The national park that wraps Lassen Peak in northeastern California has been referred to in the past as the "Little Yellowstone" for its geothermal wonders. It has most, but not all, of the hot-plumbed features that you can find in Yellowstone National Park -- mudpots, fumaroles, boiling hot springs. About the only thing it lacks are true geysers. Yellowstone has the market cornered on them.
But travel to Lassen Volcanic National Park and your eyes immediately will be drawn to the namesake peak that towers above the landscape. While still a national monument (Cinder Cone National Monument and its sibling, Lassen Peak National Monument were designated in 1907), the May 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak was the most recent volcanic eruption in the continental United States. Although the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 changed that, it did not change the significance of Lassen Peak as one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world. In addition, the park is unique in its preservation of the three other types of volcanoes (shield, composite and cinder cones) in a relatively small geographic area.
According to the park map and guide, the 106,372 acres on the southern tip of the Cascade Range is a compact laboratory of volcanic phenomena and associated thermal features except true geysers. Along with its geologic features, the park is at the apex of three biogeographic regions – the southern Cascades, the northern Sierra Nevada, and the Basin and Range Province.
Perhaps the park's main draw, though, is the relatively short, 2.5-mile footpath that winds its way to the top of the 10,457-foot-tall Lassen Peak. Not surprisingly, after all these years, that trail is in need of some rehabilitation, according to park officials. Beginning at the peak parking area at an elevation of 8,500 feet, the trail zig-zags across a steep and rocky landscape to the summit. Much of the mountain is barren, lacking of trees and other vegetation that could help stabilize the flanks.
Now park officials say work is needed to improve safety, install turnouts along the trail, and add a new trailside toilet. Plus, the park is proposing a trail to connect the Manzanita Creek Trail to the Lassen Peak Trail.
Here's a look at the four alternatives under consideration for the trail work:
Alternative A: No Action (Continue Current Management): Existing management, including ongoing maintenance and occasional reconstruction of the non-wilderness Lassen Peak Trail, would continue. There would continue to be no trailside toilets and human waste disposal problems would also therefore continue. Social / way trails would continue to be the primary means of access in the summit crater and true summit areas. Interpretation would be provided by existing interpretive exhibits and occasional staff presence. Aside from removal of older exhibits, rehabilitation or replacement of exhibits would generally only occur as these were damaged.
Elements Common to All Action Alternatives: All action alternatives (Alternatives B, C, and D) would include: rehabilitation or reconstruction of the trail tread, including rock walls and steps; shoulder season way finding / access improvements; relocation of the radio repeater structure; use of rock from within and outside the park for trail rehabilitation; helicopter transport of materials for the Peak trail rehabilitation; ongoing trail maintenance; increased trail monitoring; and potential implementation of a hiker shuttle.
Alternative B: Minor Changes in Lassen Peak Trail Visitor Experience: The Lassen Peak Trail would be rehabilitated in a single, phased project to a consistent four-foot width (including narrowing of existing wider sections) to replicate its historic condition. No additional group turnouts would be added. There would be no trailside toilets, therefore human waste disposal problems would continue. Social / way trails would continue to be the primary means of access in the crater and true summit areas. The NPS would not maintain a summit register. Limited interpretive opportunities would continue to occur from rehabilitation of existing interpretive exhibits or occasional staff presence and programs.
Alternative C: Modest Improvements in Lassen Peak Trail Visitor Experience: The lower section of trail (approximately 1.2 miles to tree line) would be widened to approximately six feet, while the upper section would remain at its historic width of approximately four feet. A trailside toilet would be provided at a wide area about 0.6 miles from the summit. Approximately 6-8 new turnouts would be constructed alongside the trail to accommodate groups of 10-15 people. There would be designated loop and/or spur trails in the summit crater area and a designated route with stabilized tread and a cable with stanchions leading to the true summit, where the summit register would be identified. A new trail in wilderness to connect the Manzanita Creek Trail to the Lassen Peak Trail would also be constructed.
