Lassen Volcanic National Park

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There was only one National Park in California that I did not make it to last year: Lassen Volcanic National Park. I had plans to go, but some combination of work and fear kept me away. This year I was determined to hike that volcano, so I packed my growing collection of camping gear and made the nine hour drive north.

In order to avoid some of the holiday traffic, I left work early on Thursday and drove most of the way that afternoon, so on Friday morning I only had a few more hours of driving. I stopped at the visitor center on my way in, and then continued on to my campsite at Summit Lake.

There was lightning in the forecast, so I set up my tent, but made sure there was room in my car if at some point I needed to grab my sleeping bag and sleep in there. It was cloudy and I heard the rumbling of thunder in the distance. I drove down the road to the store at Manzanita Lake to get dinner and it started raining on my way back. It was still raining when I reached camp, so I grabbed my book and read in my tent for a while. When I emerged, the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared.

On my two previous solo camping trips, I never bothered with a campfire. But this time I was determined to make it happen. Building a fire when you have wood, paper, and matches was not as intimidating as expected, and I enjoyed reading next to mine. It wasn’t until the camp host stopped by later that I learned there had been lightning in the area and it started a wildfire they were working to contain.

I am not one for early starts, but when you wake up to the sound of everything chirping, it’s hard to go back to sleep. I boiled water for tea on my fancy new camp stove and then headed to Lassen Peak--the volcano that gave the park its name.

Lassen last erupted one hundred years ago (this year is the centennial). I visited Mount St. Helens a number of times growing up in Washington, but I never hiked to the top of it, so this was a new experience. A relatively short, but steep series of switchbacks brought me to the top, and allowed many opportunities to “take pictures,” by which I mean, “catch my breath.” There were a number of ways to go from there and two main peaks. I hiked the more interesting one, because it looked a little like a castle.

There were a number of trails through the rocks, none of which you could see before it seemed like you were going the wrong way. At the top of a volcano, I found: flies. It seems they’d had an easier time getting there than I had. Because no one was watching, I had little shame about sliding down part of the trail on my butt until I reached solid footing. It was weird to be crossing snow while wearing shorts and a tank top.

I drove down to the visitor center for lunch and then headed back up the road to Sulphur Works, which features a boiling mudpot (literally a naturally boiling puddle of mud) and the terrible smell of rotting eggs. I guess that wasn’t enough for me, because next I headed to Bumpass Hell, where a nice hike through the wilderness leads to a boardwalk through a geothermal area of boiling springs. I didn’t have to be warned by more than one sign to stay on the trail.

Right across from the trailhead to Bumpass Springs is Lake Helen. There are many lakes in Lassen Volcanic National Park, but I kept returning to this one because of its beautiful location right in front of Lassen Peak and because it’s rocky shore made it easy to dip my tired feet in some very cold water.

It was starting to rain when I got back to camp, so I continued on to Manzanita Lake, the only place on this side of the park with showers. Clean and with firewood and beer, I returned to camp, where it had by that time stopped raining, and wrote next to the fire until it was time to sleep. The sky hadn’t completely cleared, so I was still worried about lightning. It was the Fourth of July and loud, despite a total lack of fireworks (they were prohibited), and for a while I mistook every sound and flashlight for a sign I should sleep in my car until I finally realized I was being ridiculous and fell asleep.

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I woke up to clear skies the next morning and headed first to Kings Creek Falls trailhead. The overlook is currently closed for restoration, but most of the trail was still open, and the horse trail still allowed for a beautiful view of the falls and the valley nearby.

Next I drove back to Sulphur Works to hike Ridge Lakes trail, which is one of those very short trails you can hardly complain about, even though it’s incredibly steep. I’ll just say that when I reached a certain point and saw that someone had written on a rock, “Keep Going,” I was both cheered by the message and angry that I now couldn’t sit and rest on that rock, which was the only flat surface around. But, it was totally worth the trouble when I reached the top and had an alpine lake to myself. It was only when I was leaving that the stillness of the water struck me as eerie.

After lunch, I hiked Mill Creek Falls trail. I was listening to the audiobook of Heartburn by Nora Ephron as I hiked, and the two will forever be linked in my mind. First you get a panoramic view of Mill Creek Falls and then the trail leads to a bridge that crosses it. It was one of the many experiences I’ve had in a National Park where I realized you had to be there, because I could not capture the valley, the falls, and the perfect pools of water in one picture. I sat for a long time on the bridge.

After another stop at Lake Helen, I headed back to camp and for the first time did not have to worry about lightning! But when I got to Manzanita Lake to take a shower, I found they had no power, and I had to live with all that hiking sweat on me (at least I was sleeping outside). I wasn’t able to buy more firewood either, since the store was closed, but I gathered enough on the ground around camp to make such a nice fire that a girl came by to ask how I’d done it. I told her what I’d done, but also had to say, “It’s ridiculous that you’re asking me this.” I’m not ready to be any kind of authority on life outdoors. I am still mostly making mistakes myself.

The next morning I woke up early, packed up camp, and hit the road. Thanks to some road work on I-5, it took me twelve hours to get home. And yet when a friend asked me if I’d had a rejuvenating weekend, the answer was strangely yes. I almost forgot the joy of flush toilets, was denied a shower, and slept outside with the fear of lightning, but nature has some effect on me that I have been reluctant to acknowledge--perhaps because it seems cliche.

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