Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Finding yourself depressed in late July as the wild flowers are gone, the heat has sunk in, and everything is turning brown?  Head on up to Lassen Volcanic National Park where Spring is just kicking into gear.

My family and I did just that, deciding to embark on our longest straight camping endeavor with the family totaling six nights.

Our first destination was the southern campground at Summit Lake where we had reservations for a site that was close to the lake.  Ascending into the mountains out of the scorching valley was a pleasant drive.  In under 3 hours we had made the journey from the Sacramento area and found ourselves passing through the gates of the national park.  Entrance into the park is $10 per vehicle, and it's good for a full week.

The road into the park is through hillsides covered with beautiful yellow flowers (mainly Mule's Ear), and evidence of volcanic activity comes into view all around.

Soon we were climbing the steep winding roads with Lassen Peak getting ever nearer, and we found ourselves coming across lots of snow!  What started as patches here and there quickly lead to 8-10 foot snow drifts on the side of the road and large frozen over lakes with bright aqua blue waters melting from it here and there.

At last we arrived at our campsite and began to settle in. It was a decent site. Not the largest or most private site I've ever been to, but not crammed either. The lake was in view, but we were not right on it as I had hoped. Between us and the lake was a lush meadow with a beautiful clear creek running through it. Then there were the mosquitoes. Not long after arriving we were scrambling for bug juice and shedding our shorts for long pants. The onslaught can only be described as a hoard of hungry bloodsuckers; eager for a bite on the newcomers. I quickly learned that the "non-toxin" "natural" stuff is just junk. They darted right through that like a runner broaching the tape of the finish line. Take my advice, bring the good stuff!

I'll tell you what though, I'm sure we got more mosquitoes being so close to this meadow, but it was one of the more beautiful meadows I've ever photographed.

Once we got over the initial shock of the clouds of tiny little blood suckers, we carried the canoe down to the lake and set off for a short paddle. Short is really the only way to describe paddling on Summit lake. We were literally doing laps around it in intervals of less than ten minutes. It is also not as clear as many of the high alpine lakes in this area, but it has a certain charm to it. Beautiful Red Firs line the shore, and from the far east side there is a fabulous view of Lassen. I also enjoyed paddling it solo in the morning, hunting for the rays of sunlight coming through the trees and illuminating the misty fog left on the surface.

The next morning we headed over to the Kings Creek trail head for a couple mile hike to Kings Creek Falls. Looking for a sign, we drove right by the unmarked parking area until I finally used the GPS to find it. There was plenty of parking right off the road, but not a single car was there (the advantages to visiting a National Park on a week day).

The hike was very pleasant, descending gently with the creek for the first mile or so through patches of snow and past beautiful meadows. The next part of the trail was supposed to be down a rock staircase along the cascades leading to the falls, but we found yellow caution tape stretched across the trail, an obvious indication that this section was closed. We had to detour around on the "horse trail", which added quite a bit of distance. All in all we ended up hiking a little over 3 miles round trip, which isn't bad, but it's pushing it a little with two young kids (especially carrying the 3 y/o down and up the steep part). Still, it was worth the trek and we got to visit a beautiful waterfall with no one around. I'd like to come back and see it again when the flows are not so intense. From pictures I've seen it gives a more spread out "spidery" look.

We capped off the day stopping off at the south entrance visitor center to learn all about volcanoes and have an ice cream. As a last activity of the day we headed to Sulfur Works to see some neat volcanic activity, but only the parts right along the road were open. The path leading up into the hills where the rest of the sights were was free of snow, but it was still closed. I'm thinking they had not gotten a chance to put up the walking platforms, but I'm not really sure. It seemed to be a theme of closures and missing signs with no real apparent reason. I would not say good communication is one of the strong parts of the park. On top of that Bumpass Hell was also closed (this one due to snow), so we didn't get to see a ton of gaseous steam or other neat stuff. There was some pretty cool boiling mud along the road at Sulfur Works though. All the more reason for us to visit again.

The next day we took it easy and visited the northern section of the park, hiking to Lily Pond, learning more at this visitor center (including a good movie), and stopping in at the store at Manzanita Lake for supplies and a shower (this is the only shower facility in the park). Bring some cheap flip flops if you need to shower here, as the smell of mildew was quite pungent.

