Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park sees around a half million visitors each year

Lassen Peak, the largest lava dome volcano in the world, is joined by all three other types of volcanoes in this park: shield, cinder cone, and composite. Though Lassen itself last erupted in 1915, most of the rest of the area in Lassen Volcanic National Park is continuously active. Numerous hydrothermal features, including fumaroles, boiling pools, and bubbling mud pots, are heated by molten rock from beneath the peak.


The park contains the four primary types of volcanoes (composite volcanoes, shield volcanoes, cinder cones, and lava domes)

Geodiversity refers to the full variety of natural geologic (rocks, minerals, sediments, fossils, landforms, and physical processes) and soil resources and processes that occur in the park. A product of the Geologic Resources Inventory, the NPS Geodiversity Atlas delivers information in support of education, Geoconservation, and integrated management of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) components of the ecosystem.

Geologic Setting
Lassen Peak is the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range. Before the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington, Lassen Peak was the most recent volcanic outburst in the contiguous 48 states. Following a series of eruptions starting in 1914, Lassen Peak erupted explosively on 22 May 1915. Pyroclastic flows, debris avalanches, debris flows, and associated flood waters devastated nearby areas, and volcanic ash fell across hundreds of miles to the east.

Lassen Peak and the other volcanoes of the Cascade Range are part of the Cascade volcanic arc, which extends from southern British Columbia to northern California. The volcanic arc is a result of oblique subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate (including the Explorer and Gorda subplates). Landward from the plunging tectonic plates, magma has worked its way to the surface and built a series of conspicuous volcanic landscapes, ranging in age from Miocene to Holocene in age. Subduction, and the resulting volcanoes and earthquakes, inspired the collective name “Ring of Fire” for the circle of volcanoes that surround the Pacific Ocean. Cascade arc volcanoes, including Lassen Peak, make up a segment of this ring.

The heat source (magma chamber) of active volcanism at the park yields remarkable hydrothermal features, including roaring fumaroles, mud pots, boiling pools, and thermal ground. These features are indicators of the ongoing potential for future volcanic eruptions in the Lassen volcanic center.

Volcanic Features
The park contains the four primary types of volcanoes (composite volcanoes, shield volcanoes, cinder cones, and lava domes), as well as lava flows, pyroclastic flows (density currents of volcanic gases, ash, and rock), and tephra (deposits of volcanic material ejected from a volcano). Before the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, Lassen Peak was the only Cascade volcano to have erupted in the 20th century. The currently active volcanic center, the “Lassen volcanic center,” of which Lassen Peak is a part, is within the park. This center is superimposed upon a volcanic platform created by regional volcanoes, which in addition to the volcanic center also occur in the park. Over its 825,000-year lifespan, the Lassen volcanic center has consisted of a collapsed caldera complex filled by the now much-eroded Brokeoff Volcano and the Lassen domefield. Three eruptions have occurred at the Lassen volcanic center in the last 1,050 years, the most recent in 1914-1917.

Glacial Landforms
Although Lassen is noted primarily for its volcanic terrain and associated hydrothermal features, volcanism and glaciation have gone hand in hand in the creation of the park’s landscape. No glaciers exist in the park today, however large ice caps covered the mountainous terrain several times during ice ages of the recent geologic past. Glacial landforms such as moraines and outwash deposits “overprint” much of the volcanic foundation. The alteration of volcanic rocks by hydrothermal processes facilitated glacial erosion, and glacially eroded features such as U-shaped valleys, cirques, and arêtes occur throughout the park.

Glaciers advanced at least five times during the ice ages of the Pleistocene Epoch. Valley glaciers radiated out from the base and northeastern flank of Lassen Peak, and an ice cap was situated over the central plateau area of the park (Kane 1982; Turrin et al. 1998). Additionally, two small moraines near the base of Lassen Peak record early Holocene glacial activity, between about 8,000 and 12,000 years ago (Christiansen et al. 2002).

The main effects of Pleistocene glaciation in the park were erosional. Glaciers deepened major valleys, removed bedrock from large parts of the landscape, and created or enlarged hundreds of lake basins. Glaciers also polished and scratched striations and grooves on bedrock surfaces, and formed cirques and arêtes at high elevations, and roches moutonnées in valleys.

Glacial deposition also helped to shape the Lassen landscape. Glaciers widely distributed till (a mixture of clay, silt, sand, gravel, and boulders), developed moraines, and deposited erratics. Glacial meltwater deposited outwash (sand and gravel) beyond the margins of glacial ice.

Geology Field Notes
Students and teachers of college-level (or AP) introductory geology or earth science teaching courses will find that each park’s Geologic Resource Inventory report includes the Geologic History, Geologic Setting, and Geologic Features & Processes for the park which provides a useful summary of their overall geologic story. See Maps and Reports, below.

