The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 96 & 97: Lassen National Park

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

It took a spectacular volcanic eruption to create one of the most gentle and beautiful wilderness areas in California. This edition of The WildeBeat; Lassen National Park.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is a combined version of programs ninety six and ninety seven.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends]

[SFX: Hat Creek]

STEVE: I'm standing near the Hat Creek trailhead in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Jean Higham, our usually silent co-writer and co-editor, is about to start a four day solo backpacking trip in the park's wilderness.

JEAN HIGHAM: I'm starting out at Hat Creek, and hiking down to Shadow Lake, then I'll hike up to Cliff Lake and camp above Cliff Lake, and that'll be tonight's stay, and tomorrow night I'm going to be at Corral Meadow, and from there, I'll hike down past Connard Lake to, maybe Connard Meadow. And then Sunday I'll come out at the King's Creek Picnic Area.

STEVE: Have a safe trip.

JEAN HIGHAM: Thank you. I'll see you on Sunday.

STEVE: Lassen Volcanic National Park is in northern Califnornia. Lassen Peak itself is considered the southern most peak of the Cascade mountain range, which extends from here in northern California, through the states of Oregon and Washington. Just south of Lassen Park, at a peak called Butt Mountain, is the northern end of the Sierra Nevada range. Lassen is moderately sized for a wilderness park, at just over a hundred thousand acres.

[SFX: Fade out Hat Creek]

STEVE: Steve Zachary is the park's education specialist.

STEVE ZACHARY: When people think about Lassen Volcanic National Park and coming to the park to visit as a tourist or a visitor, we think of volcanos. And you know, every mountain in the park is volcano or part of a volcano. So when you start on the ...south end, you're literally starting to drive into a volcano, what was once old Mount Tehama. Or as the USGS volcanologists call it, Brokeoff Volcano... and you know, Lassen National Park has the largest collection of hydrothermal features west of Yelowstone National Park.

STEVE: Most visitors who come to the park are lured by a few roadside volcanic features.

STEVE ZACHARY: ...just within a few miles from the entrance station, you come to the sulphur works. That's a smaller hydrothermal area for visitors to see, because it's right along the road.

STEVE: Next they drive up the road to see another hydrothermal feature, which takes a short hike to get to.

STEVE ZACHARY: The name Bumpass Hell, referring to the hydrothermal area, was a gentleman by the name of Kendall Bumpass, and he had taken some reporters -- you know, this was back in the eighteen hundreds into the Bumpass Hell area to share with them the beauty of what he had found. And he actually -- and we don't know all the facts, and how true this is, but he had fallen into one of these fumeroles or boiling pools because remember there was no boardwalk then, and you wandered around on this thin, crusted area, and he severely burned his leg and it took him, back then, three days to get back down to the Sacramento Valley and the Red Bluff area, and he lost his leg, part of his leg. And so some of the reporters said then that must have been Mr. Bumpass's hell. And so that kind of how that came about to be called that. And Bumpass Hell is our largest hydrothermal area. ...the interesting thing about that trail is as you walk along the edge of Bumpass Mountain, ...and then you go down into the Bumpass Hell basin, which is a large basin of fumeroles, boiling springs, mud pots, and it's a very active area. And it has, actually, the hottest fumerole steam vent in the world, in over three hundred and twenty degrees DFahrenheit so many volcanologists consider it the hottest steam vent outside of an erupting volcano vent. So it's a very fascinating area, and it's a three mile round-trip walk. People of all ages get out to that Bumpass Hell area, just because it is a very exciting, neat place to see. And when you pull into the Lassen Peak parking lot, boy you're right there at the base of it, you're staring right up at it, you can see that's where the trailhead that, you know, thousands of people climb that trail up to the crater rim every year. And so it's really kind of a dynamic view...

STEVE: It's a clear, wide trail, and a lot of people think it looks pretty easy to climb. But some people who climb it aren't prepared for the high mountain conditions.

STEVE ZACHARY: Well one, you want to check with the weather. Like, just even last week, you know, we've had thunderstorms. And, of course, do not want to climb Lassen Peak, because it's so exposed, when there's the possibilities of thunderstorms. And you want to be prepared by bringing water, dressing -- bringing some warmer clothes, sunscreen, and of course, it is very important that people stay on the trail, not to get off the trail. ...It's a different temperature, it's colder. ...It can be windy up there and not windy down in the parking lot... but it's a rocky trail and you need to have water and the things that you're need to hike that peak in four hours, or a half a day, or whatever time it takes you to get there and back.

STEVE: A lot of years there's snow on that trail most of the summer, right?

