These Volcanic Sand Dunes in Northern California are a Colorful Masterpiece of Nature

For anyone willing to make the tricky trek to the top of Lassen’s Cinder Cone, the view you find at the top will leave you speechless. Of course, you’ll see a clear view of Lassen Peak, but it’s smooth hills that lay in between the hills that will leave you thinking you’re in a watercolor painting. They’re Lassen’s Painted Dunes, and you’ll have to see them in their full glory to believe they’re real.

Lassen Volcanic National Park spans over 100,000 acres and is situated 130 miles north of Sacramento at the southern end of the Cascade Mountains. The park attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, who come to see hot sulfurous gases rising from steaming fumaroles, picturesque meadows, and lakes. But what makes the park truly unique is the Painted Dunes.

Located in the northeast corner of the park near Butte Lake, the Painted Dunes can be reached by hiking through the Fantastic Lava Bed, the Cinder Cone, and then arriving at the dunes. Cinder Cone is a 700-foot-high volcano that is believed to have last erupted in the 1650s. The ash from the volcano is responsible for the landscape of the Painted Dunes.

The Painted Dunes are a pumice field, with bright spots of red and orange amid the vast blackness of the pumice forming the “paint.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the colors were caused by ash spewed from the Cinder Cone becoming oxidized because it fell on the lava flows when they were still hot. The same oxidized ash is found on the nearby Fantastic Lava Beds, which leads scientists to believe that all the materials that came from the Cinder Cone happened during one eruption that lasted several months.

Hikers can reach the Painted Dunes by starting at the Butte Lake Campground and following the hiking trail southwest towards the Cinder Cone, where the best views of the Painted Dunes can be seen. The Butte Lake parking area is located just off of Butte Lake Road, which is accessible by taking Highway 44 approximately 24 miles east of Manzanita Lake. The Cinder Cone trailhead is located on the southwest side of the boat ramp for Butte Lake.

The hike up the 700-foot-high Cinder Cone is challenging, and hikers should be on the lookout for loose rocks. The best view of the Painted Dunes can be found on the southeastern face of the cone, which is most magical during the “glow hour,” which starts about 15 minutes after sunset.

Due to winter conditions and access to trails, the park recommends the summer and fall as the best times to visit. Visitors should be prepared with plenty of water and food and wear appropriate hiking shoes. From the Butte Lake trailhead, hikers should be prepared to hike 4 miles round trip, with an elevation change of 846 feet, but 700 of that will be within a half-mile as they ascend the Cinder Cone. At 1.2 miles in, the trail reaches a fork at the base of the cone, and hikers should look to their left (south) for the best and most colorful view of the Painted Dunes.

The Painted Dunes of Lassen Volcanic National Park are a fantastic way to experience the beautiful paintbrush of Mother Nature in a remote environment. Thankfully, this incredible destination sits in Northern California.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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