Alternative D: Lassen Peak Trail Visitor Use Accommodation: The upper and lower sections of trail would be widened to approximately six feet, where possible. Trailside toilets would be provided in two locations (one located approximately 0.75-1.0 mile from the parking area and one approximately 0.6 miles from the summit). Approximately 6 turnouts would accommodate groups of 15-20 people and 2-4 turnouts would accommodate groups of 10-15 people. A formally constructed loop trail in the summit crater area would contain interpretive wayside panels. Another formal trail with even tread, including rock steps would lead to the true summit. The summit register would be moved down to the summit plateau area to allow more people to access it. A new trail in wilderness to connect the Manzanita Creek Trail to the Lassen Peak Trail would also be constructed.
Alternative C is the park's preferred alternative.
Similar to Alternative B, Alternative C calls for rehabilitation of the Lassen Peak Trail. In Alternative C, however, the lower section of trail (approximately 1.2 miles to tree line) would be widened to approximately six feet, whereas the upper section would be the same as in Alternative B, approximately four feet. In addition a restroom would be provided at a wide area approximately two-thirds of the way to the summit and approximately 6-8 new turnouts would be constructed alongside the trail to accommodate small groups (10-15 people). Whereas summit crater and true summit trails would remain undesignated in Alternatives A and B, in Alternative C, there would be designated loop and/or spur trails in the summit crater area and a designated route with stabilized tread and a cable with stanchions leading to the true summit, where the summit register would be identified. In addition, a new 5.5 mile long trail would be constructed in wilderness to link the Lassen Peak Trail with the Manzanita Creek Trail and the spectacular Vulcan’s Castle area.
By building a connector trail to the Manzanita Creek Trail, park officials say visitors would have another option to reach the Manzanita Creek Trail and would enhance access to Vulcan's Castle, which is one of the park's "most spectacular wilderness destinations."
"Extension of the Manzanita Creek Trail to the Vulcan’s Castle area would provide trail access to a unique area of the park and would mitigate currently occurring resource impacts by decreasing the number of social trails," say park officials. The connector trail also would "diminish the need for visitors to drive through the park to access the trailhead and expand visitor use opportunities but would require new trail construction in wilderness," they added.
The environmental assessment mentions the varied conditions of the trail in explaining the need for rehab work. It does not, however, specifically mention last summer's rockslide that killed a 9-year-old boy and injured his 13-year-old sister.
Hiking the non-wilderness Lassen Peak Trail is a highlight of the park visitor experience. The trail condition, however, varies from good to poor, with many trail locations that are deteriorating and eroding. This condition contributes to numerous safety concerns and resource degradation along the route. Among the most pressing problems are those that follow:
In some locations, the trail is narrow and does not allow adequate space for two hikers to pass when traveling in opposite directions.
Some sections of the trail are difficult to locate in the early season after the road and trailhead open. During this time, when snow still covers north-facing slopes and high elevations, some sections of the trail are consistently cut by visitors avoiding steep icy slopes. Hiking off the established route contributes to off-trail erosion and loss of plants.
Some rock retaining walls constructed during the historic period are in need of repairs following decades of trail use. Some poorly constructed rock retaining walls have been damaged by weathering and off-trail travel.
Although historically pit toilets were located along the trail, none are now present. As a result, the three to six hour excursion on the trail results in observable human waste impacts.
Interpretation of the geology, scenic views and other key features associated with the trail is inconsistent and varies in appearance and themes, depending on when the signs or wayside exhibits were installed.
Although groups frequently use the trail, there are few appropriate areas that allow groups to step aside to discuss key features or to allow other hiking parties to pass.
The loss of some historic trail features, such as switchback-end (corner) vista points, has occurred from visitors’ short-cutting switchbacks over time.
Because access to the trail is only available from the Lassen Peak Trailhead parking area, visitors must often drive from distant campgrounds to access the trail (no trails connect to it from other popular visitor use areas).
Your chance to comment on four alternatives considered by park officials runs through January 11. You can comment at this site.
The entire environmental assessment addressing the alternatives is attached below.