Explosive mountains hold a special place in Avi’s heart. He is fascinated by the types of lava, the ring of Fire, and especially volcanoes that blow their top.
Lassen peak in far Northern California hasn’t exploded since 1914. Today it still looks like a quintessential volcano except for the side that blow out. We visited from the south, enjoying the long windy road up up up into the pine forests.
These trees are huge!
At the ranger station we discovered that our initial destination, Bumpass Hell, was still inaccessible because of snow. I knew the direct trail would be closed for repair, but didn’t expect the longer route to still be in deep snow!
Bumpass Hell is an area of geothermal action – hotpots and fumaroles – signs of the still active earth below the dormant volcano. So, not being able to see that, we opted for the next best thing… a roadside area called Sulphur works.
Up and over the mountain proved to us this has been a super-snow year for California. It’s July, and there is still 10 feet or more of packed snow at the Lassen Peak trailhead. Zoe was in her element; she simply loves coldness!
Around the north side we settled on a 3 mile hike up to Paradise meadows. It followed Hat creek to its source high on the side of Lassen peak. We even found snow chunks up there as well, and spent an afternoon dislodging them and sending them downstream. Avi fell in, Zoe got super muddy, and even Bryan took a freezing dip in the fresh mountain snowmelt stream. Later, as we drove north we crossed the Hat Creek river rushing and wondered if the water from our snow chunks had already reached this spot.
At Lava Beds National monument north of Lassen we explored the opposite part of volcanoes – underground lava tubes. This park is really cool; one of the few governmentally managed places where regular folks can explore caves on their own!
We arrived late in the evening and snagged a campsite at the first-come first-served Indian Well Campground. Cooked some dinner and headed out on our bikes to Cave Loop Road. This road closes at 5pm to cars, but bikes are welcome anytime and though it was late in the evening the summer sun was still up, and caves don’t care what time of day it is!
Over the course of that evening and the next morning we visited 9 of the caves! A few were closed for bat nesting, which was a bit of a bummer but there are so many to choose from it didn’t really affect us. They are rated like ski hills – easy are green circles, intermediate are blue squares, and difficult caves are black diamonds. We enjoyed a few of each! The kids improved their skills as we increased difficultly and wanted more crawling, more mazes, and more tight spaces as we went along.
Caves we visited in order of our family favorites:
1. Golden Dome – unanimously chosen as favorite, but only just sliding by our #2. This is an intermediate cave. It had tons of hydrophobic bacteria giving it a moist golden sparkly ceiling. It also had some cool tight spaces the kids just loved to go up over or slide through, and a fun twisty route that helped us teach the kids about noticing their surroundings.
2. Labyrinth/ Lava Brook / Thunderbolt – a super close second place favorite. This is a single cave system with three entrances, and is rated a black diamond. I snapped a pic of the map in the visitor center prior to attempting and we did need to reference it. Avi found out routing through a super tight spot, and we all needed to wedge in or crawl under a few other places…a bit of route finding challenge made it fun; we created a loop beginning at Labyrinth. It’s just not quite as pretty as Golden dome.
3. Sunshine / Sentinel – both these caves tie for third. They were fun, direct line tubes with an obvious route. They had pretty cave-ins allowing for neat pictures. Sunshine is blue square, Sentinel is green: we begin at Upper and came out Lower easily walking back to the car. Zoe easily led the way through Sentinel.
4. Mushpot / Skull cave – these two tie for 4th, and are ideal for non-cave people (both greens). Mushpot is lit and paved and a good intro to the underground tubes with signage and info. Skull’s entrance is a humongous caved-in tube evolved from three levels of tubes that came together. It remains massive even into the dark zone; at the end is a long stairway deep down to a freezing chamber.
5. Boulevard – this was anticlimactic as our final cave. We were hoping to visit Balcony and climb around, but it was closed for bats. Boulevard did have a smooth floor which was unique, and quite a pleasant respite from the sharper volcanic floors of the others. Interestingly tight at the back, but skippable.