STEVE ZACHARY: This year, two thousand and seven, there's not much snow on it at all when we think of mid-July. Last year, two thousand six, the park road wasn't even open until July twelfth or sixteenth, somewhere around there, and there was a tremendous amount of snow on the Lassen Peak trail most of the summer. ...But generally that trail has a lot of snow on it, and you need to be prepared for either slushy or icy trail conditions that then also, the need for sunscreen, because you have all that reflective snow, and it can be colder. And so there's things like that that people really need to think about before they attempt to climb Lassen Peak.

STEVE: While most people come to the park to play, some come here to work.

STEVE ZACHARY: We have a lot of different researchers that work in the park, and they cover not only natural history components, ...but we also have cultural history components that researchers are working on. fact we have NASA currently working in the park, working on looking at the extremophiles, which are micro organisms in hydro-thermal areas. We have the astrobiologists with NASA that are studying snow movement on volcanic landscapes that are tied to the Mission to Mars project. We have, of course, U.S. Geologic Survey volcanologists and geologists studying the park.

STEVE: The typical tourist zips through the park from roadside attraction to roadside attraction, and the hearty ones might take a half a day to climb the peak. But what are they missing by not visiting the wilderness? Jean Higham is on her own solo trip to find out. Since she is going solo, I check-in with her every night using ham radio. Our final check-in was on day three of her hike.

STEVE: KD6UME, this is KC6ZKT.


STEVE: How did it go?

JEAN HIGHAM: Uh, just as expected.

STEVE: So what did you see today? You were in totally new territory today.

JEAN HIGHAM: Wow! Wow! Cool stuff. I'll save the battery here and tell you later, but this end of the park is beautiful.

STEVE: Just name a couple of highlights for your audience here.

JEAN HIGHAM: Kings Creek Falls. Wow!

STEVE: Alright, so everything's going well for you? You're um everything's working, no problems?

JEAN HIGHAM: I'm standing beside a little stream in Conard Meadow; it's totally lupin lined, and I'm about to get a little bit of extra water for tomorrow.

STEVE: OK. Great. Well you have a good night, and I'll plan to be at your exit trailhead at noon tomorrow.

JEAN HIGHAM: OK. Goodnight everybody. KC6ZKT, this is KD6UME clear and QRT.

STEVE: KD6UME, this is KC6ZKT. I'm clear and QRT.

STEVE: Steve Zachary is probably as familiar with the park's backcountry as anybody.

STEVE ZACHARY: Generally I hike over a hundred and fifty miles a summer in the park. And then of course, since I'm a year-round employee, I snowshoe in the winter time, I get out in the fall and spring... So I know the park well. I've been a permanent employee here for seventeen years, and I've hiked throughout the park and many places off trail, and I'm a very avid naturalist, and so I'm very interested in all aspects of the natural history... So there's a lot of interesting things in the backcountry that people that are able just to travel on the park road, they miss.

STEVE: So if a person's going to go into the backcountry, what are they going to be able to see that the people that don't get off the road miss?

STEVE ZACHARY: Well they're going to see a lot of beautiful lakes, and forested environments that provide a lot of, I know for me and others, tranquility, peace, quiet. You know, there's those components of solitude. Because the road corridor is where most visitors in the park stay. So, when you go into the backcountry, say out to what we call the Twin Lakes loop out of Summit Lake, and on these beautiful lakes, one after another, with other volcanic features and views of some of the other aspects of the park. Some volcanic features that you don't get if you're just along the road. You know, you just get those kind of snapshots along the road, but when you can immerse yourself into these landscapes. You take a trail, for example, out of summit that climbs up the lava flow from Hat Mountain, and then you're on the top of that looking back at Lassen Peak and the other volcanos that are closer to the road. And then you drop down into, say, Echo Lake and Twin Lakes, which are glacier carved lakes that sit in between volcanic features.

STEVE: When I lead people into the Lassen Wilderness for their first time, some of the features I make sure they don't miss are the Cinder Cone and the Fantastic Lava beds.

STEVE ZACHARY: ...and you can climb the Cinder Cone and look out on the Fantastic Lava Beds, which are associated with the eruptions of Cinder Cone, oh, three hundred fifty years ago. ...and since it's not that old, the features and everything out there look fresh... And so you see this oxidized basaltic lava flow where ash and material came down, cinder came down out of the cinder cone, all around the cinder cone itself, and of course this lava flow of course went down and dammed up the creek that formed Snag lake, and also flowed into part of Butte Lake. And so it's a fascinating area to see, and climbing the Cinder Cone and looking out over that, and then you can then take the back side of the Cinder Cone trail and walk into those fascinating Fantastic Lava Beds right there and come right out and make a loop round back toward Butte Lake.

