Yosemite and Sequoia.
Grand Canyon North Rim, Grand Canyon South Rim.
Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches.
Name virtually any national park in the Western U.S. and I’d say “Been there, done that.”
So which is my hands-down favorite? Lassen, in north central California, miles away from Interstate 5 chock-a-block with cars and big rigs, off the well-trodden national park path, and far from the madding crowd of tourists you’ll encounter in those better known parks I just mentioned.
Here’s what Lassen is all about.
Heaven and Hell
Like the other mountains in the Cascade Range, Lassen has blown its top, although not as catastrophically as Mount St. Helens in southern Washington or Mount Mazama in southern Oregon whose remnant “rain barrel” is the centerpiece of Crater Lake National Park.
Lassen Volcanic National Park may fume and steam, but its last explosive eruption was in 1915. Today, you can visit the park without having to worry about being hit on the pate by a flying piece of hot pumice.
This time-lapse video gives you a sense of how much the park changes over the course of a year as snow falls and then melts away.
What to Do
You could tour Lassen Volcanic National Park in day if you’re content to drive the 30-mile through-the-park highway, stopping along the way for some short excursions.
But Lassen is a great day-hikers park, and its four sections offer varied landscapes and opportunities for outdoor activities like bird watching, boating, fishing, horseback riding and stargazing. And, of course, it’s a terrific place to photograph the natural world.
Here are itineraries suggested by the National Park Service for visits to Lassen of one day, or two or more days.
Where to Stay
Unlike parks such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, Lassen doesn’t have a grand, historic and pricey hotel. But there are two places where you can sleep indoors within the park.
Although the lodge at Manzanita Lake on the west side of the park where I bunked back on my first visit to Lassen in 1972 is long gone, 20 basic cabins (no electricity or indoor “facilities”) opened in 2011.
These cabins are extremely popular, and many are booked well in advance of the park’s late spring to early summer opening. But a couple of those cabins are available without advance reservations on a first-come-first-served basis, and on certain dates for this summer and fall you may find a few available that you can reserve before your arrival in the park.
So if you have “National Park Cabin Karma,” you might not have to sleep under the stars or in a tent in that part of the park.
The only full-service lodging within Lassen is at Drakesbad Guest Ranch in the southeastern section of the park. Room rates include three meals a day.
Drakesbad has its share of adult guests traveling without children, but for decades it has been a family-friendly place. For each paying adult guest, one child under 12 sleeps and eats free. So a stay for two parents and two kids costs the same as it would if the parents came on their own. (Discounted rates are offered to “Young Adults” ages 13-17.) And the resort has increased its special activities for kids.
In the past, getting a reservation at Drakesbad often involved divine intervention. If you didn’t phone early, you’d have to pray that you’d be lucky enough to find that there was “room at the inn” for the dates that you need it.
Why? Because like many long-established small mountain resorts, two and three generations of family members would come back to stay together each and every year. Groups of friends would book for next year during this year’s stay. There were so many repeat customers that newcomers had the proverbial snowball’s chance in Bumpass Hell to get in.
But, time changes things, including how families travel.
Today, most families have two wage-earners whose time off from work can be difficult to coordinate. Single-parent families have to figure out who-gets-the-kids-when and where-are-you-taking-them-so-I-can-figure-out-where-to-take-them.
And kids go back to school in mid-to-late August these days, not after Labor Day as was the case when I was growing up way back in the last century.
What does all that mean? It means that if you contact Drakesbad now, the odds of being able to book a stay for this summer or, better yet, in September, are greater than they would have been in years past.
Go For It!
Horace Greely is famously quoted for saying “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country!”
Whether you’re young or old, or somewhere in between, I say “Go to Lassen, and and let the park grow on you!”
If You Go
Lassen Volcanic National Park is located in northeastern California, about 50 miles east of Redding and 45 miles east of Red Bluff. (Click here for driving directions to the park.)
San Francisco Bay Area airports to the southwest of Lassen, are four hours or more drive from the park.
Although the park is open year-round, the highway through it is closed by snow during the winter and its re-opening date varies depending on the depth of the snowpack. (Click here for current road, trail, weather, and campground status.)
Be sure to read the “Things to Know Before You Come” section of the Lassen Volcanic National Park Website.
While it is possible to hike to the summit of Mount Lassen—I did it back in 1972—work being done on the trail means that access to the peak will be restricted during 2013.
(Photos courtesy of the Lassen National Volcanic Park Flickr photostream. Thanks to the hospitality of the park concessionaire, Tales Told From The Road publisher Dick Jordan will be making yet another trip to Lassen National Park this summer.)