Visit Lassen National Park
Courtesy of Kate Loweth
If you are looking to explore one of California’s national parks this summer, you will definitely want to put Lassen Volcanic National Park high on your list. Just a half-day drive from the Bay Area, you will feel like you are worlds away when you explore Lassen’s bubbling hydrothermal mudpots and picturesque peaks.
There’s plenty to do in and around Lassen – hiking trails for miles, boating on nearby Lake Almanor, cabins to rent and campsites that offer even more outdoor adventure – as I discovered when I traveled there solo last summer with my three kids, then ages 5, 7 and 8. We spent a week in the area, but even a long weekend will allow you to slow down, breathe the fresh air and relax – a perfect off-the-grid summer adventure for the family.
First Stop – Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center
Entrance into the Lassen Volcanic National Park is $20 for a full week of exploring. Got a fourth-grader with you? Check out the Every Kid in a Park program (www.everykidinapark.gov) before you go to download the pass that gets all fourth-graders and their families free access to all the national parks.
You can easily spend a full afternoon at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. It is full of interactive displays and a movie that tell the history of the park. Did you know that there are four different types of volcanoes at Lassen? The movie is a great first stop as it plays continuously throughout the day and gives the background of Lassen and how the land came to look the way it does now.
Stop by the information booth to sign up for the Junior Ranger program and to get tips on where to stop along the park’s main road to explore. Kids who complete the Junior Ranger booklet can show it to a ranger at the visitor center, take the oath of the Junior Ranger and receive an official patch for their hard work.
Explore the Park
A good start to planning your trip is the park guide that gives you “must-see” spots to stop along the main road (www.nps.gov/lavo/planyourvisit/only-a-day-or-two-to-see-the-park.htm). Your nose will likely alert you before you even arrive at the Sulfur Works, the first stop up the road from the visitor center. These stinky boiling mudpots and steamy vents are something from a sci-fi film. The area is easily accessible from the parking lot, and helpful rangers are present to answer any questions the kids might have.
A good hike is the Bumpass Hell Trail. It is three miles roundtrip and relatively flat (although not good for strollers). The trail takes you past beautiful Lake Helen, a great spot to stop and take some photos with Mount Lassen in the background. The trail’s turnaround point includes some amazing mudpots, the Big Boiler fumarole and turquoise pools. Make sure you check the park’s website or ask the rangers at the visitor center before you head out. Lassen gets loads of snow and that can prevent them from opening the Bumpass Hell Trail until mid-summer.
If snow prevents you from taking the Bumpass Hell Trail, then check out the Mill Creek Falls Trail. The trailhead is just off the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center parking lot, and this trail’s lower elevation makes it one of the first to open up in the spring. The 3.2-mile moderate hike takes you over creeks and through a red fir forest to the overlook of Mill Creek Falls, the park’s highest waterfall.
Drakesbad Guest Ranch
Located in a valley on the southern edge of Lassen, Drakesbad Guest Ranch offers overnight lodging, hiking, dining and horseback riding – a great option if you are looking to truly get away from city life for a few days. Many different lodging options are available including cabins that sleep up to 4 and one-bedroom bungalows with two double beds. Kids 6 and under are free with a paying adult, and all guest rates include three meals provided on-site.
Even if you aren’t interested in staying overnight at Drakesbad, you should add it to your list for one of your days at Lassen. Day-use visitors are welcome and you can make reservations for a meal on the property while you are there.
Across the meadow and through the woods is a 90-minute hike that takes you around Boiling Springs Lake – one of the best bubbling mudpots in the park. After your hike, spend some time in the mineral hot spring-fed pool – you will be amazed how well you float in this therapeutic water. Arts and crafts, s’mores, archery and ping-pong are just a few of the ways to keep the kids busy while at Drakesbad.
A Day at the Lake
After you have had your fill of hiking, spend some time at one of the lakes in and around the park. Juniper Lake in the park’s southeast corner is great spot to spend the afternoon relaxing in nature. It’s a bit of a bumpy, off-road adventure along the park’s rocky road to get there, but it is worth the drive, as you may be the only people within miles of this scenic spot. Bring your inflatable rafts and picnic, and you will be set for a day of relaxation by this calm mountain lake.
If you are looking to get out on the water, rent a pontoon boat at Major’s Outpost or one of the many rental spots on Lake Almanor, just south of Lassen. The 16-person pontoon boats are perfect for family fun as they include a massive inflatable slide and BBQ grill. While most of us are used to the always-freezing Lake Tahoe water, Lake Almanor is a much warmer alternative and the kids may never want to get out.