Regional Geology
Lassen Volcanic is a part of the Cascade-Sierra Mountains Physiographic Province and shares its geologic history and some characteristic geologic formations with a region that extends well beyond park boundaries.

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Native American History

Home of the Atsugewi, Yana, Yahi, and Maidu peoples

The Lassen area was a meeting point for at least four American Indian groups: Atsugewi, Yana, Yahi, and Maidu. Because of its weather and snow conditions, generally high elevation, and seasonally mobile deer populations, the Lassen area was not conducive to year-round living. These Native American groups camped here in warmer months for hunting and gathering. Basket makers rather than potters, they left few artifacts other than stone points, knives, and metals. Some of these artifacts are displayed in the Loomis Museum, along with replicas of basketry and hunting devices. Tribal descendents still live in the area and are valuable partners to the park. Members have worked with the National Park Service to provide cultural demonstrations and to help visitors understand both modern and historical tribal culture.

Ishi: Last of the Yahi
A Yahi Indian named Ishi turned up in Oroville, Calif. in 1911. He never mixed with whites before, and his tribe was thought to be nonexistent. He lived out his days at the Anthropology Museum of the University of California Affiliated Colleges on Parnassus Heights in San Francisco (now the site of the University of California San Francisco), where he was an invaluable ethnological source. Ishi was considered the last stone age survivor in the United States. He contracted tuberculosis and died on March 25, 1916 at the medical college on Parnassus. Yahi artifacts and tools created by Ishi can be studied at the University of California Berkelely, Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

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Park History

How Lassen Volcanic became a National Park

Emigrants and Pioneers
History here generally describes the period from 1840, even though Jedediah Smith passed through in 1828 on his overland trek to the West Coast. California’s gold rush brought the first settlers. Two pioneer trails, developed by William Nobles and Peter Lassen, are associated with the park. In 1851, Nobles discovered an alternate route to California, passing through Lassen. Sections of the Lassen and Nobles Emigrant Trail are still visible. Lassen, for whom the park is named, guided settlers near here and tried to establish a city. Mining, power development projects, ranching, and timbering were all attempted. The area’s early federal protection saved it from heavy logging.

Benjamin Franklin Loomis
B.F. Loomis documented Lassen Peak’s most recent eruption cycle and promoted the park’s establishment. He photographed the eruptions, explored geologically, and developed an extensive museum collection. Artifacts and photographs of the 1914-1915 eruption are on display in the Loomis Museum and are accessible.

Supans and Sulphur Works
Mathias B. Supan came to America looking for a new life. He found one in northern California at a place he dubbed Dr. Supan’s Paint Mine, known today as Sulphur Works. As the area surrounding Sulphur Works became Lassen Volcanic National Park, there was much tension between the Supan family and the park. Both parties saw potential in the Sulphur Works area. In the end, the park was able to purchase what is now a popular stop for visitors to explore Lassen’s most accessible hydrothermal area.

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The best things to do in Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park offers a wealth of activities that are as varied as the seasons of the park. Winter conditions often begin as early as October and persist through June or July. Be sure to check trail, campground and road conditions before planning a spring trip.

Auto-touring Field Seminars Snowplay
Backpacking Fishing Snowshoeing
Birdwatching Horseback Riding Special Events
Boating Parkcaching Stargazing & Astronomy
Camping Ranger-led Programs Stock Use
Hiking Skiing Swimming

Summer and Fall
With over 150 miles of hiking trails, both day hiking and backpacking are popular summer activities. Don’t miss Lassen’s active hydrothermal areas including Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell. Note that due to snow pack, the Bumpass Hell trail usually does not open until early to mid-July. The summer is season is also a great time to enjoy ranger-led programs and special events. To help plan your summer visit, view sample summer itineraries or read the summer edition of the Peak Experiences, the park newspaper.

Spring and Winter
Lassen receives more than 30 feet of snow on average each winter! The season often begins in October and persists through June or July. Snowplay, skiing, and snowshoeing are great ways to enjoy Lassen’s winter wonderland. If you’re new to winter at Lassen, join us for a ranger-led snowshoe program offered on weekends. For more information on planning a winter visit, visit the winter activities page or read the winter edition of the Peak Experiences, the park newspaper.

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A Bouquet of Biodiversity

Lassen Volcanic is home to both native plants and invasive (non-native) species. Native are plants indigenous to the area in geologic time. This includes plants that have developed, occur naturally, or existed for many years in an area (trees, flowers, grasses, and other plants. Invasive plants are not native to the park and have a tendancy to spread, possibly causing damage to the existing ecosystem.

Plant Life Zones
Mixed Conifer (below 6,500 feet)
At elevations below 6,500 feet the dominant vegetation community is the mixed conifer forest. Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, sugar pine, and white fir form the forest canopy for this rich community that also includes species of manzanita, gooseberry and ceanothus. Common wildflowers include iris, spotted coralroot, pyrola, violets, and lupine.

