Located in Northern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park is an astoundingly beautiful, diverse, yet under-appreciated park in the national park system. Lassen gets approximately 400,000 visitors per year, while nearby heavyweight, Yosemite, overshadows Lassen with an astounding 3.8 million annual visitors! So what does that mean? For introverted nature photographers like me, averse to large crowds, Lassen is a perfect national park visit even in the high season. And, the park is renown for evidence of it’s volcanic activity. Here are some of my favorite highlights, just barely scratching the surface of this beautiful park.
Located at the northwest park entrance, Manzanita Lake is the largest campground in the park, and affords a gorgeous, often photographed view of Lassen Peak reflected in the lake’s serene waters. Lassen Peak rises 2,000 feet above the surrounding terrain and is one of the largest lava domes on earth, as well as the largest of the 30 volcanoes in the park.
Using one of the many turn-offs located just inside the park boundary, there is an easy and scenic path winding around the lake. Heading to the west side of the lake closest to the entrance provides a scenic view of Lassen Peak looking east across the lake. The shoreline of this lake has a lot of brush and tree growth, so it can be challenging to find a vantage point without obscuring branches and adequate space to set up a tripod. However, I arrived at sunset to find an adequate spot to set up, and Lassen Peak bathed in a warm glow; the reflections of the peak and trees further made for an intriguing photo, highlighted by distant campfire smoke hovering around the pines. Even though this is one of the most popular spots in the park, I witnessed an eagle flying in the distance and an otter swimming right in front of me; I imagine spending any length of time here would reveal a large population of wildlife.
Also located immediately off highway 89, the main road winding through the park, Hat Creek and Hat Lake offer a serene meadow setting with Lassen Peak and Chaos Crags reflected in the water. Early June provided an interesting juxtaposition of lush green meadow and the snow capped peaks. I would advise wearing insect repellent when photographing this location, as there were a large number of mosquitoes, as well as waterproof shoes for the deceptively wet, muddy conditions concealed by the tall grasses.
A brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it unmarked turn-off from the main road approximately 1 mile east of Bumpass Hell provides a scenic overlook of picturesque Lake Helen. In early June, the small parking area at this lake was still snowed in, but this vantage point provided a photo worthy view of it’s bright blue, crystal clear glacial water. Located at 8,000 feet in elevation, it regularly receives a high volume of snow.
Cinder Cone and Painted Dunes
Cinder Cone is a 700 high foot tall cone of loose lava, sandy in texture like a giant sand dune. I found surprisingly little information on this hike (except for this helpful blog post) and was expecting to find a much more challenging hike than I found, provided you stick to the initial segment. Butte Lake campground on the eastern side of the park, and located on a dirt road, contains the trail head leading you to the top of Cinder Cone, which provides a panoramic vista of the Painted Dunes, my primary motivation for visiting this location. As their namesake implies, these dunes at the base of Cinder Cone have a rich, red hue caused by Cinder Cone’s continual volcanic activity. I have arthritic knees, so the challenging climb to the top of the Cone was not an option for me, but thankfully, some views of the Painted Dunes are visible from the trail heading to the base. I set up my tripod and used lenses of various focal lengths to capture these scenic dunes. My favorite view was capturing an interesting layering effect of tall Jeffrey pines, the Fantastic Lava Beds, and the colorful dunes.
Driving to Butte Lake from Manzanita Lake along Highway 89/44, is well marked Hat Creek Panoramic Vista Point, located 5 miles south of Old Station, with incredible views of Lassen Peak. My hope was to return after sunset to witness the stars emerging over this wide open expanse, but the evening proved to be a little overcast. I did manage to capture some stars peeking through the clouds and a couple of light trails from cars on the road below, but ultimately, headed back to Manzanita Lake, by which time, the skies had cleared enough to capture the Milky Way rising over Mount Lassen from the same location I had photographed the sunset earlier. I will have to be sure to return for one of Lassen’s dark sky festivals occurring in August to witness the dark skies that the park is known for!