We spent the last evening relaxing at the lake. We took a last paddle, and had smores around the campfire. It had been a good spot to explore the main portions of the park. The kids had made friends in a neighboring camp whom they had snow ball fights with in a snow patch and played constantly on the hammock with (which they affectionately called the "hang-a-mat"). We had fought hard to deal with the mosquitoes, and they had either started to lighten up a bit, or we had started to run out of blood.

Soon it was morning and time to pack up and move on to the next site. I had taken one last morning solo paddle on the lake before lugging it back up to camp to load it up with all our other stuff for the hour drive or so to our next stop at Juniper Lake. We stopped for lunch in Chester, and to restock one last time before taking the dirt road up to the campground with not even running water (just a pit toilet).

Pulling into the camp road, I begun to feel a bit nervous as quite a few cars were parked at the trail head outside. Then we saw all the inland sites, save one, filled up. This seemed odd on a Wednesday. Another turn of the road and the reason became clear. I gate now blocked our way with a crude sign stately simply "Road Closed, Walk-in camping only" with a date of the prior Friday. Oh man, this was about to get a whole lot more complicated.

I walked down to the lakeside camps and found a couple occupied, but mainly open sites. The site we had taken last year, the one I had dreamed of while planning this trip, lay open in front of me. I tied my red bandanna to the pole to mark it mine, and set my resolve and I walked the near quarter mile back up to the car. Jennifer knew right away that I had set my mind to it, and quickly I began unloading and starting the long haul of carrying most of our stuff down on my back. Megan kept me company while Jennifer stayed and watched over the sleeping Andrew. After a few trips Jennifer carried a few things down while I rested. A few more trips later and I was carrying the cooler loaded with ice; and setting it down to sit awhile; and carrying some more. I'd guess it took a little under an hour in all to "portage" all our stuff down including the canoe.

After setting up the tent, there was only one thing to do. I got into my bathing suit and lunged myself quickly into the chilly water. Whew-wee that was a rush!

I must say, I was a bit sore from the haul, but the payoff was worth it. We had a prime spot on one beautiful lake with only a few neighbors. You could literally make a day out of watching the beautiful waters change to all kinds of shades of blue and green throughout the day, and it was for the most part peaceful and quiet (at least as quiet as can be with a 3yo and 6yo along).

After a long day we enjoyed the sunset over the lake before having some smores around the fire, and then finally got the kids down for sleep. I went out again after they had dozed off and enjoyed the fire and the peaceful serenity of it all. As the moon came up over the trees I was drawn out onto the lake to paddle in silence over the calm water. The lake is so pure and clear that I could see the rocks on the bottom some 20 feet or more below in the moon light. Simply magical!

The next day we set off intending to hike to Horseshoe Lake, but we never made it there. A little ways in to it we realized that we were all a bit too tired to make the hike and turned back, choosing instead to picnic at the northern shore. The rest of the day was split up between swimming, paddling, and just hanging out. Not a bad way to spend your time.

On our last full day we hiked up to Crystal Lake. Though it is a bit steep at parts, it's not far at all, and even Andrew made the walk there and back all on his own. What a great little hiker! The kids waded in the shallow lake, which was somewhat warmer than Juniper, and we enjoyed a good snack up there.

The hours drifted away our time on this beautiful lake, and before we knew it we were turning in for the last night. The road still lay closed, and I was giving up hope that it would reopen before we left the next morning.

Sure enough morning greeted us with beauty all around, but not with a road to drive out of it. New neighbors that had joined us the day before gave me the idea for an alternate exit; and exit on the water. The group camp, which had suspiciously opened itself (it only had some caution tape crossing the road when we first went by it), was my destination. With canoe loaded down I paddled the short ways over and dropped everything off at the shore. Only one more trip was required to get a few more things and the family. We did one last loop around the camp area before pulling in for good and loading up the car which we parked a short ways from the beach. This proved to be much easier than carrying it all, but the funniest thing of all was the Ranger showing up as I got the car to load it. The road was opened as we pulled away.

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