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Hiking: Northern California

A Walk on the Wild Side of the Hot Zone

July 14, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

Lassen Volcanic National Park's claim to fame rests on the diversity of its features. Scientists from all over the world come to examine the cinder cones and seething hydrothermal areas.

The bizarre lava-scape--a mini-Yellowstone of roaring fumaroles, bubbling mud pots and hissing vents--located in the southern part of the park is, for the most part, easy to reach by auto and short trails. Park service interpretive efforts in the thermal areas are excellent.

Lassen's largest and most hyperactive hydrothermal region is Bumpass Hell, 16 acres of geothermal phenomena. An interpretive nature trail leads to Bumpass Hell and back.

The path is a good introduction to the park. You'll learn about volcanism--hot rocks and cooling magma, cinder cones and shield volcanoes. Lassen's plant life is also on display: white bark pine and mountain hemlock accompanied by a ground cover of manzanita and mountain heather. Slopes are seasonally sprinkled with silver lupine.

Kendall V. Bumpass discovered the hellish landscape in 1854. A year later, while guiding a newspaper editor into the hot zone, he stepped through the crust over a mud pot. Bumpass lost a leg as a result of his plunge into the boiling water. (Keep the misadventure of Bumpass in mind when you explore this area; stay on the wooden boardwalk for safety.)

Bumpass Hell Nature Trail is the most popular pathway in the park. You can avoid the crowds by hiking to Bumpass Hell from King Creek Picnic Area instead of the main trail head by Lake Helen. This five-mile round-trip jaunt tours well-named Cold Boiling Lake and offers excellent vistas of volcano country.

To learn more about Lassen's volcanic phenomena, stop at the Sulphur Works, located just off California 89 a short distance south of Bumpass Hell. A short nature trail tours the Sulphur Works, another intriguing (and odoriferous) volcanic area.

For a commanding view of volcano country, one nearly equal to that of famous Lassen Peak, I recommend the hike (7.2 miles round trip with 2,500-foot elevation gain) up Brokeoff Mountain. beyond to a prominent ridge capped by Mt. Diller, Eagle Peak and Lassen Peak extends north by northeast beyond to Chaos Crags. Far to the northeast lie the little-known Warner Mountains. Dominating the northwest horizon is snowy Mt. Shasta. To the west lies the Sacramento Valley and, farther west, the Coast Range. The Sierra Nevada extends south.

The trail to the 9,235-foot summit is, itself, attractive. Wildflower-strewn meadows, a mixed forest of pine, fir and hemlocks, as well as striking rock formations can be savored en route. Solitude seekers will enjoy the very light foot traffic (compared to nearby Lassen Peak) on this trail.

Directions to trail head: From Interstate 5 in Red Bluff, follow California 36 to the park. California 89 extends north-south through the park and provides access to most of its prominent features, including the Brokeoff Mountain trail head, the Sulphur Works and the well-signed Bumpass Hell Nature Trail. The latter trail begins from the south side of Lassen Park Road by Lake Helen, 11 miles from the junction of highways 36 and 89.


Bumpass Hell Nature Trail

WHERE: Southwest portion of Lassen Volcanic National Park.

DISTANCE: To Bumpass Hell 3 miles round trip; From Kings Creek Picnic Area to Bumpass Hell 5 miles round trip with 1,200-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Forest, lakes, volcanic landscape.

HIGHLIGHTS: Excellent nature trail past surreal fumaroles, mud pots.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

PRECAUTIONS: Boiling water present at or near surface of thermal areas; stay on trails and boardwalks.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Superintendent, Lassen Volcanic National Park, P.O. Box 100, Mineral, CA 96063; tel. (916) 595-4444.

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