Blaze a trail through beauty

With solitude and dazzling views, Lassen is the place for an out-of-town foray less than 100 miles from Reno

Many years ago, a group of us hiked into Lassen Volcanic National Park from the west side, climbing uphill until we reached the ridge between Pilot Pinnacle and Lassen Peak, and then descended to Lake Helen, just below the peak.

It was still spring, and the park’s higher elevations remained deep in winter’s snow and spectacular. We found a dry spot above the lake and pitched our tents. What I remember most about that cold, moonless night were the stars. I had never seen so many, and such brightness. I fell asleep with my head outside the tent, looking up, until I woke with ice on my moustache. I took that as a sign that I should move inside.

Lassen is one of the least-visited national parks, and in winter, that’s especially true. For some people, that’s all the more reason to explore it then. If you think Lassen is beautiful in summer, you should see it in winter. There isn’t a prettier place on the planet.

During winter, the main park road, Highway 89, is kept open to the Loomis Museum at Manzanita Lake on the north side of the park and to the Southwest Parking Area near the south entrance. Both are great for snowshoeing excursions, though the former sometimes doesn’t have a great deal of snow.

Many families come into the park on the south side for day-trip snow play. There are several sledding hills there, and it’s a popular spot for picnics. Restrooms are available, but bring water.

This winter, available parking will be cut in half due to construction of the new Kohm Yah-mah-nee (Maidu for “Snowy Mountain") Visitor Center.

“We’re not encouraging the masses to come to that area this year,” says Karen Haner, the park’s public information officer. But she says there is additional parking at other lots nearby.

Lassen is great for telemarking and cross-country skiing, Haner says. Again, the south entrance is better, mostly because that part of the park gets more snow—"serious snow,” she says. The main road attracts thousands of skiers every winter, and it’s easy to ski several miles into the park by following it. If you’ve never seen the Sulphur Works in winter, when the steam is condensing as it rises, you haven’t seen it at its most spectacular.

Off-road skiing is also popular. Anyone heading into the backcountry for skiing should check the information board at the south entrance, where potential avalanche areas are identified. Haner advises that anyone heading into the park’s backcountry must obtain a free permit.

Karah Frizzell, an avid outdoorswoman who works at Mountain Sports in Chico, Calif., says one of her favorite things to do is take the Mt. Brokeoff trail near the south entrance to Forest Lake for snow camping. It’s only a two-mile snowshoe hike, easily done in two or three hours, and the lake is especially beautiful at that time of year.

This winter, Haner says, park rangers will offer snowshoe programs at Manzanita Lake on weekends and holidays. For just a buck, you can rent a pair of snowshoes and go with the ranger (and about 25 other folks) for a 90-minute to two-hour hike into the park. The ranger will point out ecological and geological features as you go.

There is plenty of overnight lodging in the Lassen area, none of it expensive, and also places to eat. But the real attraction is the park itself, which offers visitors seeking a winter wilderness experience one that combines solitude and quiet with a pristine high-country beauty that can be found in few other places.