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At Lassen Volcanic National Park, let it snowshoe

Lassen Volcanic National Park has 105,000 acres of protected land.
Lassen Volcanic National Park has 105,000 acres of protected land. (Phil Schermeister/Getty Images/National Geographic)

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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 10:15 AM

On a wintry evening outside Lassen Volcanic National Park in northeast California, I walked alone on a snow-packed trail lit by a round, plump moon. The stars overhead sparkled like glitter on a black velvet cloth. I had no destination but to go deep into the darkness, relying on the sky to illuminate my path and my snowshoes to keep the course. But then I heard howls. Distant but clear. A call of the wild that could have been a communal shout-out, a "hey there" among coyote friends, or a "yum, dinner smells good" signal.

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As much as I wanted to see how this story ended - would she be eaten, or would she commune with the canines, learn their language and become the next Dian Fossey? - my feet were not so curious. To save face, I could say that I turned back because I needed to return my borrowed equipment. But to be honest, I had it for one more day.

Ah, the exhilaration of snowshoeing in and around parkland that resembles a snow globe, stocked and shaken by the hand of Mother Nature.

"The open and flat spaces, and the depth and type of snow, make it perfect for snowshoeing," said Steve Zachary, a veteran park ranger who started Lassen's guided snowshoe program in the mid-1980s. "Within minutes, you're having a wilderness experience, finding solitude and beauty without the worry of going too far."

To snowshoe, you obviously need snow, and the national park set at the confluence of the Sierra Nevadas and the Cascade Range delivers: about 400 to 500 inches per season, which runs November through April in the lower elevations (6,700 feet) and until early July on the higher peaks. Towering snowbanks line the road to the park entrance, burying road signs and dwarfing the conifers. Inside the park, the volcanoes look as if they've been iced by a generous cake decorator. Only the hydrothermal areas, with their curlicues of steam and boiling bubbles, hint of a warm heart beneath the Earth's frozen crust.

"The park is snowbound and cold. Solitude is abundant," reads the park literature. The passage describes the stark conditions, but I note a hint of Robert Frost lyricism in the words.

The sense of isolation and remoteness grows exponentially when officials close the 30-mile Main Park Road, the only motorized route through the park's interior, for the season. (The road closed on Nov. 8 this year.) To get around during winter, you must drive around the park's perimeter or think like an Arctic explorer.

"There is no other ski place where you have so much pristine snow," said Nick Roll, a park interpreter and snowshoe guide. "If you want to make your own trails, you just see where the guy before you went and go the other way."

On 105,000 acres of protected land, there's no shortage of other ways. Just don't rely on your tracks to lead you home. Footprints have a tendency to disappear quickly.

Established in 1916, Lassen is the little national park that could - and does, but with subtlety. Fifty miles east of Redding, it receives about 45,000 guests in winter, and its annual visitor numbers (nearly 400,000) equal a summer month's count in Yosemite.

"It's almost like having your own national park," said Russell Virgilio, a park interpreter. "It's so quiet you can hear the snow settling on your jacket."

That's not all your ears will pick up. In the geothermal areas, such as Bumpass Hell and Devil's Kitchen, you can listen to Earth's subterranean rumblings, including the burbles of mud pots and the whoosh of steam vents. All this ruckus means that Lassen Peak, which last erupted less than a century ago, may still have some kick left in its lava dome.


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