“[From the summit of Lassen Peak, the] arch of dawn rises and spreads along the distant eastern horizon…Its rosy light gilds the cone of red cinders across the crater from where we are. Mount Shasta comes out clear and well defined; the gray twilight bathing the dark mountains below grows warmer and lighter, the moon and stars fade, the shadowy forms rapidly assume distinct shapes, and day comes on apace…Many volcanic cones rise, sharp and steep, some with craters in their tops, into which we can see – circular hollows, like great nests of fabulous birds.”
-William H. Brewer, California Geological Survey, September 29, 1863
“On the whole it is difficult to imagine a region where the more striking phenomena of nature are developed on a grander scale or in a manner calculated to appeal more strongly to the average individual.”
-Columbia University professor Douglas W. Johnson, Department of the Interior memorandum, August 9, 1916
The southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, quietly born and raised on the flanks of decrepit Mount Tehama more than 27,000 years ago, would have largely escaped public notice if it had just kept sleeping. Named after the enterprising if slightly feckless Dutch emigrant Peter Lassen, who pioneered a route west through that range in the 1830s, Lassen Peak at 10,457 feet is bigger than anything else around it, but it is not that big. From base to summit is a mere 2,000 feet, owing to the general loftiness of the area. It is but one craggy remnant among many—to wit: Brokeoff Mountain, Bumpass Mountain, Mount Conrad, Mount Diller, Eagle Peak, Diamond Peak and others—encircling the sunken core of Mount Tehama. Despite its designation as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, Lassen Peak remained almost unheard of outside northern California for several more years, quiescent and remote and unreachable by transcontinental rail, and thus unknown.
The white settlers that flocked to Lassen in the latter nineteenth century to mine and raise livestock found the peak sublime, in a staid, picturesque sort of way. They thought it was dead. They built ranches, cabins, and health spas near the many springs, hoping to woo well-heeled tourists. Summering West Coasters from as early as the 1860s traveled to Lassen and its adjacent peaks to hunt and fish and “take in the waters,” all the time believing that the rock beneath their feet was inert, lifeless. While considering Lassen as a monument, Roosevelt was informed that the volcanism which had given rise to it had long since burned out. There would be no further cataclysms, he was assured: Lassen was spent.
No one thought to ask the aboriginal inhabitants about the mountain. The Atsugewi, Maidu, Yahi, and Yana were never especially populous tribes—at their combined peak they may have numbered 5,000 or so—but they had dwelled on Tehama’s slopes for centuries, hunting deer, elk, mountain sheep, pronghorn, mountain lion, black and grizzly bears and possibly bison. They followed forage through the seasons, moving from lowland to highland as snowpack permitted. They fished for salmon and trout, gathered acorns and berries, trapped quail, rabbits, porcupines, badgers, geese, ducks. They were familiar with the active volcanism apparent throughout the area—the superheated, mineralized springs; the boiling mud pots and mephitic fumaroles; the hissing vents of steam. They did not likely miss the 750-foot Cinder Cone’s eruption in 1666, which spewed ash and a’a basalt over an area thirty miles squared in a south-to-southeast swath. The lava emerged at almost 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, steam-rolling the soil and incinerating everything in its path. In the shadow of Tehama, the natives took note of these chthonic phenomena, endeavoring to remain on the mountain’s good side—they had learned their Lassen. If Roosevelt or anyone else had deigned to ask an Atsugewi or a Maidu their prognosis of Lassen Peak, he might have been told that, “Clearly, the mountain is full of fire and water—clearly it will one day blow itself apart.”
That day arrived on May 30, 1914. A rancher named Bert McKenzie saw a dense black cloud billowing over the peak and telephoned the forest supervisor, who ran to his rangers and exclaimed, “Mount Lassen is in eruption!” Instead of fleeing, Ranger Harvey Abbey snowshoed toward the volcano the next morning, climbing the dome and peering into the newly-formed concavity. “From the crater and crevasse were coming puffs of steam and ashes,” he later wrote. “Noises coming from the crater were heard that sounded like something dropping down in the bottom of the crater…Along the sides of the crater were small, round holes, where the steam was gushing out.”
A sleeping giant had awoken, and suddenly everyone hither and yon wanted to catch a glimpse of Lassen rumbling to life. Ranger Abbey repeatedly led media crews to the summit to film the smoking crater. U.S. survey geologist J.S. Miller, who in 1889 had published a comprehensive geologic history of the region—he concluded that the volcano was extinct—stopped by to witness just how wrong he had been. Locals and tourists alike ascended the peak in droves, seemingly oblivious to the peril literally emanating from the volatile pit. A party of 33 geologists visiting from Vermont, New York, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania lodged at the Drakesbad guest ranch and rode horses to the summit. Everyone came away impressed. “People did not want to see anything else around here,” remarked a local outfitting guide, one of Lassen’s many profiteers. “All they wanted to do was climb that Peak.”
