National Park Number: 4 of 59
After six weeks of working on the bus—cursing the bus, rueing the bus, considering the bus—we finally hit the road May 26, headed south to Salt Lake City, then west through the Bonneville Salt Flats and over the Nevada hills to Northeastern California and Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Our timing for this park wasn’t perfect. In an ideal world, we definitely would have visited later in the season, because our end-of-May, beginning-of-June visit meant the park was still largely covered in snow. We’ve accepted that the nature of our trip—attempting to visit all 59 parks in one go—means some of the parks won’t be at peak condition when we visit. For the next month, that will mean snowbound roads and trails and inaccessible park areas as winter lingers in the high Cascades of the PNW. It’s sometimes disappointing not to see or do everything, but it also means we get to see these parks in their snowy finery, and we think that’s a pretty good bargain.
We started our visit at Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center in the Southwest corner of the park, where the rangers showed us which sections of road were plowed and which hikes we could do without snowshoes or ice-climbing gear. Many of the other visitors we met were snowshoeing in and downhill skiing out, which would be an awesome way to experience the park—next time!
We started by driving up the road as far as it was open, which took us to Sulphur Works. The star of Lassen Volcanic is, as you might guess, the volcanoes. All four types of volcanoes that exist in the world are found in the park, and several of the volcanoes have been active recently in the last few hundred years. Because the area is so geologically active, the area is filled with hot springs and geothermal areas. One of these is Sulphur Works.
The kids got a big kick out of the snow and we entertained ourselves for a good while with snowball throwing.
For the rest of our park explorations, we headed to the Manzanita Lake area in the northwest part of the park, which doesn’t see as much snow. We camped that night at the park’s campground so we could be close to the action—we try to never pay for camping, but decided to make an exception once in a while! Normally we get into camp just in time to put the kids to bed, so they were excited that we got in earlier and they had time to explore the campground.
The next day we attempted the first ambitious hike of our trip; so far, we’ve done short steep hikes and (slightly) longer hikes with only a little elevation gain. Our hike to Crags Lake was a little over 4 miles, with an elevation gain of 850′ total: not a hard hike overall, but tough for Graham’s little 3-year-old legs!
In the shadow of Chaos Crags, five peaks that sprouted only about 1,000 years ago (babies!!), the hike passes through the Chaos Jumbles rockslide, miles of rock that broke off the mountain, tumbled 2 miles, and dammed Manzanita Creek, forming Manzanita Lake.
We took our time on the ascent and Graham did great. Along the way he stopped to look at a beetle and said, “Why are they called beetles? Is it like those ‘Here Comes the Sun’ guys?” He’s so fun to talk to; I think talking to him is the best part of the trip.
We reached the top of the trail and climbed over loose rocks and sand to reach the shore of the lake. The lake is small, maybe 100-150 yards across, and perfectly clear. Graham and Margi were fascinated watching water run out from beneath the snow banks around us. We dipped our toes in the water, had a little picnic on the rocks, and chatted with a family from Israel who hiked in behind us.
After hiking down off the mountain we had a little juice left, so we walked the short trail around Manzanita Lake.
The landscape of this park was somehow both familiar and eerie, otherworldly: acres of burned-out forest, miles of rockslide, and snow-capped volcanoes looming above it all. Late in the afternoon one day we drove up to Devastated Area, the farthest we could get on the road in the north side of the park. We hiked a little loop trail and David took a million pictures of the mountains at golden hour and the kids and I dug in the black dirt with sticks. I felt, after weeks of bus building in which David and I slept little, ate terribly, and generally ignored our every physical and spiritual need, that I was finally returning to my body, allowing myself to be aware of where I was: no planning the future, no narrating the moment, just sitting on the ground with my kids, running dirt through my fingers, watching the sun disappear behind the trees.
David and I are not clearly outdoorsy. We don’t consider ourselves rock climbers or backcountry backpackers or mountain bikers, even though we’ve tried and liked those things. We’re not very hardcore, generally speaking, and right now, we’re honestly pretty unfit. I think we were scared, setting out on this trip, that we’re the wrong kind of people for the national parks, that being outdoorsy requires specific skills and a specific personality. I don’t know where we got this idea, but at this point, only four parks into our quest, we’ve totally abandoned it. We go out of our way to meet fellow park-goers, and almost no one we’ve met has fit into a stereotype. We’ve talked to rugged retirees, veterans living out of their cars, families from the suburbs trying to get their kids excited about nature, girlfriends on a road trip, high schoolers using the scenery to impress girls, truckers taking the scenic route, and blue collar buddies who met on the internet and get together to drive RC cars in the parks on the weekend. It’s become abundantly clear that enjoying nature has exactly zero prerequisites.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why I feel so strongly we need to protect these wild places. I can give environmental and economic reasons for keeping public lands public, but if anyone ever asked why, in general, we should preserve these places, I wanted to give an answer I’d really thought through, that I could stand behind. And I think at least part of my answer is in this, the equalizing power of nature, the way the land opens itself to everyone, without dictating what we do with it. I adamantly believe we need that, that we won’t come close to our potential as a species if we don’t spend time outside, looking around, walking around, feeling appropriately small and wonderfully whole. Because of course it filled a hole in me, that moment of digging in the dirt in the shadow of a volcano, with no one around and no buildings in sight and no cell service and pristine June snow and cracking pines and birdsong. And where else could I go for that clear air and calm? If we don’t keep protecting these places, where will we go?