Wandering Lizard
California

An online magazine with information related to attractions, lodging, dining,
and travel resources in selected areas of the Western United States

A Day of Hiking in Lassen Volcanic National Park

A trail from Butte Lake to Snag Lake via the Painted Dunes

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Long ago I had seen reference to "Fantastic Lava Beds" and "Painted Dunes" in the eastern part of the Lassen National Park, I was in the area, and the weather was perfect - a slightly cool autumn day - today was the day. I had a lot of trouble finding the correct turnoff from Highway 44 West. None of my maps helped any and no one I spoke with along the way knew what I was talking about.

One very nice CHP officer explained that "all of this country is lava". He asked which lava beds I was trying to find. Somehow "fantastic" didn't seem to be an adequate description to nail it down very well. A long time resident gave me directions to the main park entrance but I knew that was wrong - the lava beds I was looking for were in the back country of the park. Two different highway workers tried to help but to no avail. Finally a lady in Old Station suggested that I was probably looking for the lava beds at Butte Lake - "go back to Highway 44 West and turn off at the Butte Lake Campground sign" - simple when you know what you're doing.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The road in to the campground is six miles of good gravel surface with a lot of gray-white dust and a bit of washboard. I parked at the campground on the edge of Butte Lake. Long ago, a dramatic jet black lava flow had extended into the lake across from the very pleasant campground. That day the foliage around the lake had beautiful touches of autumn color and both the sky and the water were a perfect blue. The campground was deserted and signs were sparse - which way to go? The lava was closer if I went around the lake in a counterclockwise direction so I chose that path.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

A small sign identified this portion of the trail as an emigrant route in the mid-nineteenth century. The way was fairly level but would have been difficult going for the heavily loaded wagons because the ground was nothing but very fine black cinder ash. Walking in it was very much like walking on a beach with a fine powdery sand. It was not hard to picture the creaking wagons and the straining oxen and to think about the differences between now and then - less than two centuries ago.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

A few hundred yards down the trail I found a likely spot to climb up onto the lava bed itself. There was a green pine tree growing in a small indentation in the dark black lava flow - the small patch of "ground" around it strangely white. Climbing on the lava flow is dangerous. The black jumble is composed of jagged chunks, sandpaper surfaces, sharp points, and razor-like edges. Twice I almost fell backwards because of a misstep. I thought about the consequences had I actually fallen and decided that further exploration of the lava bed would have to await another time when I had a partner with me.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Returning to the trail I continued up a gentle rise to the huge cinder cone that had spawned the lava beds in that part of the park. The cone is perfectly shaped and very dramatic in its black simplicity. Beyond it I could see for miles and in the distance I got my first glimpse of the "painted dunes". I don't usually quibble with these things but I suggest that "painted" is the wrong word. The dunes do have color and it is beautiful but the hues are for the most part very subtle. (A few very dramatic patches of red and one or two of white are probably the source of the "painted" bit.) The shape of the dunes is sinuous and their undulations are sensuous. That day I concluded that my thoughts did not lend themselves to a name that is appropriate for a national park and so I let the moniker thing go - but please understand that "painted" does not do them justice.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The trail crests at the cone and the traveler is offered two paths. I took the one that did not ascend the cone. My path led directly out into the very austere landscape of color and form. A small sign requested that hikers not stray from the path and track the fragile surface of the dunes. Fortunately most had understood and not defiled the beauty with aimless wanderings. Once out into the dunes the variety of color of the cinder surface seems to increase or perhaps the visitor gets accustomed to small changes in hue and tone. Solitary pines stand out bright green, cones and pine needles show up as brown shapes on the black dust, and sun-bleached white snags and broken branches positively glare.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

The trail takes one around the lava that flowed out on this side of the cone. The length of the flow is less than on the other side and the color is definitely more varied. Here one sees a lot of red and even some white mixed in with the ever present black. Once across the dune field the path reenters the forest that rims the flows and winds its way on to Snag Lake. On the trail there was a lot of sign of bear and deer and once I got to the lake I scared up a small flock of Canadian geese. They were fairly deep in the woods and exploded up through the trees to fly out to the center of the lake far from the intruder that had interrupted their midday meal.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Just as at the Butte Lake campground the lava had flowed out into Snag Lake and the jagged mass jutted up directly out of the lake. I returned the way that I had come but later learned that I could have continued on around Snag Lake and then back to Butte Lake. My round trip was about nine miles. Had I gone on I believe that the total would have been about ten miles. Next time I go I'll do the whole circuit.

"Nature Rules
Stay on the Trail"

An Arizona Highway Billboard Sign

Abecedarius, 11/03

Table of Contents
Alaska Home | Arizona Home | California Home | Colorado Home | Hawaii Home | Nevada Home
New Mexico Home | Oregon Home | Utah Home | Western History Notes | Biographical Notes
Wandering Lizard Home
Cristalen believes all information to be correct
but assumes no legal responsibility for it's accuracy
Copyright by Cristalen © 1997 through © 2009. All Rights Reserved
This web site constructed and maintained by Cristalen
About the Photography | What's New | Who What Why | Navigation Tips | List Your Property | Contact Us