The AFT Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park

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 have been active in the last few hundred years. Because the area is so geologically active, Lassen is filled with hot springs and geothermal areas. 

See notes from our first visit here.

Where Lassen Volcanic National Park is located:

Lassen Volcanic is in the mountains of Northern California, about an hour east of Redding and three hours north of Sacramento.

Getting to Lassen Volcanic National Park:

The nearest airports to Lassen Volcanic are Reno, Redding and Sacramento. From any of those spots, you’ll need a car. Hwy 44 runs to the park from the north and Hwy 36 comes in from the south.

Fill up before you get to the park—there’s currently no fuel available inside and gas stations are limited in the surrounding area.

Where to Stay in Lassen Volcanic National Park:

There are two options for lodging inside the park: the Drakesbad Guest Ranch and the cabins at Manzanita Lake.

The Drakesbad Guest Ranch has cabins and bungalows, plus chef-prepped meals, horseback riding and a hot-spring-heated swimming pool. The ranch is open from mid-June to mid-October. Get more info and make reservations here.

There are 20 rustic cabins at the Manzanita Lake Campground. They’re basic, with no electricity—but propane heaters and lanterns are provided. BYO bedding. Make reservations here.

Camping:

There are 7 developed campgrounds in Lassen Volcanic. You can also camp in the backcountry with a free permit. Most sites require a reservation. Find more camping info here.

How Long to Stay in Lassen Volcanic National Park:

We recommend a minimum of 3 days to explore the park’s major sites, do some hiking and enjoy Lassen’s solitude. But you could spend much longer enjoying this area!

When to Go to Lassen Volcanic National Park:

Lassen Volcanic is open year-round, but much of the park is snowed in during winter. Many facilities and the main park highway are closed from roughly mid-October through May. The visitor center can also close due to weather.

Visit during summer or early fall if you’d like to experience the most of the park. Winter brings opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or downhill skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry.

Best For:

  • Hiking
  • Geothermal Features
  • Scenery
  • Backpacking
  • Paddling
  • Wildlife

Pair With:

Lassen Volcanic is surrounded by national forest land. Expand your trip by spending some time camping and hiking in Lassen National Forest or Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

Activities:

Scenic Drives:

The main park road runs from the southwest entrance and Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to Summit Lake near the center of the park and on to the northwest entrance in the Manzanita Lake section of the park.

The road is largely snowbound from November through mid-June. In spring, the Manzanita Lake area is the most accessible because of its lower elevation. You can check out the visitor center, then drive through the national forest to the northwest entrance of the park.

In summer and fall, enjoy the park road’s drive past many of the main features and trailheads. It’s a 30-mile drive and makes up part of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. From the road, you can see Sulphur Works, Emerald Lake, Lassen Peak, Little Hot Springs Valley, Summit Lake and the Chaos Jumbles before ending at Manzanita Lake.

Another scenic driving option is the 17-mile road from Chester into the Warner Valley. There are lots of trail options in the valley, plus dining, swimming and horseback riding at Drakesbad Guest Ranch. You don’t have to be staying at the ranch to access its activities, but you generally do need reservations. Make them here.

Hydrothermal Areas:

One of the unique things about Lassen Volcanic is its abundance of geothermal features. The most accessible is at Sulphur Works, near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center in the southwest area of the park.

The largest and most popular geothermal area is Bumpass Hell, named after a man who explored the area in the late 1800s and fell into one of the boiling mud pits, scalding his leg. Now there’s a boardwalk trail so you won’t suffer the same fate!

Bumpass Hell is accessed via a 3-mile roundtrip trail to the boardwalk around the basin. It’s only open during summer and fall, roughly mid-June through October. It’s a popular trail and parking can run out during the high summer months. Bring lots of water—there’s little shade.

You can hike to several other geothermal areas, including Devils Kitchen, Boiling Springs Lake, Terminal Geyser and Cold Boiling Lake.

Spot other geothermal features from the road. View steam vents in the Little Hot Springs Valley from a pullout on the park road. Pilot Pinnacle has no trail access or parking lot, but you can smell it as you drive by—one spot is aptly named “Fart Gulch.”

Hiking:

Seventy-five percent of Lassen Volcanic is designated wilderness and the best way to explore it is to hike! There are hundreds of miles of trails, including a 17-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail (best access is from the Warner Valley section of the park) and many longer routes for backpacking.

Bumpass Hell is the park’s most popular trail, and the only way to view Lassen’s largest geothermal area.

Kings Creek Falls is a 3-mile roundtrip to a 50-foot cascade.

