Lassen Volcanic National Park

Volcanoes from Old to New
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Old Lassen

Eighty years ago Lassen was just another gray volcano, known only to a few locals. Ishi, America's"last wild Indian," knew the Lassen region well; he emerged from the mountain's foothills in 1911 to become "civilized" by well-meaning anthropologists. Lassen has a volcanic history dating back 2 million years, but Ishi would never have seen an eruption: The peak had been dormant since the late 17th century. But three years after Ishi left his native home, the mountain began stirring; from May 1914 to May 1915 the peak vomited forth 173 eruptions, most of them inconsequential. Finally the mountain broke loose. A swift-moving pyroclastic blast in May 1915 denuded six square miles of forest on the north flank; days later, the peak spewed forth a massive volume of ash that rose to 36,000 feet. Two inches of gray matter soon covered the streets of Reno, 105 miles downwind. The eruption, the biggest ever seen by European descendants in this country, fascinated the public, and a year later, when the volcano began to sleep once again, the national park was established. By then, Ishi had died of tuberculosis.

New Lassen

Most hardy visitors will want to hike to Lassen's summit to see signs of the 1915 eruptions. An excellent trail with nearly 50 switchbacks begins at 8,460 feet, just west of the highway summit. You'll pass by dwarfed mountain hemlocks and, later, whitebark pines struggling to stay alive. Then, at around 9,500 feet, you'll enter a desolate region where seemingly nothing grows. But if you look carefully, you'll spot minuscule wildflowers and sedges. The views from the summit include, up close, various craters and jagged outcrops; the distant view takes in snowy Mount Shasta , 67 miles away. Considering the elevation gain of 2,000 feet and a round-trip distance of four and a half miles, hikers should allow three to four hours from car to car.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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