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Lonely At The Top

Hidden away in Northern California, Lassen gets fewer visitors than it deserves despite its unique natural beauty


LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK — You have risen early, but not all that early, and hiked a couple of not-too-demanding miles. Now you stand in Devil's Kitchen, an early morning landscape of dewy meadows, jumbled rocks and towering, moss-draped pines. All around you, great clouds of steam hiss from the Earth, and each time the wind shifts or the sun slips behind a cloud, the scene is recomposed and relighted, and the stink of sulfur deepens or fades.

But the eeriest aspect of the scene is this: In a national park, on a relatively popular path, after the closure of most schools for summer vacation, you are utterly alone.

The 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, among the southernmost mountains of the Cascade Range, rises four miles to the northwest. A marmot skitters through the brush, and deer cannot be far away. The nearest hiker is a mile behind you--and she's your wife, temporarily horse-crazy and hurrying off down the trail in hopes of catching the 10 a.m. ride at the nearby Drakesbad Guest Ranch.

This is business as usual in Lassen. Here in the national park that rangers call "the one and lonely," there are forests, snowcapped mountains, some of the most dramatic geothermal activity this side of Yellowstone, a much-admired fly-fishing lake, an old-fashioned guest ranch and, on an average summer day, fewer than 4,000 visitors scattered over about 150 square miles. For every visitor who finds his or her way into this park, more than 10 enter Yosemite, a few hours to the south. Aside from August, which Lassen Park spokesman Scott Isaacson calls "extremely busy," Lassen is slow and lonely.

This has a lot to do with weather and location. Buried under deep snows through the winter, the park's main artery and only paved road, the winding 30-mile-long Lassen Peak Highway, is targeted for opening on Memorial Day each year, but unpredictable weather frequently upsets those plans. A late storm this year knocked the opening back to June 12. The road usually closes by mid-October.

To reach the park, most visitors from outside Northern California either drive five hours north from San Francisco or fly in a commuter-size plane to Redding, then drive 50 miles east, as Mary Frances and I did recently.

Our first base of operations was Mineral, a wide spot in the road with a population of 90, a handful of lodges, and a location eight miles outside the park's southwest entrance. We stayed at the passable $55-a-night Lassen Mineral Lodge for two nights (though next time we might try the nearby but off-the-highway Mill Creek Resort), then moved on to idyllic but pricey Drakesbad Guest Ranch for two more nights.

To fill the days in between, we drove lonely roads (paved and otherwise), hiked, floated, roasted marshmallows, squinted through geothermal steam and wished we had a canoe. We never got to some of the most intriguing names on our map, such as Painted Dunes and Fantastic Lava Beds (in the park's northeast corner), and we didn't spend much time around recreation-rich Lake Almanor either, even though it lies fewer than 20 miles south of the park. But we stayed busy.

The southwest corner of the park, where we began, includes two of Lassen's most popular hikes. One is the trek into the steaming puddles and strewn rocks of Bumpass Hell (see John McKinney's Hiking column on page L9). Even if you don't make the hike--and we didn't, because we heard that deep snowdrifts on the path had not yet melted away by late June, when we were there--the trail-head parking lot offers one of the park's most scenic panoramas: a boulder in the foreground, an infinity of pointed pines covering the valley, plumes of steam above the roadside Sulphur Works area and other geothermally active pockets, the stark slopes of Lassen above.

The other highly popular hike, the Mill Creek Falls trail, begins just inside the park's southeastern boundary, and we set out upon it on our first morning in the park. Starting at the parking lot of the Lassen Chalet (where a concessionaire offers meals, souvenirs and bathrooms), we meandered 2.3 miles across ridges and canyons until we reached an overlook above the falls. After pushing on 50 more yards, we finished our sack lunches and lazed awhile in the sun by the rocks above the falls. And we counted hikers. In our first 90 minutes on the trail, we tallied 13 other human beings.

In broader numerical measures, Lassen has been among California's least visited national parks for years. In 1989, the Park Service counted 466,115 visitors to the place, a 6% decrease from the year before. Last year, when the summer season was shortened by late storms, rangers counted only 351,890 visitors.


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