LASSEN, Calif. — For countless generations the Yana Indians called it Waganupa, but it acquired a new name after Peter Lassen, a Danish-born immigrant, traveled to California in 1840 and became the first American to climb the volcanic peak. Lassen was a rancher, prospector and trailblazer who established the Lassen Cutoff of the California Trail. His cutoff is infamous for its arduous Black Rock Desert crossing, and although it was touted as a shortcut, it was actually about 200 miles longer than the well-established Truckee or Carson routes to the gold diggings.
Today the 10,457-foot Lassen Peak is the crown jewel of Lassen Volcanic National Park. It’s one of the largest lava domes on Earth and the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range in Northern California. The park offers an array of accessible hydrothermal features like hot springs, mud pots and steam vents known as fumaroles.
Annual snowfall at Lassen National Park is epic, the most recorded in California. At the Lake Helen snow survey site, elevation 8,200 feet, an average annual 660 inches (55 feet) of snow buries the area each winter. Some years more than 1,000 inches (83 feet) of snowfall has been measured there. Despite Lassen’s relatively modest elevation, the heavy snowfall sustains 14 permanent patches of snow in the park. The all-time seasonal snowfall record in the Sierra Nevada is 884 inches (73.7 feet) measured during the winter of 1907 at Tamarack near Bear Valley ski area. The United States seasonal snowfall record is currently held by the Mount Baker ski area where 1,140 inches (95 feet) were measured during the 1998-99 winter.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is the least visited of California’s national parks. Due to deep snow cover the road through the park often isn’t plowed until late June or early July and is closed again by late October. Cross-country and backcountry skiing are popular during the winter months. Alpine skiers frequently boot-climb Lassen Peak in the spring for the exhilarating downhill runs on the volcano’s steep flank.
After a series of eruptions in 1914 and 1915, sightseers flocked to the region prompting the federal government to establish the national park in 1916. The early federal protection saved the area from heavy logging and today is one of the largest areas of old-growth forest in northern California. On May 30, 1914, Lassen Peak was shaken by a steam explosion and within a year more than 180 additional explosions had blasted out a large crater near the summit. On May 19, 1915, a huge blast launched incandescent blocks of lava onto the snow-covered slopes. The falling rocks of hot lava started avalanches and generated a destructive mud flow of volcanic materials.
Finally, on May 22, the most powerful eruption of all shot rock and pumice 30,000 feet into the air. In Nevada, 300 miles east and downwind, the Elko Free Press newspaper stated: “The air was filled with volcanic dust to such an extent as to obscure the sun, and railroad trains from California stopped at Elko in order that passenger coaches might be cleaned.”
Nearly 75 percent of the park includes designated wilderness, known as the Lassen Volcanic Wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964 defined wilderness as, “An area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” With its lava domes, tumbling waterfalls, hydrothermal features and expansive old growth forest, Lassen National Volcanic Park boasts a wealth of natural wonders, but still remains one of the West’s best-kept secrets.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at email@example.com