Where to Stay
In addition to Drakesbad, there are many lodging options around Lassen. If camping is your plan, check out the eight campgrounds at Lassen offering more than 300 campsites. Four of the campgrounds can be reserved in advance and four are booked on a first-come, first-served basis. According to the park’s website, they are rarely fully booked, which is good to know if you are traveling a distance.
Situated near the northwest entrance of the park, the Manzanita Lake Camping Cabins offer the camping experience without the tent set-up. These 20 cabins come in three different sizes with the largest providing bunk beds to accommodate eight campers. You can even add an amenity package when you reserve your cabin so that you don’t have to lug all your cooking equipment with you. A full-service convenience store, coin-operated laundry facilities and kayak rentals make your stay at Manzanita Lake even more enjoyable.
Lake Almanor offers lots of lodging options if you are looking to stay near Lassen. Plumas Pines Resort has eight rustic cabins that include a kitchen and bathroom. Families will enjoy the kid-friendly, lakeside restaurant on-site where the kids can run around on the lawn as you leisurely finish your meal. Plumas Pines is also walking distance from the lake’s boat rentals, or you can dock your own boat at the marina there.
Many families prefer to reserve a house via VRBO or homeaway.com as they offer many conveniences such as a full kitchen and lake access. Often the houses are large and perfect for sharing with another family. Look for properties within the Lake Almanor Country Club as the recreation department there offers activities including movie nights, live music and s’mores by the campfire most nights during the summer.
Give the kids the gift of an outdoor adventure this summer with a road trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. You will all come away with a new appreciation for our beautiful state.
Seven Tips for Solo Road-Tripping With Kids
Looking to take your vacation on the road this summer but don’t have another adult to join you? Fear not! With a little planning ahead you will be ready to set out on your road-trip adventure. Here are some of lessons I’ve learned on trips, including my five-hour solo drive from the South Bay to Lassen with three kids ages 8 and under:
1. Time it right. Whether you are dealing with nap times or older kids, planning the start time of your road trip is key. Maybe you want to start super early in the morning and keep the kids in jammies with the hope that they will sleep part of the way. Or, perhaps you want to plan it so that you will hit a good lunch spot about two-thirds of the way into your journey. Is it better to leave mid-morning to avoid traffic out of the city? Whatever your goal, think about what might work best for you and the crew before heading out.
2. Go hands-free. It’s kind of a no-brainer in this day and age, but going totally hand-free is even more important when you are on a solo road trip with the kids. In fact, a new state law that went into effect Jan. 1 requires any cell phone in use to be mounted to the dashboard, windshield or console. Cue up your map app, plug in that phone and make sure you have easily accessible beverages and snacks for yourself. A happy driver is essential for a good road trip.
3. Snacks, snacks and more snacks. On our trip, I packed a mini cooler full of snacks and drinks for each of my three kids. They were thrilled! This kept me from having to stop the car to pass out snacks, and we were able to travel a lot longer before our first pit stop. I made sure that everything in the cooler was easy to open so that they could take care of themselves. It also had a few of their usually off-limits candy favorites to start the journey on a good note.
4. Print out a map. A great way to keep the “are we there yet?” questions at bay is to print out a map for each kid. They can follow along and mark on the map any stops you make. Mine like to mark every McDonald’s that we spot along the way and keep a running tally of all the golden arches on the journey.
5. Charge up the electronics. For road trips, I throw all of my electronics time limits out the minivan window. The goal is to make the drive as easy as possible for me, and if that means each kid is plugged into his Kindle for the duration of the trip, so be it. New movies are always a big hit as well. Last year, I grabbed a cheap box set of all the old Herbie the Love Bug movies and everyone was laughing out loud for a number of hours.
6. Plan some stops along the way. When choosing my route on a road trip, I like to think about where we might like to stop along the way. It doesn’t always work out to stop everywhere I’ve planned, but it certainly saves my sanity just knowing that I have a ton of options for parks or fast food restaurants with play areas if I do want to take a 20-minute break. Even a quick stop at a grocery store to use the restroom and buy a canister of Pringles goes a long way in breaking up the monotony of driving.
7. Be prepared to abandon all well-intentioned plans. As we all know, kids are unpredictable, so it’s best to go with the flow when traveling solo. Last summer, we couldn’t agree on a fast food lunch spot so we ended up going to two different ones across the street from each other to appease the anti-taco boy. It added on an extra five minutes to the trip but saved all of our sanity. That’s worth it in my book!
– Kate Loweth