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.

Fall Color in Salt Lake

Autumn has always been my favorite season – the crunch of leaves underfoot, cooler temps and trees sporting beautiful color. We saw some nice color in Salt Lake – a consolation prize for cutting our Yellowstone/Grand Teton trip short.

We lived in Salt Lake for two years when we were in grad school at the U of Utah in the early 90s, and we loved spending our rare free time in nearby Big Cottonwood Canyon. It was a no-brainer to head back up there to do a little hiking and to see our favorite ski area before the snow flies… and to savor a little fall color.

Hidden Falls wasn’t all that hidden!

The higher you go up the canyon the color is less splashy since the landscape is mostly evergeens and quaking aspen… but it’s still beautiful.

Silver Lake is a cross-country ski area in the winter, but the rest of the year it’s a big pond surrounded by meadow and forest.

We took the chance to drive up Guardsman Pass – closed in the winter since it’s covered in deep snow. At an altitude of 9700′, we could see far and wide towards the Park City side of the mountains…. though it’s too high for much color.

We had a blast checking out our stomping grounds at Brighton Ski Resort at the top of the canyon – it looked so funny all green. We put the drone in the air partway up the canyon, and again up at Brighton… enjoy.

Coming back down the canyon the splashy fall color returned… so pretty.

Now we’re off to Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. And to get there, we’ll drive across a big chunk of America’s great basin!

More Yellowstone

640,000 years ago a massive volcanic explosion formed a caldera 45 miles long by 28 miles wide and over a half-mile deep – and that was the third cataclysmic event that helped form what we know as Yellowstone National Park today.

The purple circle in the middle of the map shows the edges of the enormous caldera, and underneath it (as well as the rest of the park), the earth’s roiling super-heated magma comes close to the surface causing fumeroles, geysers, mud pots, and hot springs. The earth seems angry as it steams and erupts all around the Yellowstone landscape.

The chilly air meeting the hot steam at the Grand Prismatic Spring made it impossible to see the clear blue water and rainbow colors of the heat-loving bacteria surrounding it, but I loved the mysterious feeling of walking through the billowing clouds.

Runoff from the Grand Prismatic Spring makes these vivid rust-colored streams…

…and other hot springs had similar runoff streams, all in eye-popping colors…

…originating from impossibly blue pools.

Old Faithful didn’t disappoint with a good sized eruption…

…and we were awed by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River – this is the more dramatic lower falls.

The deep canyon is cut by water flowing along the Yellowstone River from the 136 square miles of Yellowstone Lake.

Of course we encountered a number of wildlife sightings in our explorations around the park. Trumpeter swans…

…adorable chipmunks…

…massive bison…

…and a nice fat grizzly bear foraging before winter.

All the while, sulfuric acid dissolves rock to create plopping, spurting mud pots…

…and water finds its way through the Earth’s thin crust to create steaming pools of scalding water. There’s a lot of beauty in the many ways the angry earth makes itself known here.

All the while, delicate beauty is all around – you just have to look past the steam to see it!

We had so many plans for our precious days in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons just to the south, but a big winter storm with snow and frigid temps was heading our way. The safe bet was to get out of its path ahead of time, so sadly we had to cut our visit short and head for better weather in Salt Lake City.