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Bewildered at Bumpass Hell / Charcoal Cathedral (Lassen Volcanic NP)

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

Friday, 29 July 2022, Manzanita Campground

The temperature overnight had blessedly dropped into the 60s, giving us hope for a cooler day. Seeing clouds - which gathered further during the day - also raised our spirits for a good day exploring the park.

We left camp at 7:30, knowing we had 39 miles on the park highway to reach the southwestern corner and the main geothermal features of the park. We planned to catch the advertised ranger talk at 10:00 at Sulphur Works, but we had time for other stops along the way.

The Devastated Area began our day. When I first saw the signs for it, I assumed it meant the area devastated by the Dixie Fire. WRONG! I quickly discovered that this area played a key part in the creation of the National Park.

In the late 1800s, people had discovered the geothermal wonders of this volcanic region, and conservationists had pushed to preserve the area to aid in studying these phenomena. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt used the Antiquity Act to establish Lassen Peak NM.

Perhaps someone should have asked native Americans why they called the nearby peak Amblu Kai - 'Mountain Ripped Apart'. Instead, settlers decided that since the peak had not erupted in millennia - 270,000 years to be exact - it must be dormant. WRONG! Lassen began acting up again in 1914, spewing out rock. On May 14, 1915, an explosion tossed boulders as far as 20 miles.

Five days later, an eruption destroyed the lava dome that had built up, knocking down trees and structures in the area now labeled the Devastated Area.

People in the region quickly documented the eruptions. One photographer entered the Devastated Area a day or two after that eruption, taking pictures and observing the landscape. The boulders now dotting the field still felt hot to his touch. Luckily he did not linger there, because at 4:00 p.m. on May 22, the new lava dome exploded again in the largest eruption of this cycle. The ash-and-gas cloud rose to 30,000'; residents of Eureka, 150 miles away, could see the column of smoke.

In the next several years, lesser steam explosions continued to occur. Though the volume of rock spewed by the main eruption was only 1/35 the amount erupted 65 years later at Mt. St. Helens, people of the day had never seen such destruction. Now knowing that Lassen was NOT dormant, in 1916 Congress got 'fired up' and added land to the National Monument to form Lassen Volcanic NP.

Today the Devastated Area sits quietly in the shadow of the peak.

Large boulders dot the ground, and plants have returned - though the silica-rich, nutrient-thin soil from the eruptions does not retain water well, affecting the ability of trees to grow normally. We took the short nature trail loop, reading the signs that educated us on the eruptions.

The road next took us to Summit Lake, site of two campgrounds and various trailheads. At this early hour, few people stirred. We stopped long enough for a few pictures of the lake, complete with beautiful reflections in the glassy waters.

Descending the pass,

we stopped at small Emerald Lake (more like Emerald Pond). No trails there, just a photo of another pristine alpine lake with great reflections.

At least, I could hope the reflections would return after that other tourist finished celebrating National Throw Several Big Rocks into a Pristine Lake Day.

We ended our southward travel upon reaching Sulphur Works. While waiting for the ranger to arrive for his talk, we walked over to the boiling mudpot bubbling by the roadside - our first look at a geothermal feature.

Across the road, as the water flowed downhill, I noticed steam rising from a vent. This spot marked the central vent of the historic Brokeoff Volcano, also known as Mt. Tehama. (This volcano went dormant over 300,000 years ago.)

We waited there until 10:00, but no ranger showed up for a talk. Did we get the time wrong? I worried about waiting longer. "We should probably get back to the Bumpass Hell parking area before it fills up," I told Ron. I'd heard this popular spot attracted the biggest crowds, with limited parking available.

Minutes later, we found parking spots left in the lot, so I grabbed one and prepared for the hike into geothermal wonders. The view from here included the peaks of Brokeoff Mountain, Mount Diller, and Pilot Pinnacle.

The volcano slowly grew over centuries of eruptions, with each eruption adding layers of rock, lava, and ash to the mountain (like tiers of a wedding cake). Millenia of erosion followed, and the three peaks formed the remnant of Tehama's rim. We found ourselves in the center of an eroded crater that measured a dozen or miles across.

From our high ridge, the trail descended moderately for 1.3 miles to reach Bumpass Hell. This area bore the name of Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, a cowboy and prospector that had discovered this area in 1862 and thought to make his fortune by mining the minerals and leading tours to the marvel. However, on the first tour he led:

"Our guide [Mr. K.V. Bumpass], after cautioning us to be careful where we stepped, that the surface was treacherous, suddenly concluded with Virgil that the “descent to Hell was easy” for stepping upon a slight inequality in the ground he broke through the crust and plunged his leg into the boiling mud beneath, which clinging to his limb burned him severely. If our guide had been a profane man I think he would have cursed a little; as it was, I think his silence was owing to his inability to do the subject justice....” -- Editor, Red Bluff Independent, 1865

The 240°F mud clung to his leg, burning it so badly he had to amputate it. So much for his dreams of wealth...

