LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — We glanced hurriedly at our watches, then quickened our pace. Our appointment was set for high noon, in mid-August. Our destination, the summit of 10,457-foot Lassen Peak; our quarry, the secrets of the volcano's crater.
This snowcapped mountain, just 50 miles east of Redding near the center of Lassen Park, is a dormant volcano and the southernmost peak of the Cascade Range.
The wide, dusty trail leading to the top was just 2 1/2 miles long, but the elevation gain was nearly 2,000 feet.
Ascending on a steep and winding trail, we climbed over green mountain meadows, under tall pines and past wildflower-scattered hills, then snaked back and forth up rocky slopes over rising switchbacks.
As the sun climbed higher in a bright blue sky, we plodded and panted steadily up toward our destiny. But my husband and I were not alone in our quest.
Naturalist, Volcano Expert
Along with 12 other hikers and volcano enthusiasts, we were to meet Ellis Richard, a Lassen Park naturalist and a volcano expert. Tanned and trim after a summer of climbing the peak, he would be our guide and teacher on a 1 1/2-hour tour of the crater, an oblong, rock-filled depression.
Five days earlier we had discovered 106,000-acre Lassen Park. Driving north through California on Interstate 5, we decided to detour, "just to see the volcano," captivated by the mountain grandeur and astonished at the range of recreation available.
A quick plan change, and our side trip became a five-day R&R in a large campsite on the shore of Summit Lake, a clear, warm, sandy-bottomed jewel near the park center.
Soon we found that volcanic activity is only the most obvious feature of Lassen. Because the park has remained uncrowded and unspoiled, a coterie of faithful vacationers, including many backpackers, return here each summer.
Traffic jams at scenic viewpoints and overcrowded campgrounds (except on major holiday weekends) are unknown. Hiking trails and lakeside meadows are clean and uncluttered. Fishermen casting for rainbow, brook and brown trout have plenty of elbow room.
We explored the forests from trail heads starting near the campground. We swam in the lake, sunned, and floated about in our inflatable boat. Nights were spent at ranger naturalist programs or sharing a campfire and marshmallows with neighboring campers.
Finishing With a Bang
Now, to climax our visit, we were finishing with a bang, toiling up the trail to Lassen Peak's summit and crater.
Seventy-one years ago, in May, 1915, after a year of smaller eruptions and steam clouds, a major explosion and great blast of hot gases from Lassen Peak ejected a giant mushroom cloud of ash and lava four miles high, melting the winter snowcap and propelling a roaring, thick mud flow over the valley.
The blast and flood, covering "the Devastated Area," destroyed millions of trees, buried fertile farm and grazing lands and altered ancient stream beds. The damage was similar to the destruction caused by Mt. St. Helens' 1980 eruption.
Today, Lassen is quiet and stable. But as one of the world's largest plug dome volcanoes, it is still the center of an active volcanic region. Every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday in summer, a guided tour of the crater is scheduled at noon for enthralled visitors who plan to climb the peak and see ground zero for themselves.
Our hiking group had already visited some of the park's other volcanic sites, such as the Sulphur Works steam vents inside the southwest entrance, the boiling pools and mud pots at Bumpass Hell, and the Devils Kitchen near Drakesbad on the southeast.
"A huge magma chamber, or batholith lies beneath Lassen Peak," said Richard. "The batholith is the cause of all the volcanic activity in this region.
"Because the molten magma is still present, we can expect more activity in the future. Exactly when, no one can say. But only 1,200 years ago, just a speck of time geologically speaking, the Chaos Crags, to the north of us here, were formed."
The Chaos Crags, also dome volcanoes, were created in the same way that Lassen Peak was formed. Thick, stiff lava flows erupting from vents in the side of the peak pushed straight up to form peaks, cooling as they rose.
Creek Became a Lake
But the northern most rocky dome proved unstable. About 300 years ago it collapsed, hurtling millions of pounds of boulders down over the valley and damming Manzanita Creek to form Manzanita Lake. The slide area, acres of huge rocks tumbled over a wide plain, is known as the Jumbles.
Once a much larger strato volcano, the 700,000-year-old Mt. Tehama, in its prime was estimated to have been 15 miles wide and 11,000 feet high.
Much is visible as you drive along Lassen Peak Highway, a 30-mile scenic loop, open mid-June to late October, that connects the southern entrance and Manzanita Lake in the northwest sector.
Except for Drakesbad Guest Ranch in the southeast portion of the park, there are no motels or hotels in the park.