When it comes to uncrowded National Parks, the West doesn’t have many. Considering how Yosemite, Zion, and more are receiving record visitor numbers, how wonderful is it to be able to visit Lassen Volcanic National Park, where you may not see others on the trail at all in the evenings and early mornings? It’s the least-visited national park in California, and it does not disappoint.
There’s much to love about Lassen, and after spending a few days there, I’ve got the perfect Lassen Volcanic National Park itinerary for you, with some options so you can build your own perfect visit and itinerary:
Ridge Lakes Hike
There are many lovely lakes that you’ll find near the southern park entrance (near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center), but after looking at photos of all of them, I settled on the Ridge Lakes hike.
It’s a short but surprisingly steep 1 mile (each way) hike up to a glittering green lake. I saw deer chasing each other around at the lake edge, lots of wildflowers, and plenty of birds.
Given Lassen is conveniently in the middle of nowhere, it’s amazing for star gazing as well. Pick any lake in the park for a lovely view, although Ridge Lakes is nice and high, giving you a good view of the sky.
Want something easier? Check out the Crystal Lake Trail (1 mile), and the Terrace, Shadow, and Cliff Lakes hike (3 miles, but with three lakes!)
The most famous feature of Lassen Volcanic National Park is unquestionably Lassen Peak, or Mount Lassen. It’s the the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range, with its most recent eruption occurring in 1917.
I don’t know about you, but I found it crazy to be casually sitting across from a volcano that erupted a mere 100-ish years before while at Lake Helen at its base (more on that gorgeous stop next).
The hike up Lassen peak is a barren, uncovered climb of nearly 2000 feet over just 2.5 miles up, and back down again. If you can manage it, this hike is best done for the sunrise, watching as the sun illuminates the park and beyond. Best of all, you do the climb before the hot sun is up!
I chose to hike Brokeoff Mountain instead, as it’s considered to have the better view between the two hikes. It’s slightly longer with more elevation gain, as we’ll discuss later.
Lake Helen is one of the clearest, most lovely alpine lakes you can hope to find. With such a great variety of lakes in the park, you’re spoiled for choice, but Helen is pleasingly simple, as it’s a roadside pull off without any hiking required.
The lake provides the perfect mirror of Lassen Peak, particularly in the early morning when it’s still and quiet. I loved it during the hot afternoon for a dip, too. Plan on the water being super cold – it’s snowmelt after all – but on a scorching summer’s afternoon it’s perfect for cooling off.
There’s limited roadside parking on both sides of Lassen Peak Highway, but if that’s full, you can also park at Bumpass Hell and walk over. There’s a clear break in the trail after about a quarter of a mile.
Please wash off any sunscreen before entering the pristine lake.
Those in the know consider this hike the crown jewel of Lassen, rather than Lassen Peak. That’s not to say that Lassen Peak isn’t amazing – it is – but if you only pick one, make it Brokeoff.
I loved that I could gaze out at Lassen Peak from the summit of Brokeoff, along with views all the way to Shasta.
This hike is also less popular than Lassen Peak, and when I hiked up for sunset in early July, I only passed two other people who were on the way down. I was the only one at the summit watching that amazing sunset unfold, and it was magical.
Unlike Lassen Peak, Brokeoff also offers more trail diversity, with a wooded and flowery section near the bottom with streams, followed by a continuous uphill climb that, if you go in the early evening, will be mostly on the shady side of the mountain. The trail is 7.6 miles out and back with a 2,582 foot climb, so be prepared for a great workout with very few flat parts.
Remember that you’re already at altitude when you start, so give yourself plenty of time. I was surprised that it took me two and a half hours (but I was filming and photographing a lot along the way, which significantly slows things down).
The trailhead is south of the southern park entrance, which makes it a convenient option for those coming from the direction of Redding.
If Lassen Peak is the most famous feature of the park, then Bumpass Hell must be a close second.
It seems like it must be an urban legend, but I was surprised to find that the park literature confirms that this trail was named after a man named Bumpass who fell and burned himself in the hot, boiling landscape, making it his personal hell.
You can’t make this stuff up.
This trail is an easy 2.7 mile meander up a lovely mountainside, past Lake Helen, and up to the boardwalk. Obviously, stick to the established trail lest you get burned like Mr. Bumpass.
You can also combine this with other trails in the area. I recommend going right after sunrise, as you’ll likely have the trail all to yourself.
Even better, get to the parking lot just before sunrise, watch as the sun illuminates Brokeoff Mountain, and hike the trail just after. When I did this, I was the only one watching the sunrise and one of only a few on the Bumpass Hell trail.
Manzanita Lake Loop
The most popular and famous area to camp in the park, Manzanita Lake offers services like gas, a convenience store, paid camping (though you can free camp in the national forest, more on that later), and of course, lake access. Word on the street is this is a great sunrise spot, though I didn’t test it myself.
The above itinerary takes you to most of the popular spots, and is the most convenient way to do it if you’re coming from west of the park and accessing it through the south entrance. That said, there are several more stops that I wished I had time for:
Boiling Springs Lake + Terminal Geyser
How can a lake be this opaque and green?! It’s one of the most unique features of the park, with a lake that’s a cross between white and turquoise. There are a number of steam vents under the lake, keeping it at 125 degrees F.
You can hike to just this lake and cut out the geyser, making it an easier, 2 mile hike with only a 200 foot climb.
This area is reminiscent of Bumpass Hell, but with fewer people. You can add it onto the Boiling Springs and Terminal Geyser hike, making this 11 miles round trip.
Kings Creek Falls
I was sad to miss this hike during my time in Lassen, and along with Boiling Springs, this will be on my list for when I return. The 2.7 mile hike takes you up 472 feet in elevation with a beautiful waterfall view on your return hike.
Mill Creek Falls
This hike will take you up, down, and up again, but the waterfall view at the end (pictured above) is what makes it worth it. Plan on 3.8 miles out and back.
Where should you camp? I chose to do this trip last minute, so camping in the National Forest just south of Lassen Volcanic National Park (in Lassen National Forest) was my only camping option. It’s amazing to me that there’s free, dispersed camping so close to the park.
Keep in mind that there are no services when you free camp. You’ll need to bring your own water, shelter, and food, and will have to pack out your trash and human waste. That said, I didn’t see another person almost all day at my campsite, and was surrounded by gorgeous towering sugar pines with the world’s largest pinecones.
Take road 29N22 to find dispersed camping. Keep in mind that there are only a few spots accessible to non high-clearance vehicles. You’ll want a 4WD truck or at least a high-clearance vehicle for most of the forest roads, as they’re not maintained and can be very rocky. These spots are first-come, first served and can’t be reserved in advance. There are additional options on the north end of the park as well.
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Lassen blew me away with its beauty and lack of crowds. If you go, love it, leave no trace, and enjoy the views!