By Ross Lawrence
Cruising east down State Highway 36 from Redding, I got the sense that I was in a panorama photograph. Expansive green pastures littered with volcanic rocks on both sides recalled the history of Lassen Peak which last erupted between 1914 and 1917. A floating, white Mt. Shasta flanked me to the left where on the horizon the soaring outlines of Lassen and Brokeoff Mountain invited me forward.
In my small Toyota Yaris on two-lane 36, I felt like an ant among giants. It was a surreal experience â€“ one that reaffirmed my relative tininess in the grand scheme of things. As I neared closer and closer to Lassen Volcanic National Park, the pine trees began to obstruct my view. Turning left into the park, the scene opened up and I realized I was amongst the distant objects that seemed larger-than-life just 30-minutes prior. Reaching my destination proved an adventure in itself, but the day still held plenty more excitement in store.
Pulling into the parking lot of the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center (the south entrance of the park), I noticed the popularity of the locale. I circled around for about 20 minutes before easing into a makeshift snow-covered spot. On both sides of me families were grabbing supplies from their cars and preparing for a fun-filled day. Above me on a 10-foot snow mound kids were joyfully flinging snowballs at each other. A few people were strapping up their cross-country ski boots at the back of SUVs. Others barbequed and tailgated taking advantage of the unusually warm, sunny winter day. Stepping out of my car into the fresh air it became apparent that I had overdressed. I had expected winter temperatures, but it seemed very much like a normal NorCal spring day. Though the condition of the snow suffered a bit, I stood in wonderment at how this frozen wonderland could co-exist with such perfect weather.
Grabbing my camera, I started towards the visitor center. There was a helpful ranger providing park information as I walked in, interactive exhibits giving the history of the area, a restaurant and a 20-minute park video thatâ€™s definitely worth a watch. A park ranger welcomed me as I approached the front desk.
The ranger, Shanda Ochs, is a 14-year veteran employee at the park and seemed to know everything from its geological features to which backcountry areas are best for skiing. With limited snowshoeing experience and a desire to learn more, I decided to venture to Sulphur Springs on a ranger-led snowshoe walk.
â€œThe snowshoe walks started in the early 1980s, and basically we just want to get folks out there to learn how to snowshoe,â€ explained Ochs. â€œTypically, if we have enough snow and the conditions are good weâ€™ll take people on a route that goes off trail through the forest. Itâ€™s sort of like the wilderness, and it gets people away from the more populated area of the park road.â€
Unfortunately, the warm conditions and lack of new snow restricted our trip to the main park road. Instead of trekking through the woods we went to Sulphur Springs, but not before getting a short tutorial on how to properly strap on snowshoes, climb with them and turn around in tight spaces. I didnâ€™t experience snowshoeing in a backcountry setting, but I did get to see all the entertainment available on the park road. Kids were trying to see how high they could climb up the slopes, people of all ages sledded down a rather steep hill and I even spotted a few visitors barbequing. I couldnâ€™t help but chuckle as several of the sledders took some major spills â€“ many of them dressed in jeans and t-shirts. It was all in good fun though as I couldnâ€™t find a frown even on the faces of those wet and cold sledding daredevils.
â€œI think wherever you go in the park you get a sense of wilderness, adventure and beautiful landscapes,â€ stated Ochs. â€œEven though the conditions have been a bit crusty and icy this year, we still get a lot of families and individuals as well coming out to the park. Itâ€™s a fun time for everyone no matter your age or what you end up doing.â€
Passing the more populated area of road, I began to get the feel for my snowshoes. Snowshoeing is a relatively easy thing to get the hang of in a short amount of time. However, I failed to anticipate how strenuous a two-mile snowshoe hike would be at 5,700 feet. The tug on my lungs and mild headache halfway through the walk caused me to lose a bit of confidence in my stamina. Right before our group reached Sulphur Springs my headache dissipated and the going got easier.
While I didnâ€™t find the springs to be all that interesting, the views of Lassen Peak and Brokeoff Mountain made the trek worthwhile. You can also spot cross-country skiers and snowboarders slowly winding their way down the road from across the hot springs. On the snowshoe walk, the rangers tell you about various park activities as well as the history of the region. We were told many visitors to the park snowshoe up to remote areas and then backcountry ski or splitboard (a snowboard that can be split in two for portability) back down. Our guide explained that the cone of a massive stratovolcano, Mt. Tehama that soared a thousand feet higher than Lassen Peak, once covered our route. I can only imagine that my Lassen trip is the closest Iâ€™ll ever come to being inside a volcano (hopefully).
As shadows grew longer and the temperature dropped, my snowshoe group started back toward the visitor center. Walking in a single file line with a ranger at the helm, there comes a point when you start to feel like a team of baby ducklings following their mother. For that reason I look forward to going out on my own next time. Getting the full Lassen experience means capturing a sense of isolation, peace and wilderness. On my next outing I plan to brave the backcountry slopes.
Removing my snowshoes I reflected on a day well spent. There I was in a winter wonderland with two majestic mountains filling the background. Spending time at Lassen evoked visions of its history â€“ the eruptions, the explorers and thousands of guests that have flocked to enjoy the North State landmark. Seeing Lassen Peak on the horizon each day gave me an insatiable desire to explore it further. That distant summit beckoned, and I had answered the call.