Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Four hours north of San Francisco, Lassen Volcanic National Park offers a rare opportunity to walk on a giant volcanic plug, snowshoe through red pine forests and sled down an uninterrupted mile in the snow ! Yes volcanic plug is a great word but don’t get frightened by the sleeping volcano. Think of it as Pompei meets Heidi. The reality of the terrain will take you to a snowy alpine mountain where sulfur fumes and boiling mud springs come out of the hills and we loved exploring that area with our girls.
Our decision to go to Lassen rather than Tahoe included two factors. We totally hate the winter traffic to Tahoe and we wanted to see if the rumors were true, that you can have snowy mountains to yourself without the crowds up north. We left San Francisco right after breakfast at 8.15am and got to the parking lot of Lassen Volcanic Park at 12.30pm. Though Lassen is a large park with a beautiful road that crosses it during the summer, its access is restricted in the winter when the road closes. At the brand new visitor center, we took our beatings and grabbed a warm drink waiting for the 1pm ranger-led snowshoe hike to start.
Every Saturday and Sunday at 1.30 from December through April, you can join a ranger-led snowshoe hike that starts at the visitor center. Over a mile and an hour, you will learn about the geology of Lassen, the trees that surround you and the science of snow. We were most interested in the parts of the talk about water pollution and how scientists have found traces of illegal pesticides used in the farms in the lichens covering the trees. Scary!
As far as the snowshoe hike, the park recommends it for kids ages 8 years and over but we took our 6-year old with us. The trick is, the park doesn’t have kid-sized snowshoes. They will provide free snowshoes to all adults or kids whose feet are large enough that they can wear adult-size snowshoes. In anticipation, I had bought plastic kid snowshoes for $20 on Amazon.com and they worked just fine.
If you make it all the way to Lassen, you might as well try to see the hydro-thermal areas. After all, what’s the point of visiting a volcano if you can’t claim you have proof? Smelly proof that is. The thermal pools reek of rotten egg from yards away and we had no problem finding the Sulfur Works area, just a mile from the visitor center on the main road. Once we got in front of the bubbling mud pools, my girls pinched their noses and exclaimed “it stinks!”. Which it does, if you’re not into rotten egg smells. However, it’s pretty cool to stand in front of mud pots heated by volcanic activity and fumaroles coming out of a yellow-colored hill side in white stinky steam clouds. I totally recommend going there to show the kids that they really are standing on a volcano. So amazing.
And then there’s the fun part. There’s no organized sledding area at Lassen Volcanic Park but the first hill after the ranger station, about 200 yards away on the main road, seems to be the “it” spot for steep thrills. Our 8-year old tried it and she came back totally scared! Not only did it go fast but she flipped on a bump at the bottom of the hill. That’s one steep hill and once you’re on it, there’s no stopping. I would not recommend it for preschoolers even with a helmet.
However we noticed that families were sliding down the main road and zooming past us. The main road? Since it’s closed and covered in snow in the winter, it serves as a multi-use trail where cross-country skiers pass by snowshoers and sledders. Awesome!
The best starting point, if you want to enjoy a complete mile of easy sledding with spectacular views, is Sulfur Works. It’s definitely gentle in terms of steepness and a child can guide a sled with or without parental assistance. It’s wide enough that the kids don’t fall over the edge and the ski tracks sort of keep them in the middle. That was probably the best part of our Lassen trip. The girls loved loved it!
Here is a movie of our snow expedition at Lassen Volcanic Park.
Natural History Museum
Need to warm up and wind down? The Kohm Yah-mah-nee visitor center hosts a natural history museum where kids can learn about the area. Open: All Year daily, closed December 25. Hours: 9:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M., November 1 – May 30, 9:00 A.M. – 6:00 P.M., June 1 – October 31. Phone:(530) 595-4480. Location: In the southwest entrance of the park on State Route 89.
Unless you brought your picnic and snacks, Lassen Volcanic Park has one food option and that’s the cafeteria of the visitor center. There you will find sandwiches, warm drinks, cookies and light snacks.