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National Parks Road Trip: Northern California and Oregon

Lassen Volcanic > Crater Lake > Redwood   

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Steam rises from the vents at Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park.


Gateway Airport: Sacramento, California

This multiday adventure journeys from the southern reaches of the Cascade Range to the mist-shrouded Northern California coast. Two national parks—Lassen Volcanic and Crater Lake—showcase equally remarkable examples of the geological history of the Cascades, while Redwood National and State Parks preserve some of what remains of the massive forests that once blanketed the region. Whether it’s volcano, lake, or tree, the sheer scale of what you’ll encounter along the way is enough to inspire humility and reverence.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

The May 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak in Northern California sent glowing chunks of lava tumbling down the mountain and rained ash 200 miles away. Things are quieter now, but the aftermath is astonishing in its raw beauty: blackened lava fields, cinder cones, and the largest geothermal site west of Yellowstone. Bonus: It’s one of the least visited national parks in the country.

The Route: Sacramento > I-5N > CA 44E (190 miles)

On the Way: Corning, California, the “olive capital of the Unites States,” is home to the largest olive processor in the country (Bell-Carter) and is also a major center for growing and processing plums, walnuts, and almonds. Grab some locally produced olive oil and specialty nuts at the Olive Pit downtown.

Stay: The Drakesbad Guest Ranch (open seasonally from $200, meals included) in the Warner Valley at the park’s south entrance opened in 1900 as a remote health retreat. Today it offers cabins, bungalows, and lodge rooms, along with horseback riding, fishing, and easy access to hot mineral springs.

Eat: Not very different from its 1930s origins, the Lassen Mineral Lodge in Mineral, California, serves up noteworthy burgers that you can enjoy on an outdoor patio. There’s also a bar, game room, and even a small lending library.

Don’t Miss: On the north side of Lassen Peak, the largest plug dome volcano in the world, the unimaginatively but aptly named Devastated Area shows why this is one place you didn’t want to be in 1915. An interpretive trail winds through the rocky moonscape.

Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: The steep 2.5-mile climb up Lassen Peak (10,457 feet) offers a seemingly endless vista of Northern California’s mountain scenery. (The whiff of sulfur at the top serves as a reminder that this giant isn’t dead, just sleeping.)

Tour: A self-guided auto tour around the 30-mile Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway hits all the park’s major sights, including Kings Creek Meadow, Hat Creek, and the Sulphur Works. For more details, pick up a copy of the Road Guide to Lassen Volcanic National Park at the museum or visitors center.

Walks:

  1. Easy: The one-mile Lily Pond Nature Trail, a loop out of the Loomis Museum parking area, circles Reflection Lake and Lily Pond. Grab an interpretive brochure before you leave to identify the geological features and plants along the way.
  2. Moderate: The Bumpass Hell Trail is worth it just for the name, but this three-mile ramble doesn’t disappoint as it winds through 16 acres of sulfur-scented mud pits, pyrite pools, fumaroles, and steam vents. You’ll feel like you’re in Yellowstone, just without the crowds.
  3. Strenuous: From Butte Lake Trailhead, the 13-mile Snag Lake Loop takes in the pastel Painted Dunes, the ten-story basalt mounds at Fantastic Lava Beds, and—if you’re willing—a half-mile detour to the top of the 6,907-foot Cinder Cone. Most people do it as an overnight, camping at Grassy Swale on Snag Lake, which has great fishing for brown and rainbow trout.

Oddity: Lassen is one of the few places where you can see examples of the four types of volcanoes in the world—plug dome, shield, cinder cone, and composite—in such close proximity.

Before You Come: Brush up on your volcanology—and worst-case scenario plans—with information from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazard Program.

Park Website: www.nps.gov/lavo

Seasonal Notes: Although the park is open year-round, heavy snowfall means most roads are closed from late October or early November through early summer (May to July, depending).

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A man enjoys an overlook at Crater Lake National Park.


Crater Lake National Park

Filling the caldera of what used to be Mazama Peak, this crystalline blue lake—the deepest and clearest in the country—is surrounded by cliffs nearly 2,000 feet high like something out of a fantasy novel. (Fittingly, Wizard Island pokes from the water.) The park’s Rim Road circles the edge, but it’s well worth leaving the pavement and descending to the lakeshore to experience this wonder up close.

The Route: CA 44W > CA 89N > I-5N > OR 97N > OR 62N (216 miles)

On the Way: If you haven’t had your fill of things volcanic, swing by McArthur–Burney Falls Memorial State Park on the south side of Lake Britton. The falls, 129 feet high and 50 yards (150 feet) wide, are unusual in that only about half the water pours over the main plunge. The other half seeps through the porous stone and emerges in (relatively) smaller rivulets farther down the face.

Stay: Built in 1915, the Crater Lake Lodge ($180-$320) exudes rustic grandeur from the fireplace in the Great Hall to its rim-edge sunset views. It’s open mid-May through mid-October, and advance reservations are highly recommended.

Eat: The huckleberry pies at Beckie’s Café in nearby Prospect, Oregon, are legendary—they’ve been known to go through 70 of the pies in one night. But the rest of the menu at this throwback roadside eatery isn’t bad either; think burgers and country-fried steak.

