Hell and Back

I would be lying if I said that I knew much about Lassen Volcanic National Park before we arrived there on a sunny afternoon in June. I’d never even heard of it before researching for points of interest between Portland and Redwood, so I didn’t have many preconceived expectations about the park. I had picked out one hike that I wanted to do, but a quick glance at Lassen’s website the night before revealed that the Bumpass Hell Trail was closed because of snow. I frantically searched the park website for anything similar to do, but nothing I found looked quite as cool as Bumpass Hell, so I turned to AllTrails to try to glean more information. There I found that hikers were saying the trail was indeed closed, but that Bumpass Hell could still be accessed via a more strenuous route that started at a spot called Cold Boiling Lake.

“More strenuous” here meant about 1,000 feet of elevation gain over 2.5 miles; a total of 5 miles round-trip, so we felt confident that we’d make it to Bumpass with no problems. We did however, pack an excess of water because the day had already become scorchingly hot and sunny by the time we arrived at the Manzanita Lake entrance of Lassen Volcanic.

The ranger at the entrance station provided us with a map and brochure, and I navigated as Vince drove us to the King’s Creek picnic area. I made note of several points of interest along the way just in case we had time to go back and check out anything after our hike. I also read about how Lassen is home to four different types of volcanoes-plug dome, composite, shield, and cinder cone. Lassen Peak, a large plug dome volcano, last erupted in the early 20th century, and forming many of the geological features of the park.

King’s Creek was busy when we arrived, but we found a parking spot where we ate some quick snacks, drank a lot of water, and slathered on some sunscreen before hitting the trail. Cold Boiling Lake was only a short walk from the parking lot, and I was glad that it wasn’t our final destination. We could see little areas where bubbles floated to the lake’s surface, but the area is dying so it was somewhat underwhelming in terms of hydrothermal action.

We kept following the trail along the perimeter of the lake until it veered uphill through a beautiful forest of imposing red fir trees, some of them covered in brilliant lime green lichen. A user on AllTrails had described this section of the hike as boring, but I completely disagreed. Every now and then, a break in the trees would open up to a view of sparkling lakes in a lush valley, and the hike was steep enough to feel interesting without crossing the line into strenuous.

We took frequent breaks to drink water in the shade because the sun was so intense, but the hike flew by and before I was really expecting it, we started to find clues that we had almost reached our destination. Mounds of chalky, white earth were piled up in the distance, and the distinct smell of sulphur tingled our nostrils, indicating that there were hot springs nearby. I grew increasingly excited as the smell of rotten eggs became more potent because I knew we were getting closer to Bumpass Hell. We crested a final hill to see the geyser basin sprawling out before us.

By some stroke of luck, we’d manage to arrive at a time where there were relatively few other hikers around, so we were able to enjoy the area without feeling like we were being crowded off of the boardwalk (*cough *cough Yellowstone). We watched steam rising from colorful pools, and I mused over how this place could’ve gotten such an odd name. It’s not uncommon for spectacular natural features in the US to be named after hell or the devil, which used to seem strange to me. How could people look at such beautiful things and them name them after the worst thing they can imagine? What I’ve begun to realize is that this isn’t some antiquated form of hyperbole, but rather these places have become much easier and safer to visit. I imagined myself coming across this landscape without the safety of the boardwalk to keep me from breaking through the earth’s crust and plunging my legs into boiling acidic water. Thinking about it like that made it easier to see how this place could be named after hell.

Later I learned how on-the-nose my theory was. The basin was named after Kendall Bumpass, who came across the area in the 1860’s. He had the very real misfortune of breaking through the crust and suffering severe burns on one of his legs, which later had to be amputated.

Strolling along the boardwalk as mudpots bubbled nearby and sulphuric steam filled the air felt like being in a miniature version of Yellowstone, which is my favorite National Park in spite of its large crowds. I was particularly drawn to the intricate patterns created by a river flowing with acidic water and a couple of pools that were a beautiful turquoise color.

We weren’t in a rush, so we slowly walked the boardwalk twice before heading back downhill to the Cold Boiling Lake and then our car. For some reason the return hike felt longer even though we were descending, and I was desperately hot by the time we got back.

I directed Vince to the nearby Lake Helen, where we soaked our feet in its frigid glacial water while enjoying a view of Lassen Peak.

We consulted our map once again and decided it would be best to leave the park back at Manzanita Lake because it was the most direct way to get to the campground we’d be sleeping at. There was enough day left for us to do another hike and we opted for the Manzanita Lake Trail, which started at a popular day use area.

Many families were making use of the picnic area and swimming and canoeing in the lake, but the crowd dispersed quickly once we started walking. The shore of the lake was populated with swarms of iridescent damselflies, and we stopped to watch a couple of families of bufflehead ducks (I think) diving underwater. The ducklings looked like tiny little cotton balls floating on the surface.

This trail also offered another view of Lassen Peak.

Before we made it back to the car we encountered some sort of lizard, and a blacktail deer. The trail was about two miles long and by the time we got to the day use area we were both hungry for dinner. Luckily there was one open restaurant near our campground, so we feasted on pizza while excitedly planning for our arrival in Redwood the next day.

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