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Originally published Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 7:06 PM

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Snowshoe in a winter wonderland at Lassen Volcanic National Park

On a wintry evening outside Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California, I snowshoed alone on a snow-packed trail lit by a round...

The Washington Post

If You Go

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Where to stay

Lassen Mineral Lodge is nine miles from the park (on Highway 36), with a restaurant and bar, a general store and snowshoe rentals. Rates from $75 a night.

St. Bernard Lodge is a B&B near the southeast entrance of the park and Lake Almanor.

Where to snowshoe

Make some tracks around Sulphur Works, a steamy geothermal area, near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the southwest entrance, or Manzanito Lake in the northwest.

For a group outing, park rangers lead guided snowshoe tours on Saturdays and Sundays. $1 donation suggested for use of equipment. Snowshoes are provided for those who need them; minimum age is 8. Tours depart each weekend day at 1:30 p.m. from outside the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. The snowshoe walks last 1 ½ to 2 hours.

More information

Lassen Volcanic National Park: Admission to the park: $5 per pedestrian, $10 per car. 530-595-4480 or


On a wintry evening outside Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California, I snowshoed alone on a snow-packed trail lit by a round, plump moon. The stars overhead sparkled like glitter on a black velvet cloth. I had no destination except to go deep into the darkness, relying on the sky to illuminate my path and my snowshoes to keep the course.

But then I heard howls. Distant, but clear. A call of the wild that could have been a communal shout-out, a "hey there" among coyote friends, or a "yum, dinner smells good" signal.

Ah, the exhilaration of snowshoeing in and around parkland that resembles a snow globe, stocked and shaken by Mother Nature.

"The open and flat spaces and the depth and type of snow make it perfect for snowshoeing," said Steve Zachary, a veteran park ranger who started Lassen's guided snowshoe program in the mid-1980s. "Within minutes, you're having a wilderness experience, finding solitude and beauty without the worry of going too far."

To snowshoe, you obviously need snow, and the national park set at the confluence of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Range delivers: about 400 to 500 inches per season, which runs November through April in the lower elevations (6,700 feet) and until early July on the higher peaks.

Towering snowbanks line the road to the park entrance, burying road signs and dwarfing the conifers. Inside the park, the volcanoes look as if they've been iced by a generous cake decorator. Only the hydrothermal areas, with their curlicues of steam and boiling bubbles, hint of a warm heart beneath the Earth's frozen crust.

"The park is snowbound and cold. Solitude is abundant," reads the park literature. The passage describes the stark conditions, but I note a hint of Robert Frost lyricism in the words.

The sense of isolation and remoteness grows exponentially when officials close the 30-mile Main Park Road, the only motorized route through the park's interior, for the winter season. (The road closed on Nov. 8 this season.)

To get around during winter, you must drive around the park's perimeter or think like an Arctic explorer. Or don snowshoes and take a guided tour: Every weekend from December through April (this season the snowshoe tours began on Dec. 26 and continues through April 3), the park leads snowshoe hikes. The one- or two-mile excursions showcase the park's winter landscape and geologic history.

"If you want to make your own trails, you just see where the guy before you went and go the other way." said Nick Roll, a park interpreter and snowshoe guide. On 105,000 acres of protected land, there's no shortage of other ways. Just don't rely on your tracks to lead you home. Footprints have a tendency to disappear quickly.

Established in 1916, Lassen is the little national park that could — and does, but with subtlety. Fifty miles east of Redding, Calif., it receives about 45,000 guests in winter, and its annual visitor numbers (nearly 400,000) equal a summer month's count in Yosemite.

"It's almost like having your own national park," said Russell Virgilio, a park interpreter. "It's so quiet you can hear the snow settling on your jacket."

That's not all your ears will pick up. In the geothermal areas, such as Bumpass Hell and Devil's Kitchen, you can listen to Earth's subterranean rumblings, including the burbles of mud pots and the whoosh of steam vents. All this ruckus means that Lassen Peak, which last erupted less than a century ago, may still have some kick left in its lava dome.

"Lassen is active but dormant," said Virgilio. "It may wake up, or it may never wake up."

The 10,457-foot volcano isn't the only erupter inside the federal boundaries. The park has the distinction of being the only place on the planet — yes, the planet — to contain all four types of volcanoes: shield, plug dome, cinder cone and composite.

With some guidance from a park ranger, or a cheat sheet from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the southwest entrance, you can get to know them on a first-name basis: Mount Harkness and Prospect Peak (shield); Lassen Peak, Chaos Crags and Bumpass Mountain (plug dome); Hat Mountain, Cinder Cone and Fairfield Peak (cinder cone); and Brokeoff Mountain, Mount Diller, Pilot Pinnacle and Mount Conard (remnants of the composite).

In terms of major drama, Lassen Peak would be a shoo-in for an end-of-the-world Hollywood blockbuster. The volcano erupted on May 30, 1914, and spent the remainder of the year burping steam more than 150 times. A year later, on May 19, lava bubbled up and over, the hot molten rock cascading a thousand feet down the western slope.

On the opposite flank, lava chunks combined forces with ash and snow, creating a mud flow that stretched 18 miles. Yet the volcano wasn't quite finished. Its final cough occurred three days later, with a blast that shot ash five miles heavenward. Then, it slept — fitfully.

Seismologists are constantly tracking the volcano, which frees up snowshoers to happily trudge atop 20 feet of snow that blankets Lassen.

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