STEVE: And then on the other end of the park, is the intriguingly named --

STEVE ZACHARY: Boiling Springs Lake. That's in the Warner Valley area, and the Warner Valley area is over on the southeast part of the park. And Boiling Springs Lake is a large acid hot lake that is really beautiful to see. can take a trail that winds all around it, and we do, of course recommend that people stay on the trail, because that area is changing. But it's a fascinating feature in among this beautiful forest, in the backcountry of that part of the park.

STEVE: The thing is, despite all of this violent geologic activity that created this park, its wilderness is one of gentle terrain, lush forests, and pristine lakes. It's an ideal wilderness to visit if you have children, or want a less strenuous adventure. Even the wildlife seems more gentle here than in the big national parks in the Sierra Nevada.

STEVE ZACHARY: Bears here in the park are usually wild, and if you happen see one and you're in a group of two or three people, usually the first person sees it and that's it... You might say in the backcountry, in some cases, deer can be a bigger problem where they mosey into people's camps and, you know, try to get into their food, which is a little unusual compared to other parks that have tremendous bear problems. So we don't have that problem many other parks have with bears, but people need to remember that they are a visitor in a natural community, and wild animals, that's their home, and they need to take whatever precautions they need to secure their food and to be aware that they are a visitor.

STEVE: The most popular trailhead into the Lassen Wilderness is the Summit Lake Ranger Station, but there are also more than half a dozen other, less popular trailheads. Those'll give you a chance for even more solitude and some unique experiences. Jean Higham wound up having the wilderness to herself for three nights.

JEAN HIGHAM: I started from the park road at Hat Lake near Emigrant Pass. And I hiked south past Paradise Meadow to Terrace Lake. And Terrace Lake is a gorgeous lake with a sandy white bottm. There were a couple people there, a woman and her young six year old daughter who were about to get into the water when I arrived. From there I went on to Shadow and Cliff Lakes, and these three lakes, Terrace, Shadow, and Cliff are at about eight thousand feet, and so in July this trail is usually snow-bound. But this year there were only a few small patches of snow.

JEAN HIGHAM: The first night I camped above Cliff Lake, and Cliff Lake is this real pretty little peaceful lake with and island and a cluster of trees on it and there's a cliff that just rises right out of the lake and that's actually Reading Peak. So the next day I continued to the Summit Lake ranger station, and from there I hiked south to Corral Meadow. And Corral Meadow is a nice little wooded meadow. It's very small, and it's right on Kings Creek. The heavily used campsites there are just a little too close to the creek and to the trail for my tastes, so I climbed up over the ridge to the west and camped on the other side of that for a little bit of privacy.

JEAN HIGHAM: In the morning I backtracked and I hiked west a couple miles to the bottom of Kings Creek Falls, and the trail there climbs very steeply for a half mile or so. And Kings Creek Falls is gorgeous. The whole way you've just got gorgeous views of cascading water. That trail ends up at the park road again near upper meadow, so I had to walk on the park road about half a mile or so, and I picked up the trail again from Kings Creek Picnic Area. And I walked that to Cold Boiling Lake, and Cold Boiling Lake is an ordinary looking little alpine tarn. But when I got close I could see bubbles popping on the surface. So there's evidence that Lassen truly is a volcano.

JEAN HIGHAM: Crumbaugh Lake, it's supposed to be a nice, warm lake to swim in, but it is very shallow and muddy. I sank ankle deep into the mud there. Then after that I waded through fields of lupins and other wild flowers, it was gorgeous, and on to Conard Meadows. The next morning I hiked southwest to an overlook at the top of Mill Creek Falls. This is a place where East Sulphur Creek and Bumpass Creek flow together over a seventy-five foot cliff. It's very precarious place, but I found a nice place to sit down and have my morning coffee, and from there I backtracked to King Creek Picnic Area.

STEVE: So if you want to visit the Lassen wilderness, like most wilderness areas in national parks, you'll need to contact the rangers and get a wilderness permit. You can do that at the park, but you're usually better off if you make arrangements in advance. Steve Zachary says that the important thing to keep in mind is that a national park isn't just a playground. When people come to the park...

STEVE ZACHARY: ...they're a visitor, and it's a community of life that is rich in the life forms that live there and we need to preserve and protect these places for present and future generations. And when we travel out there we need to realize the value of them and how fortunate we are to have a place like the wilderness of Lassen or other wilderness areas in national parks protected and, of course, as a teacher they're incredible outdoor laboratories and outdoor classrooms that you know hold keys to the future that we sometimes take for granted.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your comments or questions about this show, and about any experiences you've had in Lassen Volcanic National Park. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to maps and pictures of the park backcountry, including pictures from Jean's hike, as well as a combined high fidelity stereo version of both parts of this edition, on our web site.

[Closing Music: 0:10 and under]

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. You can help assure future editions of this free service by clicking on our support link to become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, combined program numbers ninety six and ninety seven. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

Next time -- Water.

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