Don’t Miss: When the Rim Road is closed by snow in the winter, it’s usually still open to snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. There’s nothing like gliding along in snowy silence with the azure lake at your feet.

Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: Wizard Island in the lake may be only 763 feet above water level, but the top of this mini-mountain offers an entirely different perspective of the ninth deepest lake in the world. (The only way to get there is via tour boat, making this an all-day endeavor.)

Tour: If you’re up for the hike down to Cleetwood Cove, boat tours (June to September) leave for guided cruises around the caldera. Guides explain the geology and history of the area, and you can opt to stop off at Wizard Island and get picked up later after a few hours of exploring.

Walks:

  1. Easy: The 0.8-mile one-way Watchman Trail climbs 600 feet to a historic fire lookout on a peak above the rim, with views of the lake and the southern Cascades beyond.
  2. Moderate: The only safe (and legal) way to get down to the lake is via the steep, 1.1-mile one-way Cleetwood Cove Trail. The 700-foot descent ends at the lakeshore and tour-boat dock.
  3. Strenuous: Hike up Mount Scott, the highest point in the park (8,929 feet), to see the whole splendid shebang spread out below. The 2.5-mile one-way trail climbs 1,500 feet to a fire lookout at the top of the mountain, about two miles east of the lake.

Oddity: Crater Lake is fed only by rain and snowmelt, which means there is very little dissolved organic material to block light. Light regularly penetrates as deep as 320 feet, and studies have found that at certain times, its surface waters have greater UV transparency than any other natural body of water in the world.

Before You Come: Read Crater Lake National Park: Deep Blue Wilderness, with photos and short essays on the park’s human and natural history.

Park Website: www.nps.gov/crla

Seasonal Notes: Heavy snowfall brings the park to a virtual halt from October through June, including closing the Rim Road.

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A hiker stands at the base of a redwood tree in Redwoods National Park.


Redwood National and State Parks

Few things can make you feel as small and ephemeral as standing next to a 350-foot tree that might have sprouted during the heyday of the Roman Empire. The ancient coast redwood forest ecosystem, reduced to a sliver of its former expanse along the coast of Northern California and Southern Oregon, is a quiet world of mist-shrouded giants and fern-choked creeks. Redwood National Park and three adjoining state parks (Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek) together protect close to half of the old-growth redwoods left on Earth.

The Route: Crater Lake > OR 62W > OR 234W > I-5W > OR 199W (155 miles)

On the Way: Southern Oregon’s Rogue River is famous for its outstanding fishing and white-water rafting. Stop at one of three Gold Nugget Waysides for a glimpse of another treasure in the water: placer gold, which folks have been panning for here for over a century. You’ll have to bring your own pan, but if you have the patience you might take home a few flecks.

Stay: Trinidad’s Lost Whale Inn is the kind of place that, once you settle in, you never want to leave. Ocean views, sumptuous breakfasts, and a hot tub are all on offer, and out back, flower gardens and green lawn slope toward a private, rocky beach.

Eat: The Beachcomber Cafe in Trinidad is the place to go for a steaming chai or hot chocolate, perfect after a damp redwood hike. They make their organic breakfasts from local ingredients, and you can pack a sandwich for lunch on the trail.

Don’t Miss: Even if you don’t recognize Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park from its appearance in Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, this lush, steep-walled gorge is clearly an otherworldly place. A muddy trail follows Home Creek up the canyon for about a mile.

Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: Stop at the Redwood Creek Overlook at 2,100 feet along Bald Hills Road and take in the sight of thousands of acres of old-growth forest and the Pacific Ocean. The view is often partly shrouded by fog, which just adds to the grandeur.

Tour: From mid-May through mid-September, the parks offer interpretive programs including naturalist-led hikes and tide pool walks.

Walks:

  1. Easy: Starting at the headquarters of Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the 3.2-mile Big Tree Loop probably has the highest wow-to-mile ratio in the park. It follows Prairie Creek to the aptly named Big Tree Area, then returns via the Cathedral Trees Trail.
  2. Moderate: Starting at the Fern Canyon Trailhead, the Friendship Ridge Trail (an eight-mile loop) is one of the most diverse in the area. Skirt the shoreline via the Coastal Trail before ascending to the ridge, where redwoods and spruce tower over ferny undergrowth as Pacific breakers roll in far below.
  3. Strenuous: The Redwood Creek Trail (15 miles round-trip) follows the eponymous stream to the Tall Trees Grove, a neck-bending collection of 350-foot monsters. It’s mostly flat, with a few bridge crossings, and the gravel bars along the way are the only places you can camp in the park.

Oddity: A pair of naturalists discovered Hyperion, the world’s tallest tree (379.1 feet) in 2006 in a remote part of the Redwood National and State Parks. Its exact location is a closely guarded secret to protect the surrounding ecosystem.

Before You Come: Read Richard Preston’s The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring, about the death-defying naturalists who climb, study, and even sleep in the tops of the tallest trees on Earth.

Park Website: www.nps.gov/redw

Seasonal Notes: Summers can be foggy and winters cool and rainy; most of the region’s 60-80 annual inches of rain falls between October and April. Bring rain gear in any season, and be prepared to get muddy on hikes.


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