discovery Center just outside the entrance to the campground. It has a small display about the park and the volcanic activity responsible for its creation and sits across the street from the Loomis Museum, built in 1927 by Benjamin Franklin Loomis, a local homesteader and photographer, who documented the 1915 eruptions of Lassen Peak, and was instrumental in the establishment of the national park. Unfortunately, the Museum was closed for the season and so we pulled onto the road that runs through the park and headed into its heart.
Lassen Peak is one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world. Its last eruptions were between 1914 and 1921 with the largest on May 22, 1915. Photographed by Loomis, they paved the way for the creation of this National Park on August 9, 2016. A couple of miles in we stopped at Chaos Jumbles; around 300 years ago Chaos Crags the youngest group of lava domes in Lassen Volcanic National Park, experienced a cold rock avalanche which undermined its northwest slope. Riding on a cushion of compressed air, the rock debris traveled at about 100 miles per hour, flattened the forest before it, and damming Manzanita Creek, forming Manzanita Lake, and leaving the Jumbles in front of us.
Down the road a bit we stopped at the Hot Rock, where on May 19, 1915, pent-up gases within the volcano blasted and shattered its lava cap. Careening down the mountainside, the hot lava rocks touched off a snow avalanche that carried this 300-ton rock five miles from Lassen Peak to this location, where it settled, sizzled, and cooled. Loomis would later report that the rock was “still sizzling in the water” some forty hours after it was ejected from the volcano’s crater. The destructive forces that moved this cabin sized rock destroyed a three-square-mile swath, now called the Devastated Area, where we drove next.
The series of eruptions that occurred in May 1915 produced great pyroclastic flows of lava and subsequent avalanches that created this section of the park which is still sparsely populated by trees due to the low nutrient level and high porosity of the soil. A short interpretive trail provides reams of information about the eruptions and their consequences, including the Puzzle Rocks.
After the May 19 avalanche carried hot lava rocks, the surrounding air temperature quickly cooled them. As they cooled from the outside in some of the rocks fractured internally, breaking into pyramid-like shapes. They honestly look like a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces that could conceivably be reconfigured to their original shape, if one could lift them that is.
Our next stop was Hat Creek and a short hike through a meadow to the intermittent Hat Creek Lake and its stunning views of Lassen, then on to the trailhead for Kings Creek and the three-mile round-trip hike to Kings Creek Falls, with about 500 feet of elevation gain.
Not a particularly difficult hike terrain wise and yet after descending to the falls and spending some time there, we found the climb back up to the trailhead to be a bit more arduous than the hike down.
By now it was getting later in the afternoon and we realized that we were not going to be able to hit all of the sights we’d wanted to take in, the biggest one being the Bumpas Hell region. This is the largest area of geothermal activity in the park, but to access it properly requires three miles of hiking and about two hours of time.
So we drove out to the southwestern entrance to the park and the new Kohm Yah-Mah-nee Visitor Center there for a cup of coffee and a cookie, then backtracked a short distance to the Sulphur Works to park and walk around the bubbling mud pots there.
In 1865, Mathias Supan, an entrepreneur from Austria, started a sulfur mining operation here for a variety of products, including medicinal ones such as “Supan’s baby colic.” As sulfur mining became less profitable, the Supan family appealed to the tourist crowd with mineral baths, a restaurant, and a souvenir shop. The National Park Service acquired Sulphur Works in 1952 through a condemnation suit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice that allowed the government to pay the Supan family a court-determined price for the area.
With the strong smell of rotten eggs in the air we walked around the site, not dawdling too much as the day was waning. We returned to Manzanita Lake the way we came, passing the sights and viewpoints we’d seen going the other way. Dinner that night would be a simple affair that wouldn’t involve much in the way of cooking, heating up some of the canned food we’d carried with us from home, knowing that for the next couple of weeks we’d be staying with people we know, not camping again until the last week of the trip.
Our sojourn through the volcano rich Cascade Range had been an unplanned and unexpected pleasure, enabling us to knock off two more National Parks. We were again, as earlier in the trip, staggered by the immense natural beauty of the parks and marveled at the forces of nature that created them. For the time being we contented ourselves with the time spent at Crater Lake and Lassen and looked forward to a moderate drive the next day to Oakland and a few days with Jessica and Kris. The next phase of the journey was about to begin.
Mt. Lassen National Park: https://www.nps.gov/lavo/index.htm
National Parks Senior Pass: https://store.usgs.gov/pass/senior_pass_application.pdf
Pyroclastic Flow: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyroclastic_flow
Sulphur Works: http://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/sulphur-works