Red Fir Forest (6,500-8,500 feet)
Above the mixed conifer forest is the major community of the red fir forest. Between elevations of 6,500 and 8,000 feet, red fir, western white pine, mountain hemlock, and lodgepole pine dominate a community less diverse than the mixed-conifer forest. Common plants include satin lupine, woolly mule’s-ears and pinemat manzanita.

Subalpine (8,000 to 10,000 feet)
Subalpine areas include the upper limit for the growth of standing trees. From 8,000 feet to treeline, plants are fewer in overall number with exposed patches of bare ground providing a harsh environment. Rock spirea, lupine, Indian paintbrush, and penstemon are a few of the rugged members of this community. Trees in this community include whitebark pine and mountain hemlock.

Plants of Concern
Sprinkled throughout Lassen Volcanic’s elevation-defined Life Zones are several plants of concern. “Concern” is based on a variety of variables, including the level of threat a species faces, its abundance and ranking, and also the ecosystem services that it performs. The greatest threats to Lassen’s flora include climate change, competition with invasive plants, and historical fire suppression.

Whitebark Pine and Blister Rust
More than 300 acres of whitebark pine are potentially susceptible to infection of an exotic pathogen known as white pine blister rust. Student scientists are assisting park ecologists in mapping the distribution and rate of infection in these ancient, alpine trees.

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Gnarled whitebark pine survive on the barren subalpine slopes of Lassen Volcanic with the help of their partner, the Clark’s nutcracker. These curious birds flock to the trees’ twisted branches for their rich, fatty seeds (with more calories per pound than chocolate), which help them survive Lassen’s harsh winters. This dependent relationship has become increasingly important as whitebark pine numbers decrease under attack of natural diseases.

Animal Life

Wildlife is abundant in Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to approximately 300 species of vertebrates, which includes birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. The richness of species is contributed to the variety of habitats found within Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Most of the park below the 7800 foot level is comprised of mixed conifer forest comprised of white fir, red fir, Jeffrey pine and lodgepole pine. Species that are typically found in these forested areas are black bear, mule deer, marten, brown creeper, mountain chickadee, white-headed woodpecker, long-toed salamander, and a wide variety of bat species.

Above 7800’ the habitat becomes one of limited stands of Mountain hemlock. Species that occur here include Clark’s nutcracker, deer mice and various chipmunk species.

Above the Mountain hemlock zone is the subalpine zone which is comprised of very sparse to no vegetation. Species found in this habitat include gray-crowned rosy finch, pika and golden mantled ground squirrel.

Other minor vegetation communities occur in the park. Montane chaparral, in scattered stands, can be found at lower elevations and drier aspects. Dispersed within forest communities, low stands of pinemat manzanita connect individual stands of red fir and lodgepole pine. Species that can be found in these habitats include dark-eyed junco, montane vole, and sagebrush lizard.

Seasonally wet meadows are also common in valley bottoms, along streams and lake margins. Pacific tree frog, Western terrestrial garter snake, common snipe, and mountain pocket gopher can be found in these areas.

Lassen Volcanic National Park has one species that is currently listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act (bald eagle) and one that was taken off the endangered species list in 1999 (peregrine falcon).

Lassen Volcanic National Park is also home to a variety of invertebrate species which can be found in all of the habitats listed above. One of the most noticeable species is the California Tortoise Shell butterfly. These butterflies are orange-brown in color and can be seen by the thousands at times especially on the tops of peaks where wind currents have carried them. These population explosions are believed to be movements from areas that have been defoliated to new areas in search of a food source. These mass movements can make driving conditions hazardous due to slick pavement and windshields becoming plastered with dead butterflies.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park offers over 150 miles of hiking trails for visitors of levels of ability. Discover the devastation of Lassen Peak’s last eruption on the accessible trail at the Devastated Area, explore Lassen’s largest hydrothermal area on the Bumpass Hell trail, or spend the day climbing Brokeoff Mountain and enjoy its spectacular panoramic views. Please note that winter conditions often persist late into the summer months, and many trails are not snow free until June or July. View current trail conditions below or call (530) 595-4480 for the most up-to-date information.

Take the Reach Higher Trail Challenge!
Pick up a participation brochure at a visitor station and start hiking to burn calories and earn a free commemorative bandana (while supplies last)!

Trail Notes
Bear-Resistant Storage Required for Backpackers
Overnight backcountry users must use a container certified by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) to store food and scented items. View more information on the backpacking permit page.
Hydrothermal Area Danger
For your safety, stay on established trails and boardwalks. Ground in hydrothermal areas can look solid but may actually be a thin crust hiding pools of acidic boiling water or mud. Traveling off-trail in these areas may result in severe injury. Read more about exploring the park hydrothermal areas.

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