One in eight Americans call California home, making it more and more difficult to find solitude in one of our national parks. In 2017, over four million people visited Yosemite; Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks eclipsed two million visitors for the first time. But a bit farther north, at the southern end of the Cascade Range, Lassen Volcanic National Park is an outdoor playground that attracts a small fraction of the visitors that pour into Yosemite.
As the park’s name suggests, volcanic activity is the headline attraction. Lassen Peak began a series of eruptions in May 1914 that culminated in a major eruption on May 22, 1915, sending a column of ash 30,000 feet into the air. Though it has been more than a hundred years since that activity, steaming fumaroles, bubbling mud pots, and roiling hot springs confirm that things are still simmering just below the surface.
Most visitors to Lassen travel through on State Route 89, the 30-mile paved road that bisects the park. Off the main drag, a bit of solitude and a unique experience wait atop a peak tucked in a quiet corner of the park.
The day before our recent challenge hike up Brokeoff Mountain in Lassen, a small group of us went on a bucket-list day hike up Mount Harkness. The trailhead is at Juniper Lake in the southeast corner of the park, a location that not accessible from the main road through the park. Miles from the park entrance, on the north shore of Lake Almanor, is the town of Chester. At the east end of town, we turned north on Feather River Drive, making sure, a half mile ahead, to go right at the fork onto Chester Juniper Lake Road. It is another 11 miles to the trailhead. While the road is passable for any vehicle, it steadily deteriorates from paved to dirt to bumpy dirt.
If you are going to a mountaintop, the nature of the job ahead is clear. There is a lot of “up” ahead. But a “wow” moment invariably follows the “up” effort, and Mount Harkness is no exception. Most of the 2-mile climb from the trailhead (6,800 feet) to the summit (8,048 feet) is through an open red fir forest, but near the top the trail pops above treeline and traverses a vast open slope washed blue with a breathtaking carpet of silver leaf lupine. If you can manage to look up from the flowers, you will see miles of countryside rolling north to Lassen Peak and beyond.
Dave, who staffs the fire lookout at the summit, greeted us like old friends. Inside the lookout, he shared some of the challenges of life on a mountaintop: looking for fires, receiving supplies, dealing with thunder and lightning. Dave has all he needs at the top of Mount Harkness: a stunning setting, regular visitors, his guitar, and a radio to follow the Oakland A’s. See for yourself. Dave has it pretty good.