If there's no other hike you do at Lassen Volcanic National Park -- and hiking to the park's roof atop 10,457-foot Lassen Peak is not for everyone -- the nice walk to Bumpass Hell is the one to do.
This 2.6-mile-roundtrip hike, through the pines with Lassen Peak rising high above you to the northwest and Brokeoff Mountain off to the south, has a payoff that will leave you thinking you're in Yellowstone National Park. Bumpass Hell is the tag applied to the park's most active thermal area, one fueled by Lassen's hydrothermally charged basement.
The area took its name from Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, a hunter/cowboy/prospector who is said to have discovered the area in 1864 while looking for stray cattle. As the story goes, Bumpass broke through the thin crust and burned his foot on his first visit. When he returned to camp and the others asked him where he had been, he reportedly replied, "Boys, I have been in Hell."
Well, a newspaper editor heard of the tale, and asked Bumpass to take him to the site. Bumpass again broke through the crust, but supposedly burned his leg so badly that it had to be amputated. This time he was said to have remarked that, "The descent to Hell is easy."
Today breaking through the crust is hard to do, as the Park Service has erected an elevated boardwalk through the area, much as those you find in Yellowstone's geyser basins. Stick to it and you should be safe.
The hike from the parking area is quick, winding along the side of Bumpass Mountain and bringing you to an overlook of the 16-acre thermal basin cradled in a notch in the mountain. From the overlook you descend about 100 feet to the boardwalk that runs along roughly half of the basin...and whiffs of sulphur. The boardwalk provides you with nice views of the milky, aquamarine main hot spring, which is backed by a throttling steam fumarole, the "Big Boiler." Continue around the walkway and you'll find gurgling mud pots and more hot springs, including one with a murky grey solution of dissolved pyrite circulating in the boiling water.
Park officials say the parking lot can quickly fill on weekends and holidays, so get there early, or look for a spot at the Lake Helen turnout or picnic area just north of the main parking area. If you can arrange a shuttle, you can continue hiking beyond Bumpass Hell to Cold Boiling Lake and the Kings Creek picnic area where you can be picked up. This will add about 2.5 miles to your hike.