Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lassen Peak is not extinct and could be active sooner than later

The landscape here speaks clearly, in a rumbling voice, saying it was forged over millions of years by the irresistible powers of fiery volcanoes and glaciers of ice, when chaos and upheaval ruled.
Now Lassen Volcanic National Park is mostly cooled off, calmed down and resurrected. Nature found a way to populate the hundreds of volcanoes and their remnants with 700 species of flora and nearly 300 kinds of animals. Flower-covered meadows, rushing streams and 200 lakes are spread throughout the park, all accessible via 150 miles of hiking paths.

Pioneers came this way in the 1850s on the Nobles Immigrant Trail, parts of which are plainly visible. The descendants of the Mountain Maidu Indians, who once thrived here, hold the area sacred and attend it on their spiritual quests.

Looming over the park like a great stone god in the sky is snow-topped Lassen Peak, an 11,000-year-old "plug dome" volcano rearing up to 10,457 feet. The lowest elevation in the park is 5,650 feet.

We were discussing all this while touring the Sulphur Works, near the park's southwest entrance. It's a geothermal area where steam vents and boiling mud pots fill the air with heat and stinky smells.

It is believed that the Sulphur Works once was near the heart of Mount Tehama – aka Brokeoff Volcano – an "andesitic stratovolcano" formed 600,000 years ago. It spewed magma for centuries, building itself up to a height of about 11,000 feet, experts say, with a base of 11 miles. Eventually, it eroded under glaciers and collapsed.

The now-dominant Lassen Peak is part of the "Ring of Fire," a chain of volcanoes that traverses the west and east sides of the Pacific Ocean and extends to Indonesia.

"The park is all about geological wonders," said National Park Service ranger Karen Haner, who was guiding us around. "It's pristine, and you can get on a trail and very quickly be all alone."
Haner is the park's chief of interpretation and cultural resources, and has been stationed here for eight years. She and her fellow rangers are charged with preserving the park in its natural state, and they take that duty very seriously.

For recreationists, Lassen is an obvious choice as an alternative to the larger and much more crowded Yosemite National Park, which receives 4 million visitors a year, compared with Lassen's 375,000 or so. Both parks are open year-round.

Lassen offers camping, hiking, fishing and incredible vistas – though on a smaller scale than Yosemite – and is surrounded by the million-acre Lassen National Forest.

One thing the park is lacking, though, is lodging.

"There is a segment of our visitors who are not interested in camping out," Haner said. "They want some accommodations, but we don't have any to speak of."

The only lodging in the park is the small Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a remote outpost that's often booked a year in advance.

Also, while Yosemite's valley floor is accessible in the winter, Lassen must contend with a snow factor that shrinks its season.

On average, 35 feet of snow falls here, making it impenetrable for months to all but dedicated cross-country skiers and snowshoers.

During our visit last July, 25 percent of the park – mostly backcountry trails and lakes – was still snowbound, including its premier geothermal viewing area, Bumpass Hell. The 30-mile-long Main Park Road (Highway 89, aka federal highway NPS-1),had opened earlier in the month.

The narrow, 30-mile road winds its way mostly along the west side of the 106,000-acre park, passing near numerous points of interest.

Driving on the road and making frequent stops "is how half of our visitors experience the park," Haner said. "The road is on the National Register of Historical Places as a cultural landscape."
We climbed into the SUV and motored on from the Sulphur Works, passed by the Brokeoff Mountain trailhead (a four-hour round-trip hike to 9,235 feet) and stopped at Peak Necessities, an interim concession that sells everything from hiking sticks to plush toys.

"This will be the site of the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center," Haner said. "Kohm Yah-mah-nee" is Maidu for "snowy mountain."

The year-round staffed center – a first for the park – will showcase interpretive exhibits and movies, host special events, and sell food and souvenirs. The projected opening is in fall 2008.
We continued our ascent toward Lassen Peak, passing Emerald Lake and Lake Helen, both mostly frozen over, but both revealing patches of neon-blue and green water. Snow berms 15 feet high shouldered both sides of the road.

Soon, we pulled in to the Bumpass Hell parking lot, where we encountered Rachel Steele and her daughter, Talulla, 7, before they returned to Los Angeles.

"We wanted to get out of the city and be in the frontier, so we've been visiting Mount Shasta," said Rachel Steele. "We came here because the budding vulcanologist in the family (nodding toward her daughter) was interested in checking out some geothermal action on the edge of the Ring of Fire.

"(The park) is absolutely gorgeous. It smells so piney up here."

