I love San Francisco, but as summer approaches I feel the need to escape the concrete jungle and get out into nature. Fortunately, northern California provides plenty of opportunities within a few hours’ drive, and today we’re headed to the Lassen National Park area.
I’m with my husband, my favorite co-pilot. It’s been a long time since we traveled together, and we quickly fall into old patterns. We’re off to a friend’s cabin at Lake Almanor, about 300 miles northeast of the city. We drive through suburbs and farms and rice fields, then the elevation rises and I feel myself losing my city stress.
We stop to check out a river at a small campground just inside of Plumas County, and I breathe deeply the smell of pine needles baking in the sun. It grounds me. I can’t wait to get out the kayaks and fishing gear once we reach our destination.
Lake Almanor is a beauty, with a spectacular view of Mount Lassen in the background. It’s one of the few lakes in the region to allow motorized boats, and while that makes it a great playground for waterskiers, it’s also the reason I don’t plan to spend any time there. My goal is a bit further afield, down any of the countless red-dirt roads surrounding the southern tip of Lassen National Park. It seems like every one of these roads leads to a small, quiet, scenic lake perfect for hiking, fishing and kayaking.
Our first goal is Willow Lake, which has a hiking trail around it. Unfortunately we miss a turn and end up following our GPS into the park to Drakesbad, a small cabin resort that’s not yet open for the season. We’re seeing that a lot, and it surprises me – I consider Memorial Day weekend the official start of summer, but up here, where the altitude varies from 5,000 ft. – 11,000 ft., summer starts in late June. After a quick laugh at how lost we are, Nick, the owner of Drakesbad, suggests we might as well make the most of our detour and points us to the Boiling Springs Lake circuit trail.
That’s the beauty of traveling with intentions but not plans – it creates room for miracles and surprises. Even though I’m wearing water sandals hiking through piles of unmelted snow, this hike is exactly what I need. Boiling Lake is exactly that – it’s more acid than water and geothermally heated to 180 degrees. In places it literally boils. Mount Lassen last erupted in May, 1915, but it is still considered an active volcano. In fact, it is the most likely of the Cascade Range volcanos to erupt this century. All around us the earth hisses and gurgles, and we’re careful to mind the signs and not step off the trail – one wrong step and the crust could crumble, tumbling us into deadly hot water.
In many ways the park is more primitive than when founded just over 100 years ago. There used to be a ski resort on the property that functioned until mid-1900s, but now the park, especially on the south side where we are, is blessedly uncrowded. Many roads stay closed until June, which we learned the hard way at Juniper Lake.
Juniper is a gorgeous lake, set about 20 miles east of the park on one of those dirt roads. Most of the roads back here are poorly marked, but Juniper Lake Road is an exception. Unfortunately, though, we get to the end of it and find it gated, with several feet of unplowed snow on the other side of the gate. It’s a sad disappointment, because it’s my favorite lake in the area.
We head back through the town of Chester and fill up at the Burger Depot, which is designed in a train theme. Steve, the owner, sits himself down beside me at the table to tell us the story of how they’ve grown over the past 21 years. “My wife Ann almost walked away from me when I told her I was buying this place,” he confides. “But she’s still here today so I must be doing something right!”
Steve, like everyone else we meet up here, is our kind of person: unassuming, humble, down to earth. Living so far from the hustle and bustle, people up here have no need to impress anyone. It’s one of the reasons I find the area so refreshing.
Next day we head back down the road to find Silver Lake. It is not well marked, and in fact, the road sign is turned around so we miss it on the first pass (see instructions below). It’s worth the effort, though. Dotted with small cabins, most of which are uninhabited this weekend, Silver Lake is perfect for both of us. John drops his line in the water and I drop my kayak. Despite the 75 degree (24 C) air temperature, snow is still piled up in spots around the lake, and the frigid water temperature makes me careful not to tip over. A sunny picnic on shore with a cold beer caps off a perfect weekend.
There’s plenty to do in the area, especially if you like the outdoors. Here are a few ideas:
- Hike Collins Pine Park 40, an old growth forest just west of Chester. http://www.collinsco.com/Library/almanor-forest/park40brochure.pdf
- Stargaze Lassen National Park – with virtually no ambient light, Lassen is a perfect spot to stare at the night sky.
- Check out Westwood, the town Paul Bunyan founded
- Bike rides abound in the area. From easy hour-long rides to 20 mile treks through difficult terrain and thousand foot elevation climbs, there’s something for everyone here. The good folks at Bodfish Bicycles in Chester have always been very helpful, even though I’ve never rented one of their bikes. http://www.bodfishbicycles.com/
- Visit Lassen national park. It’s much cooler here than in the roasting San Joaquin valley to the south, but here it’s bubbling with mudpots and steam vents and boiling springs, suggesting that the volcano might not be dead quite yet. There’s more than 150 miles of hiking and dozens of small lakes open but restricted to non-motorized boats. Aaah, sweet natural serenity. Fee per car $10 Dec 1-Apr 15 and $20 Apr 16-Nov 39. Roads are closed to vehicles in winter, sometimes as early as Oct, but trails are open for snow shoeing, cross country and back country skiing. https://www.nps.gov/lavo/index.htm
- Lake Almanor is great for your need for speed. Rent a boat at any one of several marinas and ski the day away.
- Historic drives through Gold country take you through high meadows, across gurgling creeks and through forests and small towns. Humboldt Summit Humboldt Valley Loop (four hours, 69 miles, from 4500-6600 feet, closed in winter) or Beckwourth-Antelope Lake-Indian Valley Route (four hours and 75 miles one way from 3500-7500 elevation, closed in winter). Both are great for wildflower viewing in May and June. Pick up a brochure at the visitor center inside Plumas Bank in Chester. http://plumascounty.org/Self-Guided-Tours
- Golf courses are everywhere around here.
- Fish, kayak or swim Silver Lake. From Highway 36 in Chester, go 8 miles east to Westwood. Go left (north) on A21 (Mooney Rd) for 14 miles. Watch your odometer because the turnoff is unmarked. Immediately following a bridge with guard rails you’ll see a turnoff to the left with a turned-around road sign that says Mooney Road is the turnoff. It’s not, but turn left anyway because it’s the road you need. Continue 4 miles on a well-maintained red dirt road to Silver Lake.
- Camp, fish, kayak and hike Juniper Lake (from mid-June). Turn left at fire station immediately after crossing Feather River Bridge (watch for National Park Service sign on right) continue approximately 13 miles follow signs to Juniper Lake Campground and Group Campsite Area. Campground access is via paved and dirt road, last 6 miles is narrow, rough and dusty dirt road. http://www.recreation.gov/camping/juniper-lake-group/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=75409