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Sunday 20 Oct 2013
Lassen, USA

Sunbeams, snow drifts and steaming Hell on Earth

I headed back up to McArthur Burney State Park to get a better look at the Burney Falls and followed the trail down to the river.  The falls were still in the shade, as the sun hadn’t yet climbed high enough. I was still too early to catch the rainbows but the sunbeams through the trees stood out beautifully in the spray from the falls.  The easy trail wound down to the base of the falls and along the river, before crossing over and climbing back up through the woods on the other side.

I finally got on the road and rolled into Lassen National Park at midday.  The America the Beautiful pass we’d bought three weeks ago was finally useable again, but I still wouldn't be able to cover what we'd paid for it.  The ranger on the gate suggested I may be able to claim back the cost of the pass, depending on what the government decided to do. 

My parents spent several years visiting the National Parks across the States when they lived here and remembered Lassen as one of their favourites, so I was looking forward to exploring. Before 1916, there was a super volcano covering half of what is now Lassen Volcanic Park.  The eruption took half the height off the volcano and created the caldera that is now formed by Lassen Peak, Diamond Peak, Brokeoff Mountain and a few other smaller ones, though most of the caldera has worn away to the south.  The eruption caused avalanches that carried boulders up to four miles away and left such a large trail of devastation that the area still bears the scars almost a hundred years later.  Manzanita Lake was as still as glass, reflecting the trees and peaks around it.  I followed the road through Lassen, stopping at each viewpoint as it climbed slowly to the highest elevation of 8000' on the edge of Lassen Peak.  The temperature dropped considerably in the shade and there were patches of snow where the sun couldn’t reach them, but the sun was still strong enough that I didn’t need more than a t-shirt.  Descending into the southern part of the valley, the road wound around until it reached an area known as Suphur Works.  Right next to the road was a billowing cloud of steam rising from a bubbling mud pool.  On the other side, there was a small cleft with a stream running down the middle.  The sides of this cleft were covered in bright streaks of yellow, ochre and white sulphur deposits and the whole area stank of rotten eggs.  There had previously been a boardwalk leading further into the area but this had become unstable and been closed off. 

I carried on through the rest of the Park and on to a small town called Chester, by Lake Almanor, where I found a bed for the night and a Chinese takeaway.  I later discovered I could have stayed a lot closer to Lassen, but it was a scenic drive and a nice little town so I didn’t worry too much. I made my way back up to Lassen the next morning to pick up where I left off.  The Bumpass Hell trail runs for 2.4 miles straight into the geothermic heart of the Park.  The first section weaves between trees and boulders and climbs slowly up to a ridge.  Again, it was hot in the sun and very cold in the shade, so before long I had abandoned my fleece and enjoyed the refreshing coolness of the shade as a respite from the heat of the day.  From the ridge, the trail descends steeply into a valley filled with steaming vents, bubbling pools, acid streams and swathes of brightly coloured sulphur deposits.

This area was discovered by an explorer named Bumpass, who had led a team to photograph the results of the 1916 eruption. He had suffered major burns to his foot and ankle after sinking through the fragile crust of earth into one of the boiling pools. This was the former heart of the super volcano and remains very active. Snowmelt and ground water sinks through the porous rock until it approaches the superheated rock near the fault line.  It then heats up and rises back to the surface before billowing out of the fumaroles as steam or boiling in the pools.  It was very peculiar to see snow on the side of the ridge within 20m of this sulphurous boiling landscape. A thick, solid boardwalk wound between the pools and steam vents to carry visitors safely through the area with warning signs to advise against straying from the path.  I had a chat with one of the rangers, who told me about the history of the area.  It was absolutely fascinating and made me regret even more having missed the similar areas in New Zealand, back in February.  At least I will have a chance to revisit Rotorua next year.

I would have liked to climb the cinder cone on the eastern side of Lassen National Park, but it meant a 40-mile drive around the outside to reach it.  It was then a strenuous 4-mile hike each way over loose scree in the full heat of the day, more than half of which is spent climbing the cone itself.  While this didn’t sound impossible, I was reluctant to go on my own when there were so few other visitors in the area, just in case anything happened.  Instead, I enjoyed the drive back through Lassen and made my way west again until I reached the Interstate, then followed it south to the state capital, Sacramento.  I hadn’t planned where to stay, but Bill had advised visiting Old Sacramento, so I checked into the Hostelling International youth hostel a few blocks away.  As it was Sunday, I was able to park directly outside for free.  The hostel is in a gorgeous gothic Victorian mansion.  I booked a single room, which turned out to be one of the old servants’ quarters in the attic – a room with the dimensions of a prison cell – but it served my purpose.  After so much driving in the last few days I didn’t want to be disturbed by others in a dorm room. 


Mileage: 1155

Running total: 3,845

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