Lassen Peak is a steep climb, 5 miles roundtrip, with sweeping views from the top. Check with rangers about snow conditions at the peak; you may need crampons toward the top (and will definitely want to be aware of any avalanche risks.)

Crags Lake is a moderate, 4.2-mile trail to a small, snow-fed lake.

Cinder Cone Trail takes you to the top of one of Lassen’s highest volcanoes. It’s 4 miles roundtrip, but the last half mile gains 700 feet of elevation, so be prepared for an extremely steep climb. Once you’re at the top, also be prepared for what many say is the best view in the park.

Mount Harkness is another high point in the park. Access it via a roughly 4-mile hike, ending at a fire lookout tower and another incredible view.

There are loads more day hikes in each section of the park. See a more complete list here.

Backpacking:

Overnight backpacking trips are one of the best ways to experience Lassen’s wilderness. You’ll need a free permit to camp in the backcountry, and you’ll want to do a lot of research to be prepared for weather conditions, abiding by Leave No Trace principles, and potential wildlife encounters.

Find more information about popular overnight trails, guidance on planning and permitting information here.

Wildflowers:

Throughout the summer, wildflowers bloom across the park and make a stunning display. Timing and quantity of blooms depend on the year’s snowpack, but from June through August, you should be able to find them peaking in at least one section of the park. Check out Lassen’s wildflower guide here.

Swimming:

You can wade or swim in any of Lassen’s natural lakes or creeks, but none of the hydrothermal areas. The water is generally very cold and hypothermia is a risk, so be cautious! Summit Lake gets passably warm(-ish) in high summer.

Paddling:

Lassen has over 200 lakes and ponds, many of which are great for paddling. Manzanita, Butte, Summit and Juniper Lakes all have put-in spots. You can rent kayaks, SUPs, canoes and rafts from the Manzanita Lake Camper Store in summer. Motorized watercraft are not allowed anywhere in the park.

Biking:

Bikes are allowed on any of the park’s public roads, but not on any trails.

One of the coolest biking opportunities in Lassen is during the window of spring when the park roads have been plowed, but are not yet open to vehicle traffic. This is called Hike and Bike the Highway (HBH). Timing varies by year, but you can get updated information here.

Stargazing:

Lassen Volcanic is far from populated areas and has a fantastically dark night sky, with little light pollution. If you’re camping here on a clear night, be sure to spend some time looking up.

For an even richer night sky experience, check out Lassen’s Dark Sky Festival (typically held in August) or a ranger-led astronomy program, held throughout the summer.

Winter Activities:

Winter lasts a long time in Lassen, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy it. You can sled in the Southwest section of the park, on the slopes near the visitor center, or at Eskimo Hill just north of the park in the national forest.

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular on the park’s main road during winter; there are also many established routes in both the southwest part of the park and the Manzanita Lake region.

When we visited in late May, many people were snowshoeing into the backcountry and downhill skiing out. The park recommends that only experienced backcountry skiers/boarders do this—if that’s you, it sounds like a wonderful way to enjoy the park!

Bringing Kids:

There is so much here for kids to enjoy. Geothermal areas are always a hit with our kids. Lassen boasts a wide variety of hiking trails, with something for every skill level. The Jr. Ranger program is great, and ranger-led programs—more widely available in summer—are often geared toward families.

FAQ’s:

The following are questions we received from our readers about visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Where can we camp around there? Dispersed, campground, anything!

Check out the section above for details on camping within the park. There’s a lot of dispersed camping in the national forests around the park. FreeCampsites.net has a dozen or so listings of good spots in the area.

How do you explain a name like Bumpass Hell to little ones? Jk, but . . . yeah?

Hahaha! Well, our kids are obsessed with Greek mythology, so geothermal areas are always very evocative of Hades for them ;). Our kids were also fascinated by the story of Kendall Bumpass falling into a boiling mud pit and burning his leg. And it made me feel very grateful that my last name is not Bumpass.

Advice from Our Readers:

“Carry plenty of water. That elevation will get ya!”

“Be prepared for random snowfalls closing some roads, etc.”

“Cinder Cone Trail is not kid-friendly!”

“Don’t go during a heat wave.”

“We rented a SUP and kayak and went out on Manzanita Lake—so much fun and awesome views!”

“The hike that circles Summit Lake is accessible for little hikers. Bring bug spray!”

“Picnic at Manzanita Lake and don’t miss the lava tubes.”

Final Thoughts

As one of the least-visited parks in the western U.S., Lassen Volcanic is a great place to find peace and solitude. It’s a breathtaking landscape, and we hope you love it as much as we did!

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