Camping on a Volcano

Summit Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park, with Mount Lassen looming in the background.

Lassen Volcanic National Park has always been one of our favorite places to camp. Located far enough from California’s metropolitan areas to filter out most day-trip visitors, the park is one of Northern California’s best kept secrets. It does fill up, but it is not unusual to be able to drive the five-six hours from Livermore to Summit Lake and still be able to find empty campsites.

Many people prefer to stay at Manzanita Lake, which has a large campground, a few cabins, and a store and showers. However, our first choice was always Summit Lake, nestled in alpine scenery at an elevation of over 7000 feet, quite a bit higher than Manzanita Lake. Campsites are primitive by some standards, but you can’t beat the crisp air and clear night skies for skywatching. And during the day, you can try hiking to the top of the mountain, which is over 3000 feet above Summit Lake campground.

So what about the volcano? As it turns out, Lassen Peak is the southernmost active volcanic mountain in the Cascade Range. Lassen erupted most recently in about 1915, just over a century ago. This is a blink of the eye in terms of geologic time, so the volcano is considered to be still active, and certainly not sleeping or dormant. You can see evidence of volcanic heat in the geothermal features (mud pots and steam vents) on the southeast side of the mountain.

View looking north from atop Mount Lassen (Lassen Peak) with Mount Shasta in the distance.

So why did I speak of camping in past tense? My first attempt at car camping involved sleeping on an old army cot. After realizing that the air circulating under the cot all but guaranteed a cold night, I switched to a dense foam pad to insulate my sleeping bag from the ground. It helped with thermal effects, but not so much with any tree roots. Our first camping trips as a couple relied on sleeping bags on a foam pad underlay, but then we switched to air mattresses. This was an improvement until the air mattress went flat, putting us back on the cold, uneven ground. Someday we may try sleeping in the back of our van. Meanwhile, I expect that some of you can identify with our experiences.

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