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Tahoe Nugget #192:

Lassen Volcanic National Park: The Mountain
October 11, 2010

For countless generations the Yana Indians called it Waganupa, but it acquired a new name after Peter Lassen, a Danish-born immigrant, traveled to California in 1840 and became the first American to climb the volcanic peak. Lassen was a rancher, prospector, and trailblazer who established the Lassen Cutoff of the California Trail. His cutoff is infamous for its arduous Black Rock Desert crossing, and although it was touted as a shortcut, it was actually about 200 miles longer than the well-established Truckee or Carson routes to the gold diggings. (More on Peter Lassen in a future Tahoe Nugget.)

1 Nugget #192 Lassen Peak
Lassen Peak after fresh dusting of snow.

Today the 10,457-foot Lassen Peak is the crown jewel of Lassen Volcanic National Park. It's one of the largest lava domes on Earth and the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range in Northern California. The Lassen dome is what remains from Brokeoff Volcano, a massive feature that was over 8 miles wide at its base and 1,000 feet higher than Lassen. Over thousands of years, Brokeoff was weakened and eroded away by hydrothermal activity, weathering and glaciers during ice ages.

2 Nugget #192 Brokeoff Mtn
Remains of Brokeoff Mountain.

Lassen Park offers an array of accessible hydrothermal features like hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents known as fumaroles. Check out the moderately-challenging 3 mile Bumpass Hell trail or drive right up to the Sulphur Works alongside the park's main road near the south entrance. There are more hydrothermal areas in the Warner Valley along the southern edge of the Lassen plateau.

3 Nugget #192 Eruption Interpretive Plaque
Interpretive signs explain region's geologic history.

Annual snowfall at Lassen National Park is epic, the most recorded in California. At the Lake Helen snow survey site, elevation 8,200 feet, an average annual 660 inches (55 feet) of snow buries the area each winter season. Some years more than 1,000 inches (83 feet) of snowfall has been measured there. Despite Lassen's relatively modest elevation the heavy snowfall sustains 14 permanent patches of snow in the park.

4 Nugget #192 Lake Helen Sign Reflection
Helen Lake is where they measure the snowpack.

Lassen Volcanic National Park has traditionally been the least visited of California's national parks, with an average of nearly 22,000 people entering the park each summer. Due to deep snow cover, the road through the park often isn't plowed until late June or early July. Cross-country and backcountry skiing are popular during the winter months. Alpine skiers frequently boot-climb Lassen Peak in the spring for the exhilarating downhill runs on the volcano's steep flank.

5 Nugget #192 Snow Survey Pole
Note Snow Survey sign on 30-foot-high pole.

Lassen Peak formed about 27,000 years ago as a volcanic vent on the remnants of the northern flank of Brokeoff Volcano. During the 1850s, emigrant trails to California were established in the region. People tried mining, power development projects, ranching, and logging near the volcano. After a series of eruptions in 1914 and 1915, sightseers began flocking to the region prompting the federal government to establish the national park in 1916. The early federal protection saved the area from heavy logging, and today the park is one of the largest areas of old-growth forest in northern California. 

6 Nugget #192 Helen Lake Reflection
Lassen Peak reflection in Helen Lake.

On May 30, 1914, Lassen Peak awoke from a 27,000-year-long slumber when it was shaken by a steam explosion. Within a year, more than 180 additional explosions had blasted out a 1,000-foot-wide crater near the summit of the peak. On May 19, 1915, a huge blast destroyed the growing dome and launched incandescent blocks of lava onto the snow-covered slopes. The falling rocks of hot lava started avalanches and generated a destructive mud flow of volcanic materials.

7 Nugget #192 Warning Sign
Leave the trail in the hydrothermal areas at your own risk.

Finally, on May 22, the most powerful eruption of all shot rock and pumice 30,000 feet into the air. In Nevada, 300 miles east and downwind, the Elko Free Press newspaper stated: "The air was filled with volcanic dust to such an extent as to obscure the sun, and railroad trains from California stopped at Elko in order that passenger coaches might be cleaned."

8 Nugget #192 Boiling Mud
Mud Pot

Nearly 75 percent of the park includes designated wilderness, known as the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness as, "An area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." With its lava domes, tumbling waterfalls, hydrothermal features, and expansive old growth forest, Lassen National Volcanic Park boasts a wealth of natural wonders, but still remains one of the West's best-kept secrets.

Check out these two short video clips from my recent October visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Video #1: Bumpass Hell

Video #2: Mud Pot

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