At the edge of a nearby cliff was a 13-foot-high boulder, carried by glacier and deposited there millenniums ago. It seemed impossible, but foreshadowed even more bizarre sights to come.
We drove on to a roadside pull-off to check out Hat Lake, which flows into Hat Creek and faces the north slope of Lassen Peak.

"Hat Creek was a fishing ground for the Atsugewi Indians," Haner pointed out as we walked along the stream, then crossed the road for a look at shallow Hat Lake. Beavers had built a dam there, and their lodge could be seen at the lake's far end.

Farther along, we pulled off to examine the five kinds of volcanic rocks that erupted from Lassen Peak early in the last century. Thousands of pieces litter the ground.

Also here are gigantic boulders that were swept down the mountain. The boulders were called "hot rocks" because they were sizzling when they came to a halt and took days to cool off. As they cooled, some of them shattered into pieces that, theoretically, could be pieced back together like gigantic jigsaw puzzles. Nearby is the imposing 20-ton Loomis Hot Rock, carried miles from Lassen Peak during an eruption.

In 1914, Lassen Peak began a series of eruptions that continued until 1921. The biggest explosion came on May 19, 1915. A gush of molten lava and rocks shot out onto the snow, vaporizing it and creating a 20-foot-tall flow of mud, boulders and trees that rushed down the slope and extended for miles. It wiped out everything in its path and created what's known as the Devastated Area. Since then, a pine forest has partially covered the damage. Local resident Benjamin Franklin Loomis' primitive photographs of the event as it occurred are still used as data by scientists.

Next we came to Chaos Crags, a group of dome volcanoes that surrendered to erosion and gravity about 300 years ago. Millions of tons of dacite rock crashed down the slope at 100 mph, took out the forest and dammed a creek, creating nearby Manzanita Lake. The area is called Chaos Jumble. If you were to grow a crop of big rocks in a huge field, this is what it would look like at harvest time.

At the Lassen Volcanic Discovery Center, interpretive panels, dioramas and a topographical map help explain the history of the park. Included in displays are Loomis' original camera equipment used to photograph the Lassen eruption, along with blowups of his photos.

"If Loomis hadn't run out of film and left, he would have been killed," Haner said.

Soon we were at peaceful Manzanita Lake, looking up at a nearly full moon as it rose over Lassen Peak.

We saw some trout activity during our stroll around the lake, but anglers should note that hooks must be barbless and that fishing is catch-and-release.

The next day we drove to the 110-year-old Drakesbad Guest Ranch in the remote Warner Valley.
The compound of wood buildings includes a rustic lodge, dining hall, guest rooms and horse stable. Down a path is a swimming pool fed by a hot spring. A deer wandered into camp and watched the guests watch her.

We ran into ranger Chris Cruz, a 25-year National Park Service veteran who has worked in 10 parks.

"Lassen is as good as any of them," he said. "This park is off the beaten path, so you have to make a conscious effort to get here. (Consequently) the thing that's really nice about it is we don't get the visitation like they do in, say, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Sequoia and Kings Canyon."
A few minutes later, three hikers returned from a nearby trail and reported spotting Buttermilk and her two cubs ambling in the woods, so we took off to find the black bears and visit the Devil's Kitchen, two miles distant.

The trail took us through a green fen – a lush meadow kept wet from groundwater – and then took off uphill into a forest of old-growth incense cedar and ponderosa pine, the original big guys that avoided the woodcutters' saws of the 19th century. Mosquitoes rule the woods, so bring repellant.
No sign of the bears except for a pile of scat.

Our last hike took in three of the park's most startling sights, the Cinder Cone volcano, the Fantastic Lava Beds and the Painted Dunes.

We pulled into the Butte Lake parking lot and looked across the water at a startling sight – a 50-foot-high wall of sharp-edged volcanic rock that parallels the four-mile uphill trail to Cinder Cone (a national monument), and also marks the western edge of the sprawling Fantastic Lava Beds.
Essentially, Cinder Cone is a 700-foot-high pile of volcanic cinders – think of black sand – that formed around a volcanic vent during two eruptions in the 1650s. A steep trail leads to the top.
One obvious concern for park visitors is the possibility of another volcanic eruption.
What's the status?

"Lassen Peak is categorized as a dormant volcano, but it is not a dead volcano by any means," said Patrick Muffler. He is the geologist emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey and has devoted 30 years off and on to studying the geothermal aspects of the park.

"It could be thousands of years before it erupts again, or sooner," he said. "This is not an exact science."

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