About five hours north of San Francisco lies Lassen Volcanic National Park. In a state that’s full of world-famous destinations for enjoying the great outdoors (Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Monument and more), Lassen tends to get overlooked. If you’re planning a trip there, this is to your advantage.
Last weekend, we spent three great days camping at Summit Lake South—right in the heart of Lassen. [View and/or copy and personalize our Lassen trip plan here] Summit Lake South is one of a dozen campgrounds administered by the National Park Service (NPS). Our campsite came equipped with a bear box, firepit and picnic table. There is potable water available throughout the campground, but no flush toilets. If that’s an important “luxury,” you’ll find them at Summit Lake North—a quarter of a mile up the road.
We found Summit Lake South to be a great place to camp as a family. There were other families around, which always takes some pressure off the parents. The kids met other children quickly and entertained themselves tracking chipmunks, exploring the meadow and throwing rocks into the water. The lake provided a welcome respite after morning hikes and we all enjoyed a dip into its cool, clear waters.
Summit Lake South Kevin Fliess 2009
Lassen is a comparatively small park, which makes it possible to see and do a lot in weekend. The highlights of the park include an ascent of 10,500-foot Lassen Peak, a hike to the geothermally active region known as Bumpass Hell or the Sulfur Works, or a jaunt to one of the dozen or so alpine lakes.
Since we were traveling with two young kids—ages 4 and 6—we tackled hikes that were rated easy to moderate. The Kings Creek Falls trail took us down a steep ravine past a series of spectacular cascades. Note to parents: Take the horse trail route down and the creekside trail up. We did it the other way around and wouldn’t recommend it. The hike follows the creek almost the entire way and offers ample opportunities for a quick dip of the toes.
Cascades at Kings Creek Falls Kevin Fliess 2009
The hike to Bumpass Hell was really spectacular with views of all the park’s tallest peaks visible throughout the journey. Bumpass Hell is probably the most interesting part of the park. It’s a geothermally active area that reeks of rotten eggs and features fumaroles (big steam vents blasting super-heated water vapor); bubbling mud pots; and streams of mineral rich, near-boiling water.)
Bumpass Hell Kevin Fliess 2009
If you want a great workout and million-dollar views, hike the signature mountain in the park—Lassen Peak. According to the NPS: “On May 22, 1915, an explosive eruption at Lassen Peak, the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range, devastated nearby areas and rained volcanic ash as far away as 200 miles to the east. This explosion was the most powerful in a 1914-17 series of eruptions that were the last to occur in the Cascades before the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Lassen Peak is the largest of a group of more than 30 volcanic domes erupted over the past 300,000 years in Lassen Volcanic National Park.”
It’s a steep 2.5-mile trail up with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Note: The final mile of the trail is closed for the season for repairs. At the top you’ll find a permament snow field and will be rewarded with 360 views of the northern Sierras and southern Cascades. On most days, Mt. Shasta is clearly visible.
Don’t overlook this great Western park. It’s not much farther from San Francisco than Yosemite and has a fraction of the summer crowds. It was our second trip to Lassen, and we will definitely go back.