At Lassen Volcanic National Park, let it snowshoe

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.

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.

"Lassen is active but dormant," said Virgilio. "It may wake up, or it may never wake up."

The 10,457-foot volcano isn't the only erupter inside the federal boundaries. The park has the distinction of being the only place on the planet - yes, the planet - to contain all four types of volcanoes: shield, plug dome, cinder cone and composite. With some guidance from a park ranger, or a cheat sheet from the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center at the southwest entrance, you can get to know them on a first-name basis: Mount Harkness and Prospect Peak (shield); Lassen Peak, Chaos Crags and Bumpass Mountain (plug dome); Hat Mountain, Cinder Cone and Fairfield Peak (cinder cone); and Brokeoff Mountain, Mount Diller, Pilot Pinnacle and Mount Conard (remnants of the composite).

In terms of major drama, Lassen Peak would be a shoo-in for an end-of-the-world Hollywood blockbuster. The volcano first erupted on May 30, 1914, and spent the remainder of the year burping steam more than 150 times. A year later, on May 19, lava bubbled up and over, the hot molten rock cascading a thousand feet down the western slope. On the opposite flank, lava chunks combined forces with ash and snow, creating a mud flow that stretched 18 miles. Yet the volcano wasn't quite finished. Its final cough occurred three days later, with a blast that shot ash five miles heavenward. Then, it slept - fitfully.

Seismologists are constantly tracking the volcano, which frees up snowshoers to concentrate on trudging through 20 feet of snow in alien footwear.

Every weekend from December through April (this season, Dec. 26-April 3), the park leads snowshoe hikes. The night before a March excursion, a storm swaddled the park in a thick white blanket that would cushion any clumsy snowshoer. I did not want to be that fallen snow angel, so I sneaked in a practice run before the scheduled outing.

On the two-mile round-trip hike, I accompanied Virgilio, originally from the warm clime of Atlanta and a new father to twins. Adding up those two facts, I assumed that this would be an easy hike without risk.

We left the visitor center and headed toward a crescent trail wedged between a steep hill and a sharp drop. At a midway point, Russell stopped to show me grooves in a slope overhead. I offered two wrong guesses: the marks of sledders or volcanic activity (my default answer to every question a park official asked). The correct response: the telltale signs of avalanche. I questioned the wisdom of standing in the bull's eye of a potential danger zone and adjusted my initial impression of Russell.

Our next destination was Sulphur Works, which first announces itself through the nasal cavity - eau de rotten oeufs. We stood on the boardwalk, which had been buried and partly crushed by the heavy snows, to take in the hydrothermal features. Below, a mud pot bubbled like chocolate fondue, while whirls of steam puffed from vents in the rocks.

"You can cook dinner in it," said Russell, "but you're not going to get any health benefits from bathing in it."

Alas, I had not discovered the secret to immortality. But I was glad that the elixir to give you the body of a 20-year-old wasn't a 195-degree cocktail of sulfuric acid and mud.

Our group of youngsters to women-of-a-certain-age rendezvoused outside the visitor center, some standing solidly on their snowshoes, others wobbly like baby giraffes. Our guide, Nick, boosted our confidence by praising us for just showing up: "We have 400,000 visitors a year and 90 percent come in the summer. Give yourself a round of applause for being the 10 percent who come out during this time of the year."

Before we ventured into the coniferous forest off the parking lot, Nick instructed us to walk up and down a small slope, reminding us to dig the clawed toe into the snow for support.

Ready to go, we lined up conga-style. I trailed a teenager who could snowshoe and eat dried ramen noodles simultaneously.

At certain junctures, Nick would halt the group and lead a short discussion on the surrounding ecology. He warned us, for example, to avoid the pink snow, despite its mouthwatering watermelon hue. The color is caused by lichens, the snack of fools. Standing beneath a red fir canopy that scissored the blue sky, he explained how the thick-furred pine marten survives Lassen's winters by burrowing into the snow as if it were a heated underground cave. He stuck a head shot of the weasel family member in the ground for verisimilitude. It was the best wildlife viewing of the day.

For the final leg, we scaled a steep incline that granted long, broad views of the valley and Lassen Peak, a blinding expanse of white.

"These wilderness places are harder and harder to find," Nick said. "For a guy like John Muir, this was a spiritual place."

After we completed the 90-minute loop, Nick reminded us to remove our equipment to protect the bottoms from the plowed asphalt. Shorn of their snowshoes, my feet felt lighter, but lonely.

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