For more than 37 million years 20 major volcanoes and more than 4,000 volcanic vents have periodically erupted in the Pacific Northwest, belching fire and ash. Their pyroclastic flows and lahars spill across the land, building and forming the Cascade Mountain Range with its unique geological formations such as massive obsidian flows, gurgling mud pots and mysterious lava tubes.
The best way to view this landscape is along the 500-mile-long Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, an All-American Road that leads from Crater Lake National Park in Oregon to California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. The byway winds through areas of stark moonscapes covered with lava rock, thick stands of timber growing among volcanic boulders, shallow marshlands teeming with waterfowl, and ranching valleys made verdant with layers of ash from prehistoric eruptions.
It was mid-July when we left Bend, Ore., traveling south on U.S. Highway 97. Ten miles south of town we stopped at Newberry National Volcanic Monument, which isn’t part of Volcanic Legacy Byway but provides a great introduction to the volcanic lands we would find along the route. Its beautiful Lava Lands Visitor Center gave us a glimpse of the latest volcanic activity in the region and demonstrated how the local geology, ecology and climate make up these fascinating volcanic lands. Fortunately there were no eruptions predicted in the near future.
With more than 100 miles of hiking trails throughout 50,000-plus acres in this monument there was plenty of opportunity to enjoy an “out of this world” experience as we wandered through the stark but spectacular landscape. Sturdy shoes and socks are a must because everything is sharp along the trails. If you have time for only one hike make it the half-mile interpretive trail over a corner of the big obsidian flow created more than 1,300 years ago.
With lava tubes and cinder cones to explore in addition to some of Central Oregon’s best fishing in the lakes that fill the caldera, you may want to plan several days at Newberry. Camping here is plentiful.
With a full gas tank and a good supply of LP-gas we continued south on Highway 97 to its intersection with state Route 138, where Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway begins. A long, flat road led through forests of pine and purple flowers that looked like tiny lupine. Turning south on Highway 209 we entered Crater Lake National Park by way of its north entrance, which is closed in the winter.
After crossing the fragile pumice desert we reached an alpine meadow where patches of snow lingered; then began a winding, uphill drive around the lake as we headed for Mazama Village Campground – the only one in the park with RV sites. A few campsites have electrical hookups but we arrived too late in the day to get one.
After setting up camp we had just enough time to spend a few minutes at Steel Visitor Center, where we enjoyed an interesting film about the park’s history. Then soft shades of pink colored the sky as we hurried up to the grand old Crater Lake Lodge, which sits on the rim of the lake. A rocking chair on the veranda, a glass of wine – what better way to watch the sunset?
Morning brought a lovely summer day and, packing a picnic lunch, we traveled the 33-mile road that encircles the lake. We could have caught the trolley, which makes several stops at the most popular scenic pullouts, but we wanted the freedom of stopping for photographs and short hikes whenever we chose.
You’ve probably seen pictures of Crater Lake and wondered, as we did, if the water could really be so intensely blue. It truly is. Resting inside the caldera created by the eruption of Mount Mazama 7,700 years ago and fed completely by snowmelt and rainwater, this is the deepest lake in the United States and said to be the cleanest large body of water in the world.
It took us the entire day to complete this short drive as we stopped at one amazing viewpoint after another. A word of caution, though: The mosquitoes are thick and fierce at Crater Lake and a good repellent is an absolute must. Lupine, Indian paintbrush and other wildflowers lined the road and reflections of the steep, dramatic sides of the caldera shimmered on the surface of the lake. On the water, far below us, a tour boat taking visitors out to Wizard Island appeared as only a speck.
At the end of the day, after a quick shower and change of clothes we returned to Crater Lake Lodge, where we had reservations for dinner. The dining rooms in our national parks’ historic lodges always have a special ambiance and whether the food is great or just mediocre it’s an experience we always enjoy. The dining room was filled the entire evening and those who didn’t have reservations seemed just as pleased with appetizers on the veranda or seated before the huge fireplace in the lobby.
Moving on down the byway on Highway 62 and then 140, we traveled through picturesque ranching country and along Upper Klamath Lake, where large, marshy areas provide a paradise for bird-watchers as millions of migratory birds pass through. During winter months you’ll find more bald eagles here than anywhere else in the continental U.S. Watch your speed as you travel this stretch of the byway as we saw numerous traffic stops.
At the California border we turned east on Highway 161 to follow the portion of the byway that cuts to the east and Lava Beds National Monument. Passing by Tule Lake we stopped to photograph lovely patterns made by reeds growing in the shallows. Twice a year the skies here turn dark with the spectacular sight of millions of birds as they migrate along the Pacific Flyway – some coming from as far away as Siberia. Today the waters teemed with ducks, pelicans, swans and many others.
