The U.S. National Park Service will celebrate its centennial next year on the 25 August, having been established by President Woodrow Wilson under the Organic Act of 1916.
The precursor to this government agency was the proclamation of Devils Tower in Wyoming as the first National Monument by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, and the dedication by an act of Congress of Yellowstone, Mackinac (decommissioned), Sequoia and Yosemite as protected National Parks in 1872, 1875 and 1890 respectively. The fruit of America’s best idea needed an agency to nurture it, and the NPS was created “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein, and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Presently there are 59 National Parks located across 27 of the United States.
Whilst the UK has some truly spectacular National Parks, including our local park, the Brecon Beacons, those of the United States are just on a scale that our native gems cannot compete with. The diversity for one is incredible, with all manner of landscapes and wildlife to behold. To date, we have been fortunate to visit a number of National Parks on our travels (Biscayne, Everglades, Lassen, Death Valley, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion) all of which have been wonderful places. We have also visited Monument Valley, which is not, as is often thought of as, a National Park, but it is in fact a Navajo Tribal Park (which is a Navajo Nation equivalent). We are planning a trip to visit the three Washington parks, Olympic, Cascades and Mount Rainier in July. But clearly, there are still many more to yet to see!
As it is National Park Week, I am going to showcase my favourite National Park, Lassen, which is located in Northern California, at the lower end of the Cascade Range.
Lassen Volcanic National Park was established on the 9th August 2016, not long after the largest plug dome volcano in the world, Lassen Peak, erupted, and is one of nine parks in the state of California. Mount Lassen is one of only two volcanos to have erupted in the US in the twentieth century, the other being Mount St.Helens (Washington) in 1980. Whilst the giant peak has remained inactive, but not extinct, since 1915, the park as a whole remains restless, its hydrothermal features leaving the alpine area scarred with vividly bright fumaroles, boiling pools and geysers. The area is unusual in that it is home to all four volcano types: plug, shield, cinder cone, and strato).
The West: Lassen Peak Territory
The landscape of the park can be categorised into two distinct areas; the West is mountainous and jagged, interspersed with devilishly hostile sulphur vents and water features. Here you can take a short hike to Bumpass Hell, an aptly named gorge marked by a distinctive pallet of deadly pastels. The area can only be observed from a series of boardwalks, and at no time should visitors start from the safety of these elevated walkways, or else you may find yourself seriously maimed, as the areas name sake discovered to his detriment as he fell through the fragile surface crust into a boiling mud pool resulting in his leg being amputated.
Trail Overview: Bumpass Hell
Start: Bumpass Hell parking lot
Round Trip Distance: 3 miles
Round Trip Time: 2 hours
Terrain: easy 300 foot descent
Elevation: 8000 feet
The sulphur works are also nearby, as is the isolated and ancient Emerald Lake (home to numerous species that exist nowhere else in earth), both overshadowed by the towering peak of Lassen.
The East: Magnificent Desolation
This grandeur is contrasted starkly with the Martian-like lava plateau of the park’s East side, where many cinder cones rise eerily from the dark volcanic debris. The most well known of which is the Red Cinder Cone, surrounded by the Fantastic Lava Beds. Whilst there was originally some controversy as to when the cinder cone was last active, it is now agreed that the last eruption was around 1650.
To experience this alien place, enter the park from the Butte Lake entrance and drive for 7 miles along an unpaved road. The hike, whilst not long, is arduous, mainly because the 2k ascent to the top of the volcano is gravelly and steep. The sight from the top is worth the effort, and in spite of the blustery conditions on the top, a circumnavigation around the rim provides spectacular views of the rainbow lava dunes surrounding the base of the cone. If you still have enough energy, it is worth venturing into the depth of the volcano, where a scorio throne awaits you! Coming down the volcano was a breeze by comparison to the way up, but it was still a welcome sight to see the pine forest approach, with the promise of more secure terrain.
Trail Overview: Cinder Cone
Start: Butte Lake parking area. The Butte Lake area is accessed from highway 44, approximately 24 miles east of Manzanita Lake, and a two-hour drive from Drakesbad Ranch.
Round Trip Distance: 5 miles
Round Trip Time: 3 hours
Elevation Change: 846 ft
Elevation: 6,061 ft – 6,907 ft
Drakesbad Ranch: A little piece of paradise
For our trip, we stayed in the Southern area in the Warner Valley, where the idyllic Drakesbad Guest Ranch has been offering visitors with rustic lodging since 1900.
The area itself is a great base for hiking, and has numerous hot springs, with Devil’s Kitchen and Boiling Spring Lake a morning hike away.
Trail Overview: Devil’s Kitchen
Start: Warner Valley Trailhead
Round Trip Distance: 4.2 miles
Round Trip Time: 2 hours
Elevation: 5,640 ft – 6,040 ft (6,080 high point)
Elevation Change: 440 ft
Trail Overview: Boiling Springs Lake
Start: parking area west of Warner Valley Campground
Round Trip Distance: 3 miles
Round Trip Time: 2 hours
Terrain: easy 200 foot climb
Elevation: 5800 feet
Stables & Stargazing
The ranch’s highlight was the naturally heated pool that is available for use 24hrs a day. After nightfall, the bubbling dark waters offer the perfect spot from where the stellar spectacle, the Milky Way, can be seen in all its dazzling glory cutting through the starry canopy above. We were also treated to a clear view of the ISS passing by.
But this place is not for those who cannot live without their tech – none of the rustic wooden cabins have power outlets, and were equipped with only a kerosene lamp and basic bathroom facilities. The shared shower block is located 200m away next to the pool. Expect to be joined by critters, but remember to keep all food out of the cabins, and to keep your door securely fastened to keep larger guests (like squirrels or bears) at bay. All meals at the ranch are included, and the food and local Californian wine was an unexpected luxury, and the sack lunch option sustained you on your daily adventures.Legendary Drakesbad veteran, Ed, made our dining experiences ones to remember and Nick managed to keep us moving after some warning lights coming in our Jeep – great service! The long evenings were spent with other guests around the creaking and popping campfire toasting s’mores and drinking honesty box beer.
Call of the wild
Having also visited Yosemite on our trip, there was something magical about our time at Drakesbad. It was so isolated (the lodge is 17 miles down a unpaved track from Chester), and so removed from our everyday hectic lifestyles that the only option was to truly relax and absorb the extreme wilderness. We saw so few people on our hikes, and compared to Yosemite, saw so much wildlife, including three black bears (including one too close for comfort encounter!), marmots and so many squirrels and chipmunks that the air was shrill with their chirruping.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir
Whilst most tourists fail to venture so far beyond Sacramento, the 7-hour trip from San Francisco is so very worth it. Lassen Volcanic National Park – My Park!