Why would you want to return to a place that smelled like farts? When I was ten years old my family went on a camping trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park. My memory of the vacation is a little blurry but I distinctly remember chipmunks, a death march to the top of Lassen Peak, a scary spider in the bathroom, and the smell of farts.
Fast forward almost twenty years later and something inspired me to revisit Lassen. Maybe it’s that living with two burrito loving boys my house sometimes smells a bit like Lassen, or maybe it’s the increasing difficulty of finding uncrowded beautiful camping spots in California. Whatever it was, something steered my internal travel compass to Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Within minutes of arriving I immediately realized that there is a multitude of family friendly things to do in Lassen National Park. Alpine lakes, fishing, scenic hikes, and even the opportunity to have a snow ball fight in the summer. It might not have the reputation of Yosemite or the glitz of Lake Tahoe but that’s exactly what makes Lassen the perfect escape.
Sidenote* : On our recent trip I learned that the sulphuric gases from the hydrothermal areas of the park (areas will active volcanic happenings) make the rotten egg/fart smell. ) Rest assured, you’ll only notice the smell in certain sections of the park.
Things to Do in Lassen National Park
Paddle on Manzanita Lake: To really appreciate the beauty of Manzanita Lake you need to take a canoe or SUP onto the lake. From the water you can look across the lake to the snow covered peaks in the distance. It’s absolutely stunning. You can also get a similar perspective by walking on the trail that circumnavigates the lake. The section of trail opposite the campground area offers up the most majestic views.
Swim in a crater: The hike to Chaos Crag isn’t anything exceptional. Most of the hike is a gradual ascent through a pine forest. However, as you near the top you emerge from the forest and are rewarded with big views of the Lassen area. And even better than the views, the emerald hued lake at the bottom of the crater. It’s a seasonal lake formed from snow melt but when we were there in July it was an absolutely perfect place to wash off the trail dust and take a chilly dip. Kids will love the idea that they are swimming inside of an old volcano. Trail Lenth: 4.2 Miles.
To get to the trailhead: take the road towards Manzanita Lake Campground. Just before the “dump station” there is a trailhead on the left hand side of the road.
Stop by the Sulphur Works: This is a quick stop that requires one minute of walking along a side walk. You’ll see a couple of fumaroles (hot boiling gas vents) and get to experience that rotten egg smell. If you want to spend more time checking out hydrothermal areas, consider doing the Bumpass Hell hike. If you’re traveling with kids you will definitely want to explore at least one of the hydrothermal areas. Seeing the fumaroles was one of my boy’s favorite things to do in Lassen National Park!
Hike to a waterfall: Lassen isn’t known for its waterfalls which is why Mill Creek Falls was such a pleasant surprise. The thundering falls are beautiful and the hike to get to them is equally scenic. Although it’s only a three mile hike there is a considerable amount of up and down so it feels like longer. In fact, we encountered several groups of hikers that didn’t make it to the falls because they thought they had hiked further than 1.5 miles and had somehow missed the waterfall. There’s really no way to miss it so even if it feels like you’ve been hiking for awhile don’t give up!
To get to the trailhead: Go to the Yohm Yah-Mah-Nee visitor center. The trail starts behind the visitor center.
Picnic at Summit Lake: Because it is shallow, Summit Lake is slightly warmer than the other lakes in the area. There are picnic tables next to the lake and it’s the perfect spot to take a swim and have a bite to eat. Bring mosquito repellent.
Parking at Summit Lake: There are two entrances to Summit Lake, North and South. Both have places to picnic and access to trails if you’re interested in further exploration.
The Loomis Museum: Stop in here to learn about the park’s history and volcanoes. From the museum there are also several easy, short hikes. This is also the spot to get information on becoming a “Junior Ranger”, a free program for kids offered by the National Parks.
Lassen Peak: If you want a good workout you can do the 2.5 mile hike to the top of the peak. There isn’t much shade so plan for an exposed, uphill climb. Fortunately, with a elevation of 10,457 feet it’s likely that in the early summer months you can find patches of snow to cool off in. If there’s a late winter there might even be enough snow to do some sledding in July.
Camping in Lassen National Park
Manzanita Lake Campground: This is a great option if you’re traveling with kids. Manzanita Campground has everything you need for camping with kids. A camp store with basic groceries for when the chipmunks steal your bread, showers, clean bathrooms, and cheap ice cream for when you’re needing a good bribe.
There are 4 “loops” in the campground. A and C are by reservation. B and D are first come first serve, with D being tent only sites. The sites are fairly roomy and most have at least a little bit of shade. There are also simple, rustic cabins if you want to spend a little extra and have some solid walls around you. These are popular and you’ll need to make a reservation in advance.
Other Campgrounds: There are other campgrounds in Lassen National Park. These aren’t as developed as Manzanita Lake but if you’re just looking for a serene place to pitch a tent Summit Lake will also do the trick.
Exploring Outside the Park
If you have a few day in Lassen and want to check out some other nearby attractions, it’s an easy scenic drive to the Subway Caves and McArthur Burney Falls.
Subway Caves: Need a cool, dark respite from the heat? Step into the “subway cave”, a 1/3 mile long massive lava tube. Signs in and around the cave explain how the lava tube was formed. It’s a fairly quick stop but a fun one if you’re traveling with kids. Keep an eye open for bats!
Getting to the Subway Caves: The Subway Caves aren’t in Lassen National Park however they are in Lassen National Forest. From the northwest park entrance it’s an easy 20 minute drive to the Subway Caves. Pass through the town of Old Station and you’ll see a sign on the righthand side of the road. Parking/admittance to the caves is free.
McArthur Burney Falls State Park: The crown jewel of this state park are the spectacular Burney Falls. The water in the large pool at the base of the falls is a chilly 48 degrees and there are signs warning that you’re at risk of getting hypothermia if you enter the water. So if you chose to attempt to get the classic waterfall- bikini pic for your instagram account do so at your own risk.
If you feel like swimming in a warmer body of water head through the campground to Lake Briton. There’s a sandy beach and a roped off swimming area. It’s not the most photogenic lake, but it’s better than getting hypothermia on your summer vacation.
Getting to McArthur Burney Falls State Park: From the Subway Caves take a right and keep going on the highway for another 25-30 minutes. You can’t miss the signs for the state park. Entrance to the park costs $8 .
What to Bring to Lassen Volcanic National Park
- Water bottles
- Bug repellent
- Headlamp/flashlight for exploring the Subway Cave
- Hiking shoes
Things to Know
- Cell service is limited in the park. Manzanita Lake Campground didn’t have much coverage but we picked up a signal as we drove towards Summit Lake.
- Always use the bear box to lock up your food. We left our site for a few hours in the morning and discovered some crafty chipmunks had feasted on our food.
- You are allowed to gather wood in the park. This means with a little effort you can skip purchasing firewood at the store and collect your own. The campgrounds have been pretty thoroughly scoured for wood but throughout the park there are plenty of places where you can grab a few pieces for your evening marshmallow roast.
- Dogs aren’t allowed on any of the trails
- Check the park website beforehand to find out trail closures/conditions
The Bottom Line: Want to spend time in nature without the traffic, tour buses, or crowds? Check out Lassen. Looking for other summer vacation inspiration? Check out my articles on Santa Cruz, CA and a day trip to Big Sur.