How Skiing Down Volcanoes Became a Time-Honored Tradition in Northern California
Volcanoes are the kind of geological formations that tend to inspire awe. Towering above everything else, they seem like a force of nature that is both dangerous and exciting. For adventure-seekers, volcanoes can offer another kind of excitement – skiing.
In Northern California, skiing down the snowy slopes of volcanoes is a tradition that dates back a century. Although there are plenty of volcanic areas in NorCal, the two most prominent active volcanoes are Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta. While Shasta is the largest of the two, Lassen remains top of mind due to its dramatic eruption in 1915.
Despite the heat under the surface of these two mountains, there’s plenty of adventure to have on their slopes. Here’s the history of the two active volcanoes of NorCal:
While places like Tahoe and Mammoth are known to receive heavy amounts of snowfall every year, the high-elevation mountains of Lassen typically win the award for most snow accumulation every winter. The area now sits inside a National Park, barring fancy ski companies from profiting off the snowy slopes, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, for 70 years in the 1900’s, there was a popular ski area in Lassen.
In the late 1800’s, the southwest area of Lassen was owned by Mathias B. Supan, who used the minerals at modern-day Sulphur Works to sell as medicine at Brooks Drug Store in Red Bluff. When the National Park Service established the park in 1916, Supan’s family members filed a legal claim and were able to gain control Mathias’s land to profit off this now popular tourist destination. This small plot of private land in the brand-new National Park would allow a rare ski resort to flourish in the area for decades.
To meet the demands of local ski junkies in the 1920’s, the Supans opened a small ski area near what is now the southwest entrance of the park. In 1935, with the newly completed Highway 36 providing easy access to Lassen, they added a rope tow and warming hut to improve the growing ski hill. The site became popular for skiers throughout the west coast, with the Lassen Ski Club hosting ski tournaments and jumping competitions throughout the 1930’s. It was even the site where Olympic athletes would train before the Winter Games.
In 1952, the park acquired the Supan’s land for $48,950 in a then controversial deal. While the Park Service now had the land to create a nearly undeveloped outdoor destination, they made a unique decision to issue a permit to the Lassen National Park Company (the park’s concessionaire) to operate a winter sports facility. In 1956, a two-person chairlift to the top of the hill was constructed – dubbed Bumpass Heaven – creating a frenzy of locals who flocked to Lassen to ski.
In 1964, an A-frame ski chalet was built near the chair lift, creating a bonafide ski resort within a National Park, one of the most unique sporting programs in the country. The Lassen Ski Area began to thrive with advertisements donning “Ski a Volcano” being seen throughout the state.
In 1982, the park granted the concessionaire a 20-year lease to continue to operate the ski area, with the stipulation that skiing would end in the park when the lease ended. In 1985, the Mt. Shasta Ski Park was constructed following a massive avalanche that destroyed the Old Ski Bowl. Due to the new competition and a few years of poor snowfall, the Lassen Ski Bowl experience significant financial losses in the early 1990’s.
In 1993, the concessionaire backed out of its lease and closed the Lassen Ski Area for good. This monumental decision set up the modern-day Lassen Volcanic National Park, which remains one of the most undeveloped parks in the country. In 2003, the old ski chalet was torn down and replaced by the Kohm-Yah-Mah-Nee Visitor Center, which still stands in its place today.
While there’s no longer a ski resort in Lassen, the area is still a destination for hardcore ski junkies who split board or snowshoe to the top of their desired runs. It’s a backcountry haven that limits heavy tourist traffic in the winter.
It was in 1959 when ambitious developers leased land from the Shasta-Trinity National Forest and opened a two-person chairlift on the southern flank of Mount Shasta. The lift began at a lodge at 7,800 feet and topped out above the timberline at 9,200 feet.
The Mount Shasta Ski bowl became the first form of developed skiing on the mountain and was one of the world’s more impressive skiing areas during its nearly 20 years of operation.
When the Ski Bowl opened, advertisements bragged of the largest ski bowl in the United States. Although the area was popular, boasting that 6,000 people visited the lodge in one weekend in it’s first month of business, the resort had financial issues throughout its existence. Its only recorded profitable year was 1962-1963, when it recorded over 40,000 visitors.
New ownership took control of the mountain in the early 1970’s, with the goal of making the resort profitable. Unfortunately for the owners and visitors of the Mt. Shasta Ski Bowl, money was the least of their worries.
In 1971, a fire destroyed the impressive lodge at the base of the resort. Desperate to keep the fledging business afloat, the new ownership built a much smaller lodge at the base. Even under financial hardships, the resort stayed open for nearly seven more years. Until mother nature delivered its final blow.
In January of 1978, a massive avalanche destroyed the Green Butte Chair Lift, ending all developed skiing in the area.
The Mt. Shasta Ski Park opened in 1985, in a location down the mountain in order to avoid catastrophes like the 1978 avalanche. The ski park has been run successfully for nearly three decades since, switching to local ownership in the summer of 2017.
Today, the Mount Shasta Ski Bowl can be accessed by hikers in the summer and mountaineers/backcountry skiers in the winter. The old Mount Shasta Ski Bowl represents a simpler time, when ski resorts were small chairlifts up a raw mountain, compared to the over-developed resorts of today.