Located in northern California, Lassen Volcanic National Park preserves a rugged landscape of mountain lakes, scenic meadows, hydrothermal features and, of course, volcanoes. While this park may not be quite as popular as many other National Parks, there are still plenty of great things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park.
When we started planning our first visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park, we really didn’t know what to expect since we didn’t know much about the park. I soon realized that many people find that the park exceeds their expectations. After spending five days exploring Lassen Volcanic National Park, I can honestly say that it is well worth a visit and is loved by many for good reason.
I’ll be honest, its mountains are not as majestic as the Grand Tetons and the thermal features aren’t as vast as those at Yellowstone. Still, the variety and sheer ruggedness of the landscape at Lassen Volcanic National Park is something special. And, even in 2021, when national park visitation is a bit heightened, we found the park to be much less crowded than expected.
Keep reading to find out the best things to do at Lassen Volcanic National Park to make the most of your time and really enjoy this park. Whether you have a few hours or a few days, you are sure to enjoy Lassen just as much as we did.
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The Landscape of Lassen Volcanic National Park
According to the park’s website, “Every rock at Lassen originates from volcanoes.” In fact, you’ll find examples of all four types of volcanoes here – shield, composite, cinder cone and plug dome. That is just a small sample of the variety of the landscape at Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Volcanic activity in this area dates back roughly 3 million years. Actually, much of the area originally was one huge volcano. When it ceased erupting about 400,000 years ago, it began decaying and collapsing. What you see today is what’s left of this volcano. Lassen Peak is just one of the many peaks and valleys leftover.
Most recently, Lassen Peak erupted several times between 1914 and 1921, the largest of which occurred on May 22, 1915. The hydrothermal features, including fumaroles (steam vents), boiling springs, bubbling mud pots and sulfurous gases indicate this is still an active volcano. Scientists cannot currently predict when it will erupt again, only that it will!
Learning more about the volcanic history and current landscape is just one of many things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Be sure to look for exhibit signs at the Visitor Center and along the road and trails to learn more about the geology of the park.
Planning Your Visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park
As you plan your visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park, the first thing to consider is the time of year. This park gets a lot of snow. While the park is open year-round, to really see the park you’ll want to visit in the summer. For access to the most things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park, I would suggest visiting July – September.
We visited Lassen in mid- to late June and arrived just after all the trails opened up. I’ll be honest, a week before we were set to arrive, I was making a backup plan just in case some of the trails we wanted to hike weren’t open yet. And this was a reasonably light snowfall year. Basically, know that even a June visit may see closures due to snow, especially in the higher elevations.
How Much Time to Spend at Lassen Volcanic National Park
To really enjoy the park, you’ll need at least one full day at Lassen Volcanic National Park. If you have additional time, two or three days (or more), will give you the opportunity to more thoroughly explore the park. We actually spent about 4.5 days, which allowed us to see all of the various parts of the park and a few nearby attractions. But, you don’t necessarily need that much time to enjoy the highlights.
Once you’ve set your dates, take a look at the Lassen Volcanic National Park map. The main park road runs from the southwest entrance (where you’ll find the Visitor Center) to the Northwest entrance. If you only have one day at Lassen Volcanic National Park, this is where to spend your time.
Even with just one day, you’ll have time to do a little hiking. While you will see a lot by driving the main park road, some of the best features of Lassen Volcanic National Park require at least a short hike. Be sure to check the park website before you arrive to get updated trail conditions. We also always double-check with a ranger at the park just to make sure we have the most up-to-date information and get personal tips and recommendations.
With additional time, you can (and should) do some more hiking and explore the more remote areas of Butte Lake in the northeast and Juniper Lake and Warner Valley in the southeast. You’ll need several hours just to drive to and from each of these remote areas, plus additional time to explore and hike. That extra driving time is why we suggest saving those areas for only if you have two or more days.
Things to Do on the Main Road
With one day at Lassen Volcanic National Park, you should focus your time along the main park road. When visiting any national park, we always suggest stopping at the Visitor Center first. For that reason, plan to enter Lassen at the southwest entrance, which is about an hour east of Interstate 5 and the town of Red Bluff.
As always, pick up a park map and guide when you pay the entrance fee (or show your pass) at the ranger station. Then, head immediately to the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center to chat with a ranger, check out the displays and buy a souvenir.
