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Stop and smell the thermals

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Correspondent / October 11, 2009

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LASSEN VOLCANIC NATIONAL PARK - At about 9,000 feet, the persistently steep trail up Brokeoff Mountain levels off at the edge of an abyss. To the northeast, framed between jagged cliffs, sits hulking Lassen Peak, a dozing volcano more than 1,000 feet higher, still mostly bare of trees and cloaked in gray dust from its last big eruption, 94 years ago.

The sight could inspire an overcaffeinated Type-A tourist from the East Coast to renounce his BlackBerry and become a California mountain bum. Cellphones rarely work around here, anyway. When you’re in these mountains the office back home can’t tug your leash.

This remote volcanic landscape, 240 miles northeast of San Francisco, is among the least visited of the country’s big national parks. Just 377,000 people came here last year, according to the National Park Service. Three million went to Yellowstone. At 106,000 acres, Lassen is more than twice the size of Acadia National Park in Maine, but sees less than a fifth of Acadia’s 2 million tourists.

Lassen’s elbow room is a relief for anyone who has idled in Yellowstone’s “wildlife traffic,’’ or queued up for a parking space at a Grand Canyon scenic overlook.

“I like people to come here and see the park, but it doesn’t bother me if they don’t,’’ says Mark Young, 57, whose family has vacationed in Lassen since the 1930s. “Up here you can take a photo and not have to worry about someone passing through your field of vision.’’

Lassen is a photographer’s park. Anyone with a disposable camera could make beautiful vacation pictures here: Just pull the car over, point across a valley to Lassen Peak, and click.

But experiencing the best of the park takes a little more effort. Short hikes off the Main Park Road lead to Lassen’s hot thermal sites, where the land breathes steam and groundwater boils. The planet seems alive here, and the landscape’s many cycles of explosions and erosion remind us that human history is just a blink in time.

In addition to kayaking, fishing, and nature watching, Lassen is also an ideal place for moderately fit people looking to step up to big mountain hiking. Yes, you too can experience altitude sickness just like a world-class mountaineer. Mountain sickness sometimes hits me above 8,000 feet, beginning with shortness of breath and progressing to what feels like a raging hangover. Minimize it by acclimating gradually, doing short hikes to higher altitudes over a few days.

Vacation resort lovers must be warned: This is not a luxury destination. There is no turndown service for your sleeping bag and you must shoo the wandering mule deer out of your campsite yourself. (For romance and luxury try Yosemite National Park, where the Ahwahnee Hotel is $450-plus per night.) For romance without luxury, my wife and I tented for $18 per night at Manzanita Lake Campground in Lassen’s northwest corner.

With flush toilets, coin-operated hot showers, and a camp store with a respectable beer and wine aisle, the Manzanita Lake Campground may have just enough amenities to coax reluctant campers out of their B&Bs.

Manzanita is also a good base from which to attack the park’s attractions. Bring a daypack, comfortable boots, sunscreen, a camera, and plenty of water, and head out early.

The one blacktop road through Lassen winds among the scenery like a steeper and more dramatic cousin to the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. You’ll alternate between whining the engine up hills and mashing the brakes down the other side. Be glad to be driving a rental.

A good first hike is the 1.5-mile trail to Bumpass Hell, the largest hydrothermal area west of Yellowstone. Bumpass is a 16-acre white pit heated by underground magma. Steam vents roar, mud pits bubble, and pools of water simmer at a low boil. Hydrogen sulfide gas gives the air a rotten-egg smell. The site is named for explorer K.V. Bumpass, who in 1865 apparently plunged through the thin crust above a boiling spring and scalded his leg. Signs warn visitors to stay on trails and boardwalks.

Lassen Peak, normally one of the park’s most popular hikes, was closed during our trip in September because of damage from a rockslide.

So we turned to the park’s next-highest summit, Brokeoff Mountain, a 9,235-foot peak that resembles a cresting wave of rock. Our guidebook, “Lassen Volcanic National Park: A Complete Hiker’s Guide’’ by Mike White, calls Brokeoff “one of the park’s best adventures.’’

The 3.5-mile trail climbs relentlessly, but, for an acclimated hiker, is no more difficult than climbing in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. Brokeoff may even be easier; impatient New Englanders cut trails straight up their mountains, while mellow Californians embrace the switchback.

Like most national parks, Lassen is dotted with signs explaining its geology and history. I tried my best not to learn anything but I couldn’t help it.

Brokeoff Mountain is the tallest remaining shard of a long lost volcanic peak, active until about 400,000 years ago. The former volcano collapsed on itself and much of it eroded away. Its outer rim survives.

Lassen Peak is a 27,000-year-old youngster formed by lava pushing up from the ground. The mountain exploded in 1915, sweeping away trees, hurling boulders, and sending a column of ash 6 miles into the sky. The volcano rumbled for several more years, then fell quiet. Lassen Peak was the most recent big volcanic eruption in the continental United States before Washington’s Mount St. Helens blew its top in 1980.

My favorite feature at the park is a secluded volcano named Cinder Cone in the northeast corner. The one-hour drive from Manzanita Lake goes outside the park’s borders to a gravel road cut six miles through a pine forest. It’s tempting to say Cinder Cone is in the middle of nowhere, but that implies a central location. It’s on the outskirts of nowhere.

After an easy 2-mile hike, the forest falls away to reveal a smooth, rounded gray mound, 700 feet high. Cinder Cone is both its name and its definition: It is a cinder cone-type volcano. The mound looked unnatural to me, like a hive built by science fiction space bugs. I laughed at what seemed like a trick of perspective: Could the trail up really be that steep? The climb was not so funny; it really is that steep.

From the rim, the view includes pine forests and green lakes, acres of lumpy black lava, and a red-splotched desert called the Painted Dunes. Cinder Cone was formed around 1650, a few decades after the Pilgrims established their foothold on the other side of the continent.

The Cinder Cone trail then winds several hundred feet down inside the giant volcanic funnel. At the very bottom someone has piled skull-sized rocks into a shallow rectangular shelter, like a pharaoh’s tomb in the throat of a volcano. It is an unreal place; for some, a luxury destination.

Mark Arsenault can be reached at mark0079@comcast.net.

If You Go

Where to stay
Manzanita Lake Campground
Near the park’s northwest entrance, off California Route 89.
Reserve through www.recreation.gov
Camping $18 per night. Coin-operated showers, well-stocked camp store, and a gas pump.

Antlers Motel

268 Main St., Chester
530-258-2722
http://www.antlersmotel.com/
Thirty minutes from park's southern entrance. Rates $80 per night.