What happens after the volcano subsides and all that lava stops flowing?
Driving along the edge of Crater Lake is kind of scary. The edge is right there, with very little berm, and on both sides of the road – either you careen into the lake or slide down the scree slope of the old Mount Mazama. We did neither in the car, but did hike down into the lake.
7700 years ago Mt Mazama began to erupt. A single off-center vent let out magma, dust, and ash. Then, a crazy series of vents also opened up in a circle around the middle base of the mountain. They vented and explode out all the lava from the massive magma chamber deep inside the mountain; so much so that instead of blowing its top, the top ended up caving in after a few days of eruption.
Native Americans from this area have oral history and mythology describing the event as a giant battle between the spirits above and below the mountain. Their ancestors were here.
Over the thousands of years since, the big crater has filled with snow melt water; with no erosive rivers feeding silt or creatures into it and only trickle-down exit, the water is pristine. And cold.
We hiked down the Cleetwood Cove trail – listed as strenuous, but the trail is quite wide, smooth, and easy; the elevation change on the way back up makes it difficult. 770ft in a mile is kind of steep but not that bad as there are plenty of benches and views to be had. Slow and steady wins that race.
At the bottom, the park service was repairing a tiny dock for boats they will take on tours to Wizard Island – the remnants of that original vent where further eruptions spewed a cinder cone into the lake. Not today, though. Late snow has delayed everything. It’s July 8!
Bryan was the first to jump in the lake – and off a cliff for drama. He even brought his swim suit in preparation. Avi was next. After huddling next to me in the sun and watching Bryan swim around, he suddenly took off his pants and sweatshirt and hopped off a small boulder. Then Zoe! The kids each swam a bit, jumped off rocks and were quickly chilled.
I waited til after we ate our packed lunch; after the chipmunks scurried around; and after I got nice and hot in the warm sun to dive in myself. It’s freezing cold, but so very clear and beautiful blue! Diving in hurt my stinking broken rib (from a mt bike crash a couple weeks a ago)…. it’s a drag.
We all basked on the hot boulders at the base of the crater cliffs on the edge of the lake until we were warm and ready to hike out.
Much of the winter snow is still chunked up along the road in places; in fact, we couldn’t drive the whole road around the rim for snow. But we did stop and let the kids play for a long while. Bryan and I busted out the camp chairs to relax while they got filthy.
Avi is obsessed with pumice this trip. He wants to collect it, which isn’t allowed in the park. But, out the north entrance and around to the west there are huge cutbanks in the pumice deposits for the road. Here we stopped and he got a few souvenirs.
This evening we found an amazing campground called Farewell Bend just beside the Rogue River Gorge. It was so perfect! The river cuts down through the cracks in the lava flows to create dramatic scenery where giant, just giant, old growth trees tower. Our spot right on the river had its own little black sand beach which kept the kids busy digging, building, and launching the floating pumice downstream for hours.
Later in our trip we crossed the Rogue again as it exited to the Pacigic ocean and Avi and I spotted some of our pumice.
The final piece of the volcano puzzle is the prehistoric volcano. The Pacific islands of the Paleozoic – before dinosaurs, when the world was hot as balls and only bacteria survived. It created a reef around those ocean volcanos, and then the whole lot was subducted under North America (the Pacific still is). That limestone bacteria reef was metamorphosed into marble. It was lifted and slowly eroded from the inside by rain, or Dwayne – Dwayne Johnson to be precise- as our cave guide Ranger Neil explained. He was hysterical with his ongoing metaphor of the rain being The Rock.
The Oregon Caves are huge and uniquely marble. Our hour and a half tour shed light on a system way older than a typical limestone cave. Unlike the lava tube caves we visited a few days ago, this is still and active cave formed by water – there were stalactites and mites, cool soda straw formations, and the river Styx (a protected fully underground river).
When we were done, the kids wanted to do some of our own caving, so we took the trail around to the small but cool Blind Leads Cave. After that, it was down down down the windy mountain road and off to our next adventure.