The drive from the visitor center at the southwest entrance to Lake Manzanita at the northwest entrance is about 30 miles. Even if you don’t stop, you’ll need one hour to drive the road due to the slow speed limit. I’d plan on at least 2 hours, even if you aren’t planning on doing any hiking. You’ll definitely want to stop at several pullouts, enjoy the incredible views and take a bunch of pictures.
With a full day, you’ll have time for a couple of hikes and can really learn quite a bit about Lassen Volcanic National Park and its incredible landscape. Be sure to stop at the following highlights along the road. Of course, there are plenty of additional pullouts, lakes and overviews along the way in addition to these.
One of the easiest things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park is to stop at Sulphur Works. This is a relatively small hydrothermal feature right on the main road, just about five minutes past the visitor center.
If you’ve been to Yellowstone National Park, this might seem skippable. Please don’t pass it up, though! This is a great introduction to Lassen and an interesting and easy stop on the main road. And, yes, you can see a bit more by actually parking and walking up than just driving by.
Bumpass Hell Trail
If you only have the time for one hiking trail at Lassen Volcanic National Park, it should be Bumpass Hell. Seriously, this is the trail that will open your eyes to just about everything the park has to offer. As this is a popular trail, the parking area can fill up quickly, even on a not-too-busy day. We suggest arriving early to secure your parking spot before everyone else.
Pro Tip: If the Bumpass Hell parking lot is full, try parking at Lake Helen, just up the main road. On the opposite side of the road from the lake, you’ll see a short trail heading up the rise. This will take you to the Bumpass Hell Trail.
From the main parking lot, be sure to take a few minutes and look at the exhibits on the west end (near the pit toilet). Here, you’ll find some information about the various peaks and volcanic eruptions in the area. There is another exhibit on this, about 20 minutes into the hike, just off the trail to the right.
For about a mile, the trail wanders along a ridgeline, with a slight elevation gain but nothing too strenuous. Along the way, enjoy the views of the mountains and valleys. There are a few steep drop-offs, but the trail is generally wide enough to not be too scary. Still, it is easy to see why the park service does not open this trail until the vast majority of the snow is melted.
At about the one-mile mark, you’ll reach the overlook for the Bumpass Hell hydrothermal area. From here, you can follow a loop down to get a close-up view of the steam vents, boiling springs and mud pots. At the fork, I suggest that you head left on the Frying Pan Loop. As you descend, you’ll get great views of the area.
At the bottom, continue following the trail and boardwalk to see everything close up. But be sure to stay on the marked trails and boardwalks! Hydrothermal areas are extremely hot and brittle and can cause serious injury or death. In fact, the area’s namesake, Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, learned that the hard way. Not only did he discover and lay claim to this hydrothermal area, but he also lost his leg after stepping into a boiling mud pool.
When you’re done exploring, head back up the Frying Pan Trail (alternate loop) or take the Bumpass Hell Trail back to the overlook. Yes, the uphill may be a bit tough. Just remember, slow and steady wins the race!
Overall, we spent about 1.5 hours on the trail and my Apple Watch recorded 2.9 miles with 480 feet of elevation gain along the way.
Hiking Lassen Peak is a very popular thing to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park. This is a beast of a hike, though. We, personally, had no desire to hike the nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain in about 2.5 miles. We did, however, enjoy taking a few pictures from the parking lot!
If brutal hikes are your thing, plan ahead and go for it. This is not a trail to be done on a whim, though.
Another one of the easiest, and most informative, things to do at Lassen Volcanic National Park is to walk the Devasted Area Nature Trail. The park newspaper lists this as a 1/2-mile loop, but my watch measured it at only about 1/4-mile. Either way, it is easy and worth a quick stop, even if you’re short on time.
Around the loop, you’ll see exhibits on the 1915 eruption and its impact on the area.
Just before you reach the northwest entrance station, the Manzanita Lake area offers one final developed area with several things to do.
For those with more time, consider the easy hike around the lake. At 1.5 miles it’s not a super quick hike but it is fairly easy and offers good views of Lassen Peak. If you’re ready for a snack or more souvenirs, stop at the Camper Store by the campground. You’ll also find gas in this area if it’s time to fill up before heading back to town.
Outside the Loomis Museum, you’ll find an old seismograph (the instrument that measures earthquakes) and a few exhibits on the history of the area. We were looking forward to additional exhibits inside the museum but, alas, they were blocked off. I assume because of COVID-19 or maybe because it was still somewhat early in the summer season.
