National Park Road Trip 2011: Lassen Volcanic National Park

An early season visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park greeted David and Kay Scott with lots of snow and few crowds. Which made the arrival of the park's new "camper cabins" timely! Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: It look a bit of driving, but Traveler's lodging experts, David and Kay Scott, managed to reach Lassen Volcanic National Park to work on updating their book, The Complete Guide To the National Park Lodges. At Lassen they were able to check out the park's new cabins.

Greetings from the Manzanita Lake area of Lassen Volcanic National Park, where it is cool and overcast. Lassen has always been one of our favorite national parks, and we have camped here on numerous occasions. The park offers mountains, lakes, waterfalls, big trees, hydrothermal areas, and dormant volcanoes.

Highway 89 winds through the park and provides visitors with exceptional views of this beautiful and rugged landscape. Best of all, the park never seems crowded. Lassen gets about 400,000 visitors annually, about one-tenth the number that flow through entrance stations at Yosemite National Park. We find that even many Californians have never visited and know little about this national park.

Lassen Peak, the central feature of the park, was formed 27,000 years ago as a vent on the northern shoulder of a much larger volcano. Lassen erupted in 1914 and continued to do its thing on and off for another three years. With thick, oozing magma, Lassen grew to its present height of 10,545 feet.

It wasn’t until 1980 that Mount St. Helen’s took Lassen’s crown as the last major volcano to erupt in the continental United States. Visitors can normally hike to the top of Lassen, but the National Park Service is currently restricting use of the trail as part of a five-year maintenance plan. A ranger told us the trail to the top will be open to hikers during the July 4 weekend and on several other days during the current season.

Our original plan had been to enter Lassen at the southwest entrance and drive Highway 89 through the park to exit at the northwest entrance. We would then head west to I-5 and north to Oregon for our next stop at Oregon Caves National Monument. Unfortunately, the park highway remains closed due to the heavy winter snowfall. In fact, it snowed 6 inches in the Manzanita area a couple of days ago and was spitting snow on the day we arrived.

So, instead of crossing the Sierras and entering from the southwest, we drove north out of Yosemite to Chico, California, in order to access the park from the northwest. The major reason to visit Chico is an opportunity to tour the Sierra Nevada brewery. This is high on my list of great places in America, and we took advantage of an afternoon tour in order to learn how one of the country’s finest beers is made.

We normally spend one or two nights at Drakesbad Guest Ranch, the only regular lodging facility in the park. But when calling for a reservation we learned that Drakesbad would not be opening until a week after we were to be through the area.

But the Drakesbad manager told us new camper cabins would be open in the Manzanita Lake area of the park, so we headed there and settled into camper cabin 10. The 20 cabins were manufactured and brought into the park at the end of last season by the National Park Service. They are being managed by California Guest Services, the concessionaire that for many years has operated Drakesbad Guest Ranch.

The cabins have a propane heater, but no electricity or water. Public bathrooms, pay showers, and laundry facilities are near the camper store that is within easy walking distance of the cabins. Other restrooms are also available.

Three sizes of cabins are offered. Small one-room cabins ($57) have a double bed plus a table and four chairs. Larger cabins ($81) have a front room with a table and four chairs plus a small back bedroom with two bunk beds, one a double/single and the other a single/single. Each single and double cabin has a covered front porch.

Several bunk cabins each have four bunk beds that fill nearly all the interior space. Each cabin has an outside fire ring, picnic table, and bear box, but otherwise these units are barebones. Sheets, blankets, pillows, and towels are not included with any of the cabins. Guests can rent a package of camping items including sleeping bags, pillows, ice chest, ice, firewood, and a propane stove for a one-time fee of $100 ($200 for a double cabin).

It is worth mentioning Drakesbad Guest Ranch on the south side of the park even though we were unable to visit during this trip. Drakesbad is an unusual national park lodging facility. All meals are included in the price of a room, and guests dine together in a central dining hall, a nice touch that facilitates meeting new friends.

Following dinner guests generally gather around a large outdoor fireplace, or stroll into the first floor of the lodge to read, play cards, or chat. Several types of accommodations are available, including second-floor rooms in the rustic lodge, bungalows along a meadow, and cabins behind the dining hall. In total, Drakesbad has only 19 guest rooms. Rates range from $155 to $180 per person double occupancy. Weekly rates are approximately six times the daily rate.

We have found Drakesbad to be a friendly place where the managers treat guests as family. Many guests return year after year, a good omen for those of you who may be interested in visiting.

From Lassen we headed for a stay at the Chateau at the Oregon Caves, a historic lodge at Oregon Caves National Monument. First, though, we are planning a night of tenting in an Oregon state park near Medford. Unfortunately, the weather forecast doesn’t look favorable for a night of camping. The Northwest continues to get rain, rain, rain.

We will give you a report after our stay at Oregon Caves. By the way, only the campground host and one other camper were in the 177-site Manzanita campground adjacent to our camper cabin.

Comments

Yikes! My wife and I have reservation at Manzanita Campground for the Fourth! Sure hope most of that snow is gone by then...

I'm thinking Bumpass Hell would have been interesting with all the snow, although that's on the other end of the main park road.

These cabins seem rather spartan - similar to KOA's "Kamper Kabins", but without electricity.