More Lassen Volcanic – A Real Gem!

The final image in the last post was of the 700′ tall Cinder Cone volcano in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Formed in the 1650s, this basalt lava cinder cone was part of two eruptions. The hike to the top starts at over 6000′ of elevation, but we’ve spent most of the past couple of weeks at altitude so we were acclimated pretty well. I wasn’t sure I could make it up that steep trail… but the closer we got to it the more we just had to see what was up there!


Trudging in the soft cinders was challenging, but we would take about 50 steps and then pause for a count of 50. The trail winds around the cone so the views kept changing, offering new rewards for the climb.

Lassen Mountain

You can see how steep the cone’s sides are in the photo above! I wouldn’t have guessed that I could do it, but we both made it to the top and it wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined. The reward for our efforts was well worth it!

Two tiny people on the rim

We scampered around the inner and outer rims, even hiking part way down into the center…

…marveling at the different colors of the rocks…

…and taking in the sweeping views of the Fantastic Lava Beds and Painted Dunes below.

The Fantastic Lava Beds were formed when basalt lava leaked out of the bottom of the cinder cone as it was erupting. It was overwhelming to grasp its size as we took in the panoramic views from the rim. Here’s what it looks like from ground level, next to tall Jeffery pines at the edge of the forest.

What a stunning landscape, with such stark and sudden transitions!

With names like Brokeoff Mountain, Chaos Crags, Devastated Area, Fantastic Lava Beds and Bumpass Hell – Lassen Volcanic National Park is a true gem of a place, well worth a visit. We enjoyed other hiking trails in the park – the variety of terrain offers something for everyone.

Lassen Volcanic is located in the midst of Lassen National Forest, and we found other notable features worth exploring in the National Forest as well. There just wasn’t enough time to see and do all of it! But we brought our flashlights and were able to investigate the “Subway Cave” that was just off the road between the park entrance and our campground. Subway Cave is a lava tube, formed when the lava at the top cooled as it was exposed to the air, while molten lava continued to flow underneath. The name “subway” is appropriate – it’s as wide and tall as a modern subway tunnel!

The tunnel meanders for about 1/2 mile, and it’s amazing to imagine nature’s forces at work as molten rock oozed along the smooth channels. The tunnel was found when part of the roof collapsed, revealing the secret underneath. As we drove past the area, we saw the terrain in a completely different way – with a better understanding of what we were looking at. We came, we hiked, we explored and we learned – it was a perfect visit.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

One of our goals for this trip was to visit some lesser-known National Parks (as well as Yellowstone, which is probably too well known for its own good.) The advantage of these other parks is that they’re delightfully un-crowded and the rangers have more time to share information with us.

We had to drive across a good chunk of America’s Great Basin, continuing to traverse the basin-and-range topography that we learned about in Great Basin National Park… crossing flat high-desert valleys and up and over mountain ranges in Nevada. As we moved farther west, the ranges gradually grew a little lower in elevation. At the Nevada-California border we stopped to visit friends in Lake Tahoe, and we saw a bit of the beautiful lake as we drove around the perimeter.

Lassen National Park is only a few hours drive from Lake Tahoe – a gem of a spot among tall stately Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine trees in Lassen National Forest. Lassen was a delightful surprise, with examples of four different types of volcanoes in one relatively small area: shield, cinder cone, plug dome and composite.

Composite volcano in the distance

The park is still seismically active, and there are several special monitoring stations located in key places.

We hiked down to see the steaming fumaroles and mud pots in a place called “Bumpass Hell”, named for a settler and cowboy who planned to mine the area in the 1860s. He was showing the place to a newspaper editor when Mr. Bumpass accidentally broke through the thin crust over a boiling hot spring, burning his leg severely enough that he eventually had to have it amputated. Bumpass Hell is smaller than the hydrothermal features found in Yellowstone, but it’s just as mystical in its own sulphury, steamy way.

There are other, smaller geothermal features we visited as we toured around the park – boiling mud pots…

…and steaming, bubbling sulphur springs.

The park has such a variety of terrain, from meadows with meandering streams…

…to deep forests of tall, stately Jeffrey pines.

The cones from the Jeffrey pines were huge prickly things, and there was an abundance of this vivid lime-green lichen on the trees and occasionally on the ground.

If you look closely in the photo above you might notice that the soil is a fine black material – it’s composed of cinders from the nearby Cinder Cone…

…which has a daunting-looking trail that you can hike up. Stay tuned for more from Lassen Volcanic National Park!

The Great Basin

America’s Great Basin encompasses over 200,000 square miles of our country – most of Nevada, half of Utah, portions of Oregon and California, and small parts of Wyoming and Idaho. We’re talking a HUGE area! All the water in the region is retained – none of it drains to the ocean, and the landscape is a series of alternating mountain ranges and flat valleys that are called “basin and range” topography, formed over the last 30 million years. All of this terrain is a high desert – even the valleys are at altitude.

We drove from Salt Lake City (the eastern edge of the Great Basin) into eastern Nevada to visit Great Basin National Park. Along the way we traveled on US 50, known as “America’s Loneliest Road” – a pretty accurate description.

We stopped along the way to fly the drone – it’s a great way to get a sense of the mountains and flat valleys in between. The white material on the ground isn’t snow – it’s salt crust.

We spotted mule deer, pronghorn antelope…

Pronghorn antelope

…wild turkeys….

…and even a tiny horned lizard hiding in the brush.

As we neared the national park we found a display about the ranching history of the area, as well as early car travel.

Our main objective, though, was to explore Great Basin National Park.

The fall foliage was past its peak in the high desert, though the rabbitbrush was still vibrant…

…and a few aspens still had color.

We hiked around some different parts of the park in the Snake Mountains, admiring the sweeping views of the flat valley below. Although Great Basin National Park is a bit out of the way, it’s a shame that more people don’t visit it – it’s very beautiful and it has some hidden gems. The mountains have limestone under them, and limestone can mean caves. Lehman Cave is just one of the caves in the park, though it’s the only one open for public viewing. We took the 90 minute tour, admiring the formations and learning about the bats that live inside.

Unfortunately, Lehman Cave has been exploited for tourism going back to the 1880s, and at that time visitors were encouraged to break off small stalactites or the formation-building “soda straws”. Evidence of this damage was everywhere – so very sad, though we’re glad the cave is now protected and can resume it’s slooooooooow process of building new formations. Maybe in another million years or so, the old damage will have been erased.

Damaged “soda straws” that form stalactites

In addition to the cave, the other special treasure we found were the Great Basin bristlecone pine trees. The trees live high up along the tree line, and they are some of the longest living things on our planet. Pinus longaeva live 4000-5000 years!

Although we had been hiking at altitude for a couple of weeks already, we had to take it slow on the trailhead that started at 10,000′.

Bristlecone pine grove

I have to say that we were awed by these trees – living in and adapting to harsh conditions for THOUSANDS of years. Just imagine the history that has occurred in the lifetime of these trees. Of all the natural marvels we’ve seen in our travels, I think these trees rank among the most wondrous.

In addition to the hidden world underground and the amazing bristlecone pines, we also lucked out and happened to catch a stargazing event at the park. Great Basin is one of the “dark sky” National Parks, and they offer an astronomy talk and a chance to look through telescopes on Saturday nights. We were at the tail end of the season, and it was COLD sitting outside, but the talk was great and we viewed Saturn (rings!) and Andromeda and two other star clusters. Magical! Our timing was bad – the moon was nearly full so it washed out the Milky Way, but if that’s our biggest “complaint”…

Great Basin National Park is a little gem, lightly visited because it’s off the beaten path, but well worth the trip.