Never heard of Lassen? Don't worry, most of the people I work with, when I told them I was going there, hadn't heard of it either. Lassen is one of the hidden national parks of California - not as famed or well photographed as Yosemite, but like it, a 4 hour drive from the San Francisco Bay Area, filled with beautiful lakes, forests, and mountains (or former volcanoes!) to climb.
If you are going to Lassen, you can either camp in one of the many campgrounds (either tent, RV, or cabin), or you can stay in one of the resorts.
Given that I decided to go last minute, I just went to the National Park Service website and booked the first thing I could find (which also happened to be the last thing available) - a cabin at Manzanita Lake campground.
This is probably a good time to mention that it is hard to enjoy Lassen outside of the 5 months of the year when there isn't snow on the ground (approximately May through October). So, the park is busy when it is accessible, but still nowhere near as crowded as most national parks in summer, which makes it an ideal destination if you are looking to get away easily and not have to worry about beating crowds on the roads and up the mountains.
What is also great about this place is it is manageable to see the highlights in a regular weekend. Though it is a very large park, if you aren't planning to backpack through the wilderness, the majority of the sites are squared away in the southwest corner, easily located off the main road through the park, which is about 17 miles long. Additionally, the west and south entrances to the park are less harrowing drives then the likes of Yosemite or Yellowstone.
So, what is there to do in Lassen anyway? On my adventure, we arrived late Friday night and basically just went to bed. I had rented one of the camping cabins which was nice because I didn't have to build a tent in the dark - just rolled out the sleeping bags on the mattress and called it a night (if you stay at Manzanita Lake, call in advance to let them know you will be arriving late, as check in ends at 5pm). The cabins were a really special treat, glamping at it's finest - the cabins were built in 2011 and are the cleanest things I have ever encountered in a national park. They were adorable too, with a bed, table, chairs, porch, fire pit, bear box, and picnic table - what else could you need? I hope they get featured one day on one of my favorite websites for the wander-lusting, Cabin Porn.
Saturday morning, bright eyed and bushy tailed to explore, we headed early to the Lassen Peak trailhead. This is probably the #1 hike in the park, so get started early if possible. Even though this park isn't that crowded, it is still the main attraction so it will be busier than anywhere else you might go. Depending on your fitness level the hike can take anywhere from 3-6 hours. I'd like to say I am moderately fit and it took about 4 hours roundtrip including lunch at the summit. If you are worried about it, rest assured it is a tough hike but I saw a guy carry his son on his shoulders up the entire thing, so really almost anyone can do it, as long as you dress appropriately (windbreaker for the top!), and pack enough food and water. The hike is 5 miles roundtrip, but it is a 2000 ft gain over 2.5 miles, so the elevation will get you. Bring some Advil in case you are prone to altitude sickness. The trail head starts at 8500 ft and ascends to 10, 457 ft, with switchbacks. The trail is mostly exposed to the sun and wind so bring lots of sunscreen. The views along the way are remarkable though, and you will have vistas for miles in every direction the entire way up. From the peak, you can even see out to Mt. Shasta and beyond. The trail is well maintained, and besides the last 500 ft or so which requires a bit of boulder scrambling, there is no fancy footwork, though hiking shoes are definitely advised as the trail down is a little steep.
Photos from the Summit of Lassen.
Pretty tired from the sun and wind, I headed back to my cabin for some RNR, and then decided to explore the beautiful Manzanita Lake which is at the edge of the campground. There is a 1.5 mile trail around the lake, which offers beautiful reflective views of Mt. Lassen in the distance. You can even rent a kayak and go out on the lake for the day, from 10am - 4pm. The trail around the lake is completely flat and pretty easy to navigate, with some picnic benches located around it. Part of the trail backs up to the ranger station on the western side of the park.
Sunday, we packed up and headed down the main park road with a plan to see some of the sites along the way and exit through the southern entrance (after entering on the western side, where the Manzanita Lake Campground is). We stopped at Bumpass Hell, which is a trail that, besides having an epic name, is also a beautiful geothermal area. The trail is popular with kids and school groups, and is a 3 mile roundtrip flat out and back trail (with the exception of the last half mile downhill to the thermal springs). The views along the trail are excellent, offering vistas across the forested valley below, a view of a lake, and the cherry on top, the final view down into the geothermal area. If you have visited the likes of Yellowstone, you will recognize the wooden boardwalks over the popping and boiling mud pits that allow you to get pretty close to the action, without being burned. There are pools of various colors, sizes, and consistencies. Just make sure not to do any off-trailing, as the place is named after all for Kendall Bumpass, who was a 19th century minor who fell into the pools through a thin crust of mineral and had to have his leg amputated. The NPS makes sure to take advantage of this sad tale to keep tourists in line!
If you keep on the road down and out of the park, you will pass a few more geothermal areas along the road. There is also a large visitor center at the southern entrance of the park to explore.
All in all, Lassen is a great spot to visit in the summer months, in order to enjoy the beauty of the volcanoes that once filled this land. I'll definitely be back again!