The Lassen Effect
Discovering Bumpass Hell, Chaos Jumbles, and the Many Marvels of Lassen Volcanic National Park.
I try not to run, if at all possible. I’d love to say that I’m signed up for every 10K in the state and my weekend doesn’t start until I get a few miles in my Nikes, but in all honesty, running has always ranked near dental treatments for me. Yet here I was, in Lassen Volcanic National Park, trying to figure out how to cover a lot of ground in a short period, and I couldn’t shake the nagging idea that I should run. Naturally, I fought it. “Sacrilege!” I argued to myself. “I should be strolling meditatively through this natural wonderland.” I imagined the ghost of John Muir nodding in solemn approval.
Packing for Lassen varies by season. Most of the park is blanketed by snow from November to April (or longer), and the trail to Lassen Peak is a snowshoe-only adventure well into the spring and sometimes, into summer. During the off-season the safest bet is to bring your own snacks—amenities are scarce. Once it warms up (and also during holiday weekends in the winter), the cafe at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center offers local craft brews, ice cream, and semi-hearty fare that’s easy to pack. As for gear, your ambition is your only limit: Paddleboards, fly rods, sleds, and more can all be put to good use around Lassen. If you want to stay a while, accommodations include camping cabins, seven campgrounds, and the rustic Drakesbad Guest Ranch. The backcountry is all natural—there are no services or facilities—so take everything you need with you. The major airports closest to the park are in Sacramento, 165 miles away, and Reno, 180 miles away.
“So then walk there, and run back,” my intrepid other self-responded.
I’d reached one of those steep slopes where regular trail rules didn’t quite apply: Walking down slowly could have led to a messy fall, but giving in to gravity and galloping down would allow for safe passage. Counterintuitively, I sped up and ran down the slope, and then when the ground rose, I zipped up the incline and kept running, even after the initial momentum wore off. I hopped neatly over tree roots, wove smartly around rocks, bounded over gullies, and, I’d like to imagine, shocked and awed chipmunks, frozen in mid-scurry.
I was running, and no one was chasing me … I was trotting up hills, and I was smiling. This, I realized, was The Lassen Effect: Exploration creates fissures in our crusts, allowing forces to surface—sometimes unexpectedly—and change our shape and perspectives.
Most people don’t just stumble upon Lassen Volcanic National Park. Tucked away in far northeastern California, the 106,372-acre park is a three-hour drive from the nearest major airport, and its two main entrances are 45 and 50 miles off the nearest interstate. Like some of the more famous parks in the West, Lassen offers sweeping grandeur and hydrothermal marvels, but it has only a fraction of the visitors and traffic, and none of the luxury hotels or bustling food courts that can be distracting for great outdoors purists. Its isolation and the no-frills set-up have engendered a fierce loyalty among its fans, who share a desire to keep their beautifully placid park exactly that.
I live down the hill in Redding, close enough to the park to take day trips there, a geographical bonus I had never managed to exploit. Then last summer, I decided to cash in on my proximity and chip away at the long list of park attractions. After hours of toggling between the park’s website, recorded hotline, and a map I picked up in town, I had a list of things I didn’t want to miss and knew I could manage in a handful of day trips. My friends’ schedules didn’t line up with mine, so I took most of my trips alone, which made it easier to convince myself to run and seemed appropriate for Lassen’s uncrowded, contemplative atmosphere.