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! For families with older kids, this snowy alpine mountain is a true winter wonderland where sulfur fumes and boiling mud springs come out of the hills. We loved exploring all winter fun of that area with our girls.
While we love Tahoe for serious skiing, winter traffic is mostly terrible and we wanted to see if the rumors were true, that you can have snowy mountains to yourself without the crowds up north. Hence our decision to explore Lassen Volcanic National Park in the winter, before heading further north to explore Mount Shasta in the winter.
Traffic-wise, we left San Francisco right after breakfast at 8.15am and got to the parking lot of Lassen Volcanic National Park at 12.30pm. That’s 4 hours 15 minutes door-to-door from the Bay Area. Not bad at all.
Winter Road Restrictions at Lassen
In the summer, Lassen is a large park with a beautiful road (Highway 89) that crosses it from Raker Memorial Gateway to Manzanita Lake. However, as soon as the first heavy snow arrives, its access is restricted in the winter and the road closes from the visitor center northwards. Make sure you check the current road conditions before heading out.
At the visitor center, we took our bearings and grabbed a warm drink while waiting for the 1pm ranger-led snowshoe hike to start.
Winter Fun #1 | Ranger-Led Snowshoe Hikes
Every Saturday and Sunday at 1.30 from January 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 trees. Scary!
As far as the snowshoe hike, the park recommends it for kids ages 8 years and older but we took our 6-year old daughter with us and she did fine. The trick is, the park doesn’t have kid-sized snowshoes. They 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 and they worked just fine.
Winter Fun #2 | Hydro-Thermal Activity
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 eggs.
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.
Winter Fun #3 | Sledding
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.
We also 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!
Winter Fun #4 | Snow Camping
The Southwest Campground is open year-round which means that you can indulge the kids with your ultimate snow camping dreams. Camping in the snow, making snowmen before bedtime, watching starry skies at night and sledding off your tent–it’s all possible with the right equipment. Unfortunately, fires are only allowed in the paved parking area but that’s a small price to pay for a unique national park experience.
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.
Food at Lassen Volcanic National Park
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.
Check out the official website for Lassen Volcanic National Park.