California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park by Lee Foster The explosion of northern California’s Lassen Peak on May 30, 1914 far exceeded the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. Both are part of the Cascade chain of fire mountains stretching down the west coast. On that remarkable Memorial Day, the “extinct” plug volcano spewed the first of 150 spectacular eruptions. The greatest show of all occurred on May 19, 1915, when a river of lava poured a thousand feet down the mountain and created a mud flow a quarter mile wide and 18 miles long. Three days later a dramatic upheaval, called the Great Hot Blast, shot debris five miles into the air and felled pine trees like bowling pins around the base of the mountain. Some two inches of ash fell on towns as far away as Reno. For people of a certain temperament, it appeared that the day of judgment had arrived. Volcanism means more than brimstone and devastation at Lassen Volcanic National Park. The volcanic reality gives the park’s flora and fauna an added alertness, a greater immediacy. All life in Lassen, whether a struggling whitebark pine, a scurrying ground squirrel, or an interloper such as man, exists precariously, at the pleasure of the more powerful underlying geologic forces.
Lassen Today Lassen today shows how succession in nature covers the scars of volcanic activity. The high meadows, the trout streams, the exceptional stands of pine and fir trees, and the 150 miles of hiking trails draw visitors to Lassen in summer. In winter, cross-country skiing is popular. Some things in Lassen are perennial and others change. The volcanic presence is a constant and the patience of skilled rangers, such as Steve Zachary, a 27 year veteran, is there to explain to travelers the wonders of the place, such as one of the special trees of Lassen, the Jeffrey pine. “We call them the gentle Jeffries,” said ranger Zachary, “because when you roll the large cones in your hands, they are not prickly.” The superb afternoon view of Lassen Peak from the forested edge of Manzanita Lake, if you hike around the lake from the park entrance point, is legendary and endures. But other things are new. At the northwest corner, in the Lake Manzanita Campground, there are now 20 picturesque small cabins, good for the aging population (among the 400,000 annual visitors) wanting something other than a tent or a self-contained RV in this park. And at the southwest entrance to the park, there is now the Kohm Yah-Mah-Nee Visitor Center, a LEED-certified structure reflecting the latest in green architectural design. The Visitor Center presents the thermal geographic wonders of the park, the fauna and flora, and the Native American human culture of the area.
Getting to Lassen Park Lassen is about five hours by car north from San Francisco. Take Interstate 5 north and then turn east at Red Bluff on Highway 36, then north through the park on Highway 89. The nearest fly-in point for commercial air service is Redding. Lassen can also be approached from the north and west, on Highway 89, leaving Interstate 5 at Mt. Shasta. The road into the northwest corner of the park has two further attractions, Burney Falls and Subway Cave. Burney Falls is one of the loveliest falls in the northern part of the state. There is easy access to an overlook in McArthur-Burney State Memorial Park to see the constant year-round flow of water from underground aquifers, maintaining a chilly temperature of 42-48 degrees. A hundred million gallons of water fall here every day. Between Burney Falls and Lassen Park is another interesting stop, Subway Cave, which is an underground lava flow, now a large hollowed out tube. One can imagine the river of lava from an ancient pyrotechnic event coursing its way through this underground channel.
Lassen Park History The main historic drama at Lassen is geologic. Massive eruptions a few centuries ago created a pile of debris called Chaos Jumbles. At the northeast corner of the park lies a textbook-perfect cinder cone formed from 19th-century eruptions.