Volcanic mountains

Geological wonders of Lassen Volcanic National Park and its surroundings

I’ve always wanted to visit Mount Lassen, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range that stretches from British Columbia through Washington and Oregon to northern California. Site of a major 1915 eruption, this national park is a great place to experience volcanoes with plenty of current volcanic and seismic activity. Evidence of many historic eruptions over the past centuries can be found throughout the park.

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We headed to the high country to get out of the triple digit August heat. After traveling for several hours in over 105 degree heat, we climbed up to 5,800 feet in the park and a cool 73 degrees. Lassen Volcanic National Park is nestled in the very rural corner of northeastern California. Due to its remote location, the park is not crowded and the Manzanita Lake campground was only half full. As we walked back and forth, we were often the only people in a scenic spot.

The area is still seismically active with active steam vents, hot springs and mud pools. It’s a great place to learn more about the volcanoes and the visitor centers offer a short video about the volcanoes and the 1915 eruption.

Unfortunately, the high elevation of 5,800 feet to just over 8,500 feet at the top of Lassen Summit Pass made it difficult for my husband to breathe. All of the sites I photographed were either right off the highway or on a very short trail. Everything except the underground cave is easily accessible to people with reduced mobility. In addition, the Manzanita Campground has pitches specially designed for people with reduced mobility.

Here are some interesting volcanic features:

Northeast side of Mount Lassen blown up by the 1915 eruption.
The unmarked southwest face of Mount Lassen rises above the meadows of Upper Kings Creek

This rock from the summit of Mount Lassen rests over 2 miles up the mountain. The 1915 eruption instantly melted snow and heated water mixed with lava, rocks and dirt to create a devastating mudslide sweeping away everything in its path for miles up the mountain.

The reddish spots were created when hot liquid magma hit the surface and melted into rock.
Original seismograph once used to monitor volcanic activity. Now computerized seismic data collectors are scattered throughout the area and monitored daily by the US Geological Service.
Wisps of steam continually flow from this vent to the sulfur plant.

Geologists have identified a reservoir of magma about 8 miles below the earth’s surface that provides the geothermal energy that powers the park’s various hot springs, potholes, and fumaroles.

Yellow Sulfur encrusts the surface of the ground at the Sulfur Plant. This area was a private sulfur mine and spa within the park boundaries until it was purchased in 1952.

Lassen is not the only volcano in the park. The United States Geological Survey has identified a number of volcanoes within the park boundaries which include all 4 known volcano types: Mount Lassen is a domed volcano, as is Mount St. Helens. There are also cinder cones, unique cone-shaped hills composed mostly of red cinder rock. Shield volcanoes in which each eruption causes a layer of slow-moving lava that covers the sides, building up the mountain and creating a shield. A composite volcano that has both shield and dome elements.

Chaos Craigs – this dormant volcano erupted several times 350 years ago, causing a series of rockslides up to 130 feet thick that dammed Manzanita Creek to create Manzanita Lake.
Chaos Jumbles – Hundreds of acres are covered by landslides from Chaos Craig eruptions. The forest grows where a tree can get a foothold

About 15 miles north of Lassen is the Subway Cave, a huge lava tube discovered when part of its roof collapsed, revealing its location.

A long staircase leads to the mouth of the cave
Note how hot lava left remarkably smooth walls and ceiling
Looking down from the cave entrance, this jumble of moss-covered rocks was once the ceiling of the cave.
The lava rock appears to be still moving as the eddies were frozen when the molten lava cooled.

We also visited MacArthur-Burney Falls, a beautiful natural waterfall 45 miles north of the park. The volcanic rock below the falls is semi-porous. The falls are fed by Burney Creek and water seeping through the rock walls.

Burney Creek tumbles over the cliff creating a great view.
A number of ferns and other plants grow upside down below the edge of the waterfall as water seeps through the walls.

The modern disaster has also affected the park. The 2021 Dixie Wildfire, the largest fire in California history, swept through a year ago, damaging more than 65% of the park. Most of the park east of the Lassen Peak Highway has burned. Parts of the park are still closed due to fire damage.

Part of the burnt area at the south entrance to the park. The burned forest can be seen for miles along the highway through the park.

Yet life abounds. Here are some elements of the fauna and flora. Let’s start with the birds:

Stellar’s Jay – one of many who looked at our campsite for something to steal
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Hairy Woodpecker – Spent an entire afternoon noisily pecking at several trees in the campground.
Robin – flew to a ledge outside the entrance to Subway Cave, then flew away
A crow stalks the empty campsite in search of anything edible

I also saw a golden eagle while driving but didn’t get a chance to take a photo. Mr. Birdbrain and I were buzzed by a hummingbird as we were setting up camp. It then took off and we never saw another one. The Merlin app identified both white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches that have distinctly different songs, but I’ve never seen them. Didn’t see any waterfowl, but there must have been Canada geese, mallards and mergansers.

Small mammals were all around us:

Chipmunk nibbles on something he found in the dirt
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Alert ground squirrel on top of a picnic table
Gray squirrel feasting on a pine cone

We also saw black tailed deer and coyotes along the road, but couldn’t stop to take pictures. I did not see any reptiles.

Interesting insects:

beautiful butterfly
Striped bee on a wild flower
gray grasshopper

There were also these tiny black bugs that infested our tent the first night. We quickly learned to make sure the tent was securely closed before lighting the lantern. I also saw some young ladies.

I don’t know the flower names other than lupine but saw lots of pretty flowers and interesting lichens.

Sunny mountain covered in lupine
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A variety of yellow and white wildflowers in the area affected by the 1915 eruption and landslide
Various colorful lichens cover the lava rocks
Chaos Jumble rocks feature a variety of lichens

The mixed coniferous forest includes ponderosa pine, western cedar and Douglas fir.

I did not go to the Butte Lakes area in the eastern part of the park. There is a cinder cone, lava beds, and a boiling lake. Something to look forward to on my next trip.

Temperatures are approaching 100 today and we are expecting at least 4 or 5 days of over 100 degrees and possibly up to 110?

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