Soon Bumpass Hell came into view:

a small valley of white/yellow/orange rock, steam vents, acidic water, and mudpots. To find more geothermal features concentrated in one area in the U.S., you'd have to travel to Yellowstone (and deal with those crowds). Boardwalks took visitors beside and around the features, with signs warning them NOT to step off the walkways. (Learn from Bumpass's mistake!)

The smell of sulfur hung in the air. Steam roiled from numerous vents. Big Boiler, the park's biggest fumarole and one of the hottest hydrothermal fumaroles in the world, clocked in at 322°F (161°C)!

As we finished the boardwalk trail, we headed back the way we came. Then I called Ron back, and pointed to the trail sign. "It says 1.4 miles back to our car. If we do that, then drive to King's Creek Picnic area, we could catch the easy 0.7 mile trail to Cold Boiling Lake. A round-trip there, added to our return here, would be 2.8 miles. But if I keep going on this trail, I can see the lake and hit the picnic area in only 2.6 miles. Do you mind if I take that trail, and you can drive the car to King's Creek and meet me?"

Maybe a week of my egging him on, babbling about vintage 1960s TV shows and rock'n'roll trivia, had gotten to him. Maybe that's why he so quickly agreed to my plan, taking the car keys and heading out before I could change my mind.

It always enhances the adventure when you add a bit of uncertainty. Would the trail be passable? In good condition? Would we find each other at the end? The park newsletter did not mention a trail difficulty for the walk (other than 'easy' from the picnic area to the lake). I followed the thru-trail to the east overlook of Bumpass Hell, then left the vista point.

Wait. Where's the trail? Where'd it go?

No trail signs beckoned. Ahead of me loomed a short, shallow slope heading downhill in what looked like the right direction. And on the opposite slope - is that my trail? So I worked my way down the slope, until I saw a small ravine between me and the other trail, with no obvious connection.

Damn. I'm committed now; Ron will have left the parking lot before I would catch him. I'm not happy! I retraced my steps to the overlook, as another couple headed back to Bumpass Hell. I asked them if they knew where the thru-trail lurked.

"Oh, yes," the woman answered. "It's not real distinct, but right next to where we came off -" she pointed at a faint trail, "follow that and it becomes better marked." As I thanked them profusely, I noticed her reading my tee shirt. "'Go visit a park, Clark.' Well, we're the Clarks, and we're visiting this park. Does that count?"

It pays to advertise! I told them about my challenge, and they showed great interest. We chatted, and I gave them my card before we parted. They promised to check my blog - so here's a shout out to you, Mr. and Mrs. Clark!

In a short distance, the trail joined the path I'd seen earlier. Luckily, the path stayed level or lost elevation - an easy hike. After half an hour - still no signs! - I asked three hikers coming up whether this trail took me to Cold Boiling Lake.

(It earned this name as a geothermal feature that had lost most of its activity. The park pamphlet says a better name would be Cool Bubbling Lake.) They said it was just around the next corner. (Actually, the next corner revealed Crumbaugh Lake down a steep slope from my trail.)

The trail (according to the park map) dipped into designated wilderness for a short time. I didn't need a map to see that it also dipped into the burn area of the Dixie Fire. Suddenly green trees gave way to charred, blackened hulks of a former forest. Everywhere the black spikes rose from the ground, pointing to the blue sky while providing no shade. I felt hushed to silence, as if I'd entered a charcoal cathedral, a memorial to life snuffed out in flames.

Still - though a year had not yet passed - the forest floor hosted profuse growth of ground cover, with white flowers welcoming the now-unfiltered sunshine. Wow - if you can bloom when the world around has burned up - that takes courage.

At times, the trail cut across slopes sans trees, where vegetation stayed close to the ground.

These slopes were festooned with wildflowers: yellow, red, white, orange, purple - a riot of color. These breaks reminded me of the power and diversity of nature, proving that life abides.

Then I would encounter another Charcoal Cathedral to tamp down my mood.

As I moved down the trail, the lack of signs - or of other hikers - kept me on edge. Thus, when I came across another couple heading up-trail, I asked if this was, indeed, the trail to Cold Boiling Lake. "Couldn't tell you, sorry. That's where we were heading, but it looked too far, so we turned back."

Oh, great.

Nothing to do but let it play out. I kept on heading downhill, and finally caught a glimpse of Cold Boiling Lake through unburned trees.

Just in time, it turns out - the clouds had been building for a while, and as I approached the lake, a thin drizzle started. Enough rain to put my camera into my pack, I decided. When it turned into a thicker drizzle, I hot-footed it the last ¾ mile to the picnic area, where - success! Ron awaited me.

After downing another lunch of PBJ sandwiches, we headed back north. Since the rain had stopped, we pulled over at Summit Lake and tried the Meadow Trail. Nothing spectacular - just a meadow ringed by trees, some burned - but it let us ease into our final night in camp.

Back at the camp store, I treated Ron to ice cream (their unofficial motto: "We have any flavor you want, as long as you want chocolate!"). Then I had time to type up more notes, read a bit, and rest my feet for the strenuous hike tomorrow.

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