Within Lassen Volcanic National Park, at a chilly 8,000 feet in elevation, is a phantasmagoric location known as Bumpass Hell.
Bumpass Hell is the park’s largest hydrothermal area, but to many visitors, it appears unnatural, like a scene created by the imagination. Just hiking to the location suggests this is an irregular place. First, the pungent odor of rotten eggs rudely greets the nose. Then the landscape changes appearance; friendly greens and browns retreat to display barren, mineral stained soils of tan, orange, and yellow. Finally, looking into the active basin the ground’s surface is reminiscent of another world, it is etched, pocked and corroded; ghostly apparitions of steam hiss into the air while numerous mudpots pop and gurgle, and aquamarine pools roll with superheated water. It is harsh looking and very beautiful.
A wooden boardwalk allows for more safe exploration of the area. Posted signs stress the importance of staying on designated paths for safety reasons. Bumpass Hell was named after an early visitor who severely burned his leg upon falling through the surface’s thin crust and into boiling water.
Upon leaving, the crude odor of Bumpass Hell diminishes with distance, but it haunts the nose for a long time afterward.
The hydrothermal area is accessible by two trails. The popular three-mile hike begins at the Bumpass Hell parking lot, on Hwy 89, and requires several hours for a round trip. The elevation gain is about 300 feet. Be prepared for a crowded parking area and a busy trail in the summer. If you seek a less explored route the trail leading from the Kings Creek trailhead is very rewarding. This five-mile trail passes through majestic forests, crosses gentle brooks, and meanders through an area of volcanic formations that are layered and twisted. Plan for a hike that covers roughly 800 feet of elevation gain. In the summer, look for retreated snow banks that are hidden in the woods just off the trail.
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Lassen Volcanic National Park is a great location to start one’s day.
I woke early in the morning. My family slept silently next to me in their warm sleeping bags. I was careful not to wake them as I left the tent. The sky was a mixture of pastel blues, soft pinks and warm yellows as the sun was starting to rise. No one in the campground was awake; if they were they treaded quietly.
The morning was very cool and I was glad to have my jacket as I walked through the campground. The shadows were quietly retreating and shades of gray were slowly being chased away by the morning’s gaining light. The tips of the hundred-foot trees surrounding the campsite were brightly dolloped with sunlight.
Adjacent to the campground was the beautiful Summit Lake. It was spangled with wisps of moisture that danced off the water’s surface into the morning air.
Everything was amazingly still. The only sounds were my soft footsteps on the earthen path that follows the lake’s gentle perimeter. At the lake’s edge, in some places, the water granted peaks into the stillness and you could gaze for many feet along the trunk of a fallen tree.
Breaking the morning’s quiet was a squirrel. It barked at me, while upside-down, from the side of a nearby tree. I had offended his solitary morning. I took leave and walked further down the trail, enjoying the newness of the day.
The sun had crested the trees on the east side of the lake and now fully illuminated the trees on the opposite shore, revealing a curtained wall of greens, browns, and tans.
In the distance, the great dome-shaped volcano of Mt Lassen commanded the horizon. The impressive scene was mirrored on the still lake before me. A great heavenly painting was being created and I was witnessing the Creator’s casual brush strokes. I felt almost prideful to be the only human witness of this beauty.
A mother duck and seven babies glided across the majestic natural painting. Their tiny wakes slowly moved across the colorful canvas, blurring the stillness and bending the reflections into a shimmering pallet of colors on the water.
Subway Cave in northern California is an easy, affordable and fun way to discover the area’s volcanic past.
Subway Cave is a lava tube that lies just under the rough surface of Lassen National Forest. Visitors can easily park and walk a short distance to the cave’s opening where stairs descend about twenty-five feet down into the darkness.
The cave walk is only 1,300 feet in distance but is otherworldly compared to the bright surface and hot summertime temperatures. The visibility inside the lava tube quickly becomes zero, so flashlights are required. Also, bring a light jacket, as the temperature inside the cave is an autumn-like 46 degrees. The cave has several chambers to explore and signs are marked to help guide you to the exit.
At the exit notice the large ‘hills’ that rise several hundred feet to the east, these are the edges of ancient lava flows. Also, look for the magnificent Lassen Peak to the south. The walk back to the car is about ten minutes. Subway Cave can easily be explored by family members of all ages.