First impressions make for lasting impressions. Until you meet the real thing.
Somewhere along the line, we got it in our minds that Lassen Volcanic National Park is a blend of the moon and Yellowstone sulfur springs. Not something that lit up our enthusiasm to visit.
In this case, a serious case of wrong first impressions and mistaken identity rolled into one. We’re not prepared for snow-capped mountains. Or a road that opens the day we arrive because it is finally clear of snow. Seems that Lassen had 25 feet of snow on their main road as of May 31. And there are remnants of it all around still.
With that sudden change in perspective, it’s time to see the park through fresh eyes.
The heart of the park is Mount Lassen, a recently active volcano in geological terms. Recent enough that there are excellent photos of it exploding, although in black & white/sepia toned. But since that last explosion, Lassen has recovered a lot. Forests drape the hills and mountainsides. The air is clean and fresh and snaps with clarity. The sulfur pots stink – and are indeed dangerous. They boil and bubble as advertised, and suddenly we’re feeling how awful it would be to step through the earth and into that gray goo. Yet the colors of the covering landscape are wonderfully subtle shades of pewter, gold, and browns.
Lakes and ponds and streams aplenty. With the late snow and melt, we’re presented with glacier blue water pockets in ice-filled lakes. We decide it’s time to taste the full brunt of what we thought the whole park would be – hot, steaming, mud pots and springs. Until we find out it’s a good half-day drive on a tough road, and then a 3-mile hike into some pretty stark country. After getting conflicting directions several times and blowing through almost 2 hours finding the road, we take it as a sign: don’t do this.
We back-track. Let’s go to the cinder cones and painted dunes. Imagine that – painted dunes in a volcanic park. We’re familiar with painter dunes from the Petrified Forest National Park. Full-fledged experts on the subject, we’ll be judge and jury as to whether they are painted dunes or not. This time we get the detailed map out and figure out our own directions. Even so, we almost miss the turn. What the hey – these national park and state park folks ought to get together and put up some decent signage! There are no signs anywhere to indicate the cinder cone. Just like there were no signs for the road to the hot springs and boiling mud the day before. Some game these guys are playing with the tourists.
But our perseverance pays off. 6 miles down a washboard road through a national forest and we arrive at the trail head.
What a place. Cinder path through the edge of a ponderosa pine forest. On the opposite side of the path is a landscape of broken up lava flow. It is somewhat surreal. Jan is hurting with a migraine but pushes on to the bottom of the actual cinder done.
“Good enough”, Rob says. “We’ve seen it, and that’s good enough.”
Jan insists the cone be hiked, by Rob, alone. She’ll wait at the start of the path until Rob gets back. A few minutes later, up Rob goes. Tough sledding, hiking in cinder rocks. Not cinders like the gritty stuff that made up the path through the forest.
This is rocky stuff, the size of peas. And it gives when you step, like loose gravel. Of course, hiking up the side of a cinder cone is a steep affair, so each step up brings you about half a step back. It is taxing. Much like hiking in wet snow is. It sucks the strength out of your thighs. And puts huge demands on the cardiovascular system. Taking it slowly, with several breaks, ascent is achieved in about 30 minutes.
The view is astonishing. Mount Lassen to the east, the lava flows to the west, spilling into a small fishing lake. Rolling forests up and away to another mountain to the north. And you are peering down into the inside of the cinder cone. With all the earth tones distinct and mixed together all at once. To see the dunes means a walk around the perimeter. And there they are.
Dunes. Painted. In multiple-colored stripes. Beautiful, and unbelievable. How do these things get here?
The hike down is fast and much easier, using skating-like steps as the cinders slide away beneath the feet. It works and the ride down is way easier than the hike up. Jan’s been busy (why should that surprise me) migraine and all? She’s made new friends with two families who get together annually for a Lassen Volcanic National Park experience. Great way to use the parks – outdoors and build relationships.
The cinder cone is a treat to end our visit. And a final eye-opener to this unique and eclectic park.