The best spot to come face to face safely with an active volcano in California
Out of all of the fifty states of the United States, California is perhaps the state with the most notoriety. Simply put, California has just about everything, from mainstream popular culture, to stunning landscapes and everything in between. One of the lesser known facts about California is that it is a state that has had many of its iconic natural features shaped by volcanism. Even lesser known is the fact that California is a state where volcanoes are still active today. The best place to view this volcanic action safely is Lassen National Park. Lassen National Park is home to numerous volcanic features, high peaks, grassy meadows, miles of hiking trails, and the remains of an ancient volcano, Mount Tehama.
Lassen National Park is also home to Lassen Peak, which is the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Mountain range, and was the source of the largest volcanic eruption in the United States in the twentieth century. While Lassen Peak is a great hike within the park as well, the best area in the park to hike in my opinion is the Bumpass Hell. The Bumpass Hell is an area that was discovered by Kendall Bumpass in the 1800’s, and today is the largest hydrothermal area in the park. Sadly, Mr. Bumpass’ discovery was not fortuitous for him at the time, as he discovered the area in part by falling into a hydrothermal pool, which caused severe burns on his legs, and ultimately caused him to lose a leg. Fortunately, today, the area is kept safe by the National Park Service, and visitors can see the amazing hydrothermal features and keep their legs intact.
Visitors should be aware that Lassen National Park is also a high alpine location, with elevations ranging from 8,000 feet to above 10,000 feet. It is also the place in California that regularly receives the most snow. Correspondingly, the park, and the Bumpass Hell trail are closed in the winter time. However, during the late spring to early fall months, the Bumpass Hell trail is an area of the park that all visitors should experience. The Bumpass Hell trail leaves from the Bumpass Hell parking area at slightly above 8,000 feet, which is located near the southern entrance to Lassen National Park.
When I arrived at the trailhead in July, parking was somewhat scarce, but I was able to find a spot, and also found that while the trail was popular, I did not feel like it was crowded with people. After a tenth of a mile, I stopped to gaze at the high alpine lake next to Lassen Peak, before continuing on the relatively flat ascent along the side of Bumpass Mountain. At .9 miles, I found myself at an overlook which discussed ancient Mount Tehama, the original volcano present on the site; and I realized that everything I saw before me – crater, jagged peaks and all, had been part of that thousands of years ago, which was something that was stunning to learn.
It is also worth noting that during the first mile of the hike, I could not see the actual Bumpass Hell – all I could see were the stunning views of the park – trees, mountains, and sky. Shortly after the overlook, I found myself looking down into the Bumpass Hell – an area that seemed like it did not belong in the surrounding terrain. In the Bumpass Hell, I could see fantastical colors that were not present elsewhere in the mountains, as well as the centerpiece of the Bumpass Hell – the extremely hot and steaming hydrothermal pool known as the Big Boiler.
I followed the trail down into the Bumpass Hell, and felt like I had left Lassen National Park, and entered another world. In some respects, I had – I had left the safety of the normal, non-active Cascade Range, and entered the active volcanic area of the Cascade Range. This area of the park is as noted above, the most volcanically active. In order to ensure visitor safety, protect visitor legs, and preserve the features in the region the National Park Service has constructed a walkway for visitors to view the hydrothermal features from. As I walked the walkway, I marveled at the various streams that cross the volcanic wasteland, heated to absurd temperatures. I also gawked at the various fumaroles and mud pots bubbling in the area, and was awed by the Big Boiler – the largest geyser in the basin. Once I was done smelling the sulfurous fumes of the Cascade Range, I turned around, and walked back for a moderate 2.6 mile roundtrip hike through one of the most unique landscapes I have ever seen, happy that I had seen it and experienced it without losing a leg.