Lava Beds National Monument has a nice campground and, though small, has water available and is open all year. We arrived to a golden world of grasses and shrubs interspersed with black lava rock. A deep blue sky rules the landscape and all is quiet except for the wind in the grass and an occasional bird song. Silent as ghosts, red-tailed hawks circle on air currents looking for a meal among the rocks as tiny lizards slither into holes.
The air is pure enough here to be designated a national treasure. Relatively few people visit this park and it seems very peaceful. Yet 10,000 years ago this was the site of violence on an unimaginable scale. The reminders are everywhere – the rock, the cinder cones, the craters, the lava tubes. This is what’s left, for now, of the massive 700-square-mile Medicine Lake Volcano.
At the visitor center we signed up for a ranger-led cave tour the next afternoon and picked up the information we needed to explore Lava Beds. For several days we roamed these lava lands, marveling at the landscape, the hundreds of lava caves that honeycomb the ground beneath our feet, the ancient markings at Petroglyph Bluff Point and the human history that dates back more than 11,000 years. Far off in the distance the frosty cones of Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak loomed on the horizon.
With nightfall the sky becomes the landscape with more stars than we’ve ever seen and park rangers give star parties at which they talk of the night sky, pointing out constellations and sharing legends that date back to ancient Greece.
We could have tarried longer at Lava Beds but the rest of the byway beckoned and we retraced our route along Highway 161, returning to Highway 97 where we turned south. We didn’t stop at Butte Valley National Grassland but birders may want to include it in their itinerary. There is no developed campground, though dry camping is allowed.
A few miles south is Living Memorial Sculpture Garden. It has nothing to do with volcanoes but is certainly something to see with 11 large metal sculptures by Dennis Smith, an artist and veteran. Each piece memorializes a different aspect of war and honors all veterans.
Reaching Interstate 5 at Weed we stopped for fuel and filled the LP-gas tank again. The nights get chilly along this route. After exiting I-5 at State Highway 89 we found a wide parking area that made a great place for photos of Mount Shasta. The second-highest volcano in the continental United States, Mount Shasta hasn’t had a significant eruption in 200 years, but fumaroles on the mountain show it’s still alive. Native Americans have long honored Mount Shasta, considered one of the nine sacred mountains of the world, as a holy place.
Continuing south on Highway 89 we passed McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park with its nice campground, but our planned destination of Hat Creek Campground at Old Station was just a few miles farther south. Remnants of the gold rush days lie mostly forgotten along the road and it could be easy to forget that we live in a world of modern shopping centers. This is a popular place for camping because of the good fishing along Hat Creek and as we were setting up camp a couple of young boys scampered by with some nice-looking trout.
It was another gorgeous morning as we drove our dinghy vehicle 11 miles southwest on state Highway 44 to the entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park. The mosquitoes were thick here, too, and we were glad we hadn’t tried to use the park’s campground at Manzanita Lake. A very twisting road through the park led us through lush alpine meadows and tall ponderosa forests. Views of the peaks were striking.
We didn’t know until visiting Lassen that there are four types of volcanoes in the world and all four are found here: shield (Prospect Peak), plug dome (Lassen Peak), cinder cone (Cinder Cone) and composite (Brokeoff Volcano).
Just after cresting the road’s highest point at 8,512 feet and dropping down to the south side of the park we stopped to hike the three-mile Bumpass Hell trail leading to the park’s most active hydrothermal areas. You can smell it long before you actually get there but the trail wasn’t difficult, although the 8,000-foot elevation had us breathing heavily. Mud pots thumped and bubbled, fumaroles hissed steam, and colorful aquamarine pools boiled up from deep in the earth. We didn’t need to be cautioned to stay on the boardwalk.
After exiting the park on the south side we continued on the last segment of the byway, making a circle through old logging towns and around Lake Almanor, one of California’s largest artificial lakes and another good spot for fishing or bird-watching. Eventually the circle returned us to Old Station, where we were camped.
The volcanoes were all sleeping as we traveled Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, but it’s a restless sleep. Periodic bursts of steam, mudflows and hot springs are a constant reminder that these volcanoes could awaken at any time.
For More Information
Chester & Lake Almanor Chamber of Commerce
Crater Lake National Park
Hat Creek Resort & RV Park
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lava Beds National Monument
Mount Shasta Chamber of Commerce & Visitors’ Bureau
Newberry National Volcanic Monument
Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway