I visited a small national park in California, and found it's a hidden gem as beautiful as Yellowstone but without massive crowds
My family took a camping trip to California's Lassen Volcanic National Park in early June.
We could admire the park's volcanoes and geothermal features without worrying about large crowds.
Even though it's still recovering from a large fire in 2021, the hiking trails were impressive.
Yellowstone may be known for its geothermal areas, but Lassen Volcanic National Park — a smaller, less-visited national park with its own fair share of geothermal features — is also worth exploring.
Located in northern California, this 166-square-mile park is one of the few places with all four major volcanic types. On top of having one of California's seven active volcanoes and the largest lava plug dome in the world, it also has clear mountain lakes and steaming fumaroles.
Plus, Lassen Volcanic usually gets a fraction of the annual visitors that Yellowstone does, meaning guests have to deal with comparably fewer crowds.
It's open all year, but peak season runs from the summer through the early fall before snow cover closes many roads and facilities.
My family loves the outdoors and took a recent trip to Lassen Volcanic. Here's why other outdoor enthusiasts should check it out too.
The campgrounds weren't overly crowded and offered direct access to the park's features
Lassen Volcanic has seven campgrounds, and most of them are only open seasonally. There's some walk-in availability, but I recommend making reservations if you're going between July and September.
We found our reservation to camp at Manzanita Lake Campground helpful since it was fairly full when we showed up in early June. As of 2023, reservations are required for the Manzanita Lake and Summit Lake campgrounds.
Our trip fell outside of the typical peak season, but it was still a magical experience. The daytime weather was pleasantly mild and perfect for outdoor activities. Even though the temperature dropped at night, we were prepared for the cold with thermals and warm bedding.
Manzanita Lake, which is a short walk from the campground, offers catch-and-release fishing as long as you use barbless hooks. Despite the lake's proximity to the campground, there were plenty of opportunities for us to find our own quiet spots for fishing and quiet bird-watching.
Even though the park was still recovering from a large-scale fire, the hiking trails didn't disappoint
There are many beautiful hiking trails to choose from in Lassen Volcanic, whether you want to go on a daytime hike or hit the backpacking trails.
The Dixie Fire, the largest single fire in California's history that burned nearly a million acres in 2021, posed new challenges for the park. Some areas may still be inaccessible due to remediation efforts, so visitors should always check the park's website ahead of their trip.
You may inevitably hike through heavily impacted areas on some trails. One thing to note is that the trails west of the park highway were not impacted by the fire.
We hiked to Kings Creek Falls, a 2.3-mile loop that was stunning in the late spring. There was significant fire damage along the way, but the falls were beautiful and worth the hike.
Hikers are only allowed to bring leashed service animals on trails. Leashed pets aren't allowed on trails due to the park's efforts to protect its wildlife and natural habitats.
We could get an up-close view of geothermal landscapes without bumping into crowds
Lassen Volcanic definitely gets busy during the peak season. However, if you compare the numbers to other parks with geothermal attractions, it's generally a lot less crowded.
I was able to get some scenic photographs without a bunch of people in the background. Be aware that parking lots tend to be small, and they can fill up quickly during peak periods.
Sulphur Works, which has steam vents and boiling mud pots, is the park's most accessible hydrothermal area. You can park just off the main road and access it via sidewalks.
We also took the 3-mile, round-trip trail to Bumpass Hell, the largest hydrothermal area in the park. We did this with five kids between the ages of 5 and 10, and it was very doable for them.
Bumpass Hell is one of the most popular trails in the park for good reason — the landscape is stunning.
This trail is open seasonally, usually starting around the Fourth of July. However, the dates depend on the year's snowpack, as winter conditions can sometimes persist in summer. It's always a good idea to check the trail conditions before embarking on a hike here.
Lassen Volcanic offered a completely different experience when the sun went down
Lassen Volcanic has a saying that goes, "Half the park is after dark."
As a photographer and night-sky enthusiast, I recommend getting out and experiencing the park in the dark. Lassen Volcanic is known for preserving the night sky for all to enjoy and has an annual Dark Sky Festival, a multi-day celebration of astronomy and stargazing.
Outside of the festival, you can catch a ranger-led stargazing program or scout out your own spot during daylight hours and return at night.
I went for a daytime walk around Manzanita Lake and found some areas I thought would be perfect to come back to at night. When I returned, I saw a great view of the Milky Way over Lassen Peak.
Lassen Volcanic does an impressive job preserving its history
The National Register of Historic Places, the official list of historic places worthy of preservation in the US, includes 11 sites located in Lassen Volcanic. We enjoyed visiting the Loomis Museum, which is situated near Manzanita Lake.
Inside the museum, we found a detailed human history of the area as well as historic photographs, including those Benjamin Franklin Loomis took of Lassen Peak's last eruptive period from 1914 through 1917. In a stone building outside of the museum, we also saw a seismograph that Loomis constructed.
This is also where you can set kids up with the Junior Ranger Program. Children get a booklet with activities, and after it's done, they take it back to a ranger in exchange for a badge.
We were able to access plenty of scenic spots from our car
The Lassen Volcanic National Highway is just 30 miles long, running between Manzanita Lake at the northwest entrance and the Southwest Entrance Station.
If you drive the length of the highway, you'll be treated to dazzling scenes including ridgeline views of Lake Almanor, dense forests, volcanic peaks, hydrothermal features, and emerald mountain lakes.
The main highway is a relatively easy drive with a few switchbacks. We were able to find our own peaceful spots fairly easily, even if we weren't venturing far from our vehicles or the highway.
Lassen Volcanic is an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts who don't want to deal with major crowds
Lassen Volcanic is small compared to many other major national parks, but it has no shortage of accessible and jaw-dropping landscapes.
If you want to immerse yourself in nature without getting swallowed by crowds, consider exploring Lassen Volcanic on your next trip to the area.
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