On the morning of June 14, 1914, a group of millers from nearby Manton, out to see Lassen’s rousings for themselves, stood at the crater’s rim as it was actively erupting. They fled downslope as ash and fist-sized rocks fell from the sky all around them. One miller, a Lance Graham, was struck in the head and knocked unconscious. He lay sprawled on the talus, exposed. After reaching shelter hours later, his three friends sent out a search party, fearing the worst. They found him half buried in rubble. Lance Graham was alive, concussed, with deep lacerations on his scalp and three broken ribs, a broken collarbone. Amateur photographer Benjamin Franklin Loomis, a local sawmill owner, happened to be shooting the volcano that same day, and his six-photo series of an ash cloud towering almost half a mile over Lassen would become iconic, the most widely disseminated images of the eruption. He had driven his brand-new convertible to a flat vantage northwest of the dome, near Manzanita Lake, to set up his tripod. As the cloud collapsed and began rolling down the western flank, Loomis snapped his final photos and hopped into his car to escape. More accustomed to horsepower of the equine rather than the automotive sort, he excitedly yelled, “Get it up!” and groped for imaginary reins.
Lassen in 1914 was just beginning to shake off its slumber, fitfully. Over the next three years many dozens of minor eruptions would occur, some producing pillars of steam and ash, others ejecting vesiculated rock thousands of feet into the air, still others triggering floods, avalanches and lahars. Each one further denuded Lassen’s slopes, widening a corridor of destruction that would eventually stretch 25 miles northeast of the mountain. The largest shudder was on May 22, 1915, in which a column of ash and gas rose 30,000 feet above the peak, visible 150 miles distant in Eureka. Ash would drift down on Winnemucca, Nevada, 200 miles to the east. After this, Lassen seemed to settle down—one can imagine the giant turning over onto its back, fluffing its lava pillow, commenced to snoring once more. By 1917 Lassen was nearly done stirring, and after 1921 no further activity was noted. Almost 300 eruptions were recorded in a seven-year span. Amazingly, in spite of the bewildering lack of common sense exhibited by all involved, not a single person was killed by volcanism during this period. Lassen had woken up, gotten the nation’s attention without too much to-do, and determinedly gone back to bed. On August 9, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Lassen Volcanic National Park Act into law. Now officially recognized, after all the hullabaloo and hot air and off-gassing, the giant could finally rest in peace.
At 106, 452 acres, Lassen Volcanic National Park is of middling size compared to its compatriots—nearby Yosemite is seven times larger, Joshua Tree also seven times larger, Sequoia four times, Channel Islands twice as big plus change. The recent Rim Fire burned 256,000 acres in and around Yosemite, two and a half Lassens worth of Sierra Nevada wilderness torched to the ground. But Lassen’s compact area works to its advantage. There’s quite a lot to see—volcanoes of every sort, boiling springs, at least forty named lakes, wildlife galore—and because everything is relatively proximate, seeing most of it can easily be accomplished in a week of backcountry hiking and camping.
Each of the four volcano types found on earth—the shield, the plug dome, the cinder cone and the composite—is represented within the park’s borders, and sometimes numerously so. Lassen Peak, a plug dome, is among the world’s largest, composed almost entirely of dacite and quietly marking the southern terminus of active volcanism within the Cascades. Geothermal areas abound—Bumpass Hell is particularly well-known, with its murky pyritic springs stinking of sulfur, its mud pots plopping away, fumaroles roaring like jet engines. The highest road in the Cascades winds through Lassen, a sinuous, heart-stoppingly scenic strip 29 miles long, eventually rising to 8,512 feet above sea level. The Pacific Crest Trail spends seventeen miles inside the park, linking up with the Nobles Emigrant Trail near Soap Lake. In all, 150 miles of trail transect Lassen, concatenating the lakes and volcanoes and traversing a stunning variety of habitats, from riparian glens and manzanita bluffs to lava-scoured slopes; spindly conifer forests to sun-splashed lacustrine beaches. Hiking west to east, the substrate underfoot changes from gray-white dioritic gravel to black sandy basalt.
Biogeographically, the park hosts a conflux of three distinct ecosystems: Sierra Nevada to the south, Cascades to the north, Great Basin to the east. More than 800 plant species are found in Lassen; the park delineates the northern range limit for 24 Sierran species and the southern limit for 14 Cascadian ones. It is possible, within a day’s hike, to see quaking aspen, Jeffrey pine, mountain hemlock, incense cedar, red fir, Douglas fir, juniper, California black oak, black cottonwood and red alder, among others. There is lupine, mule ear, corn lily, rabbitbrush, chinquapin and snowplant. There is fescue, burrograss, rush and sedge, bladderwort. There are chickadees and Canada geese, juncos and scrub jays, ravens, robins, sandpipers, nighthawks and wood-pewees. The diversity is astounding.
Visit the park, I urge you—preferably for a couple days, on foot. Even a few hours’ exploring presents an almost unbelievable tableau of natural grandeur, all above 5,500 feet yet readily accessible, the trails moderate in grade and the distances undaunting. Hiking Lassen Volcanic National Park is eminently doable. It is worth the trip.