Whether you have just a few minutes or an hour or two, the Manzanita Lake area is worth a stop before heading out of the park.
Other Things to Do at Lassen Volcanic National Park
If you have more time at Lassen Volcanic National Park, I encourage you to drive out to the Juniper Lake, Warner Valley and/or Butte Lake areas. While these areas offer far fewer amenities, you’ll see a somewhat different landscape and can enjoy several additional hiking trails.
In particular, we recommend the Devils Kitchen hike at Warner Valley and Mount Harkness and Inspiration Point at Juniper Lake. For those that really like brutal uphill hikes, consider hiking Cinder Cone at Butte Lake.
Things to Do North of the Park
There are two fairly short and easy stops, just north of Lassen Volcanic National Park, on the way to Butte Lake.
Subway Cave is a US Forest Service Site that includes a 1/3-mile walk through a lava tube. The cave is dark and the floor is rough and uneven, so wear a jacket and sturdy shoes and bring a flashlight or headlamp. Thankfully, the site is very easy to explore, as long as you can handle the walk on uneven terrain.
The site gets its name from the fact that the inside very much resembles a large subway tunnel. Be sure to check out the exhibit signs along the way to learn more about the geology of the cave. This is a really unique and interesting stop. Plan for about 30 minutes of exploring, though you could easily take more or less time depending on your interests.
The Hat Creek Rim Overlook provides a nice viewpoint of the Hat Creek Valley below. There are also a few exhibit signs about the landscape. Whether you want to stretch your legs and take in the few or need to take advantage of good cell service, this is a quick and easy stop on the way to Butte Lake.
Where to Stay Near Lassen Volcanic National Park
The area around Lassen Volcanic National Park is extremely remote without much in the way of services. There are a few campgrounds inside the park but none offer hookups for RVs. At Manzanita Lake, you’ll also find a few rustic camping cabins.
Since we wanted hookups for the RV, we chose to camp on the south side of the park at The Village at Childs Meadow. They also offer tent camping and basic motel rooms. Just across the street, the Highlands Ranch Resort offers seven cottages and a nice restaurant/bar.
Honestly, this location was just about perfect for us. From the campground, it was just about a 15-20 minute drive to the southwest entrance and Visitor Center. It was also reasonably convenient for exploring Juniper Lake and Warner Valley. Yes, it was a bit of a drive to Butte Lake, but you really can’t be central to everything.
The main RV sites here are quite nice, with a reasonable amount of shade and a good amount of space. There are a few new sites right up front that offer no shade or space of your own and are right next to the road. Due to a reservation snafu (which the campground quickly corrected), we had to stay in one of those sites our first night. While that would be fine in a pinch, we much preferred the established sites with shade!
Where to Eat Near Lassen Volcanic National Park
Inside the park, you’ll find a small cafe inside the main visitor center at the southwest entrance and at the Manzanita Lake Camper Store at the northwest entrance. We particularly enjoyed the Bacon & Egg sandwich as a mid-morning snack after hiking around Manzanita Lake.
If you happen to be near one of the cafes for a meal, it’s a good option. There’s not a lot of grab-and-go, though. You’ll certainly want to plan ahead and bring what you can with you. I’d definitely pack a picnic lunch if you plan to be out hiking all day.
Outside the park, you’ll find a couple of options on the south side. At the Mineral Lodge and Cafe, we found a good restaurant that was just about perfect after a day of exploring. It’s not fancy but had a good variety of burgers, sandwiches and entrees. Grant really enjoyed the elk burger, which was the special for the day.
If you want something a little nicer, check out the restaurant at Highlands Ranch Resort. Sit outside if you can and enjoy the views of the cattle grazing in front of a nice mountain backdrop. While we lucked out getting a table, you might want to make reservations just to be safe. We especially enjoyed a couple of their specialty cocktails. The entrees were fantastic as well.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park
There are certainly enough things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park to keep you busy for a full day. If you have more time, you can do more day hiking and visit the other areas of the park.
With mountains, lakes, volcanoes, lava rocks and hydrothermal features, there is a lot of variety to be found in this park. For us, perhaps the only thing missing was wildlife. But, every park can’t have everything!
What we like most about this park is that you can see the highlights in just a day or two. There’s also enough variety to keep you busy for a week or longer. For us, that’s a good thing. We left feeling like we fully explored the park. But, we also know there are many more things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park if we ever find ourselves in the area again.
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