Volcanic Legacy

Ann’s sage advice to avoid Weed, CA, a town bearing the brunt of the deadly Mill wildfire, was sound on two accounts.  For one, US-97, the bulk of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway that I was hoping to ride, was shut-down near Weed, so I wouldn’t have been able to get through.  Secondly, even though I was a little disappointed about missing parts of the byway, Ann’s suggested detour actually took me through three National Park units: Tule Lake National Monument, Lava Beds National Monument, and Lassen Volcanic National Park, that I probably wouldn’t have seen! 

My first stop was Tulelake, a town now known as the “Gateway to the Lava Beds,” established in 1937 in response to Federal reclamation and construction projects associated with what is now known as the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a camp here to service these projects, which continued operation until 1942.  In that same year, the camp switched operations to become one of ten War Relocation Centers.  From one of the information signs on site:  “Initially, it held over 15,000 of the approximately 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly removed from their homes by a Presidential Executive Order.  It was transformed into a segregation center in 1943 following a deeply flawed “loyalty questionnaire” that was used to separate supposedly “loyal” from “disloyal” Japanese Americans.  Under segregation, the center’s population expanded to 18,789.  Overcrowding, harsh living conditions, and mismanagement contributed to the strife and controversy that led to construction of a stockade with a jail, and the implementation of martial law.”  From 1944-1946, the camp was cleared of Japanese-Americans, and then used to house approximately 950 Italian and German prisoners of war, who were used as laborers on local farms.

These buildings are all that remain of a camp that served many purposes over the years.  It started as a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp, then became a segregation center, where Japanese-Americans were unjustly incarcerated during World War II, then finally, a prisoner of war camp for Italian and German prisoners of war.  Unfortunately, the camp was not open for tours the day I visited, so I was not able to go inside the buildings.

I was able to pick up the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway for a bit, and rode it past Tule Lake and into Lava Beds National Monument.  I think the NPS website description gives a pretty accurate synopsis of the monument:  “Lava Beds National Monument is a land of turmoil, both geological and historical.  Over the last half-million years, volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have created a rugged landscape dotted with diverse volcanic features.”  The 800+ caves, Native American rock art sites, and historic battlefields (Modoc War 1872-73), provide tangible artifacts to the monument’s violent past. Nature forged a rugged landscape, while continued European-American settler expansion forced Native Americans from their ancestral homelands.  

The landscape was such a jarring contrast of blackened lava fields with yellow sagebrush flowers. Sections of the monument still bear evidence of the 2021 Antelope Fire.
Unlike other caves I’ve visited on this trip (Mammoth and Oregon Caves), the ones at Lava Beds National Monument are actually Lava Tubes, ie. caves formed from volcanic eruptions.  As the molten lava flows like a river, the lava at the top is exposed to cooler air, so the lava solidifies into black stone, while the molten river keeps flowing.  As the rock above keeps cooling, it thickens and widens and finally forms a roof across the molten rock flowing below, creating a ceiling.  Eventually, the eruption stops and the molten lava drains out, leaving a cave tunnel behind.  –NPS website 

After exploring one of the caves, I continued on a forest road that the ranger at the visitor center assured me was under construction for only a short way, but was open.  I followed the pilot car for several miles through loose dirt and gravel, which by now I’ve gotten fairly proficient at riding on this trip, only to find myself on a seemingly neglected paved road through miles and miles of forest.  I didn’t see another vehicle or person for quite some time and started to worry a bit. Without service, I hoped that the paper map on which I was relying was up-to-date.  Sure enough, I finally popped out onto a more well-traveled road and continued on my way.  Once I was back in cell service range, I was pleasantly surprised when my phone rang, and Aunt Ruth wanted to know if I was OK.  A few family and friends have access to my real-time location through tracking devices, and she was concerned when it looked like I was in the middle of nowhere for a bit too long! As intrusive as modern technology can be, it can be reassuring as a solo traveler in remote locations when loved ones are tracking you 🙂  

I overnighted in a little town called Burney, so that I could hit Lassen Volcanic National Park after breakfast.  I met a wonderful woman in the parking lot as I was leaving the diner- I think her name was Monique.  Her husband was retired military, but had passed away a few years ago.  We had a lovely chat for a short time out in the parking lot before I had to leave, but I was so disappointed that I hadn’t seen her eating alone, I surely would’ve asked to sit with her.  If I had, and she would’ve said “no thank you, I prefer to eat alone,” it would’ve been no big deal and we would’ve both moved on with our days having forgotten the encounter within a few minutes. But if she would’ve said “yes, please join me,” we would’ve shared a small piece of ourselves for a meal and remembered bits of the conversation and the other person for years to come. A missed opportunity :-/

I really had no idea what to expect as I entered Lassen Volcanic National Park.  I guess I assumed I’d see lava beds similar to what I had just experienced at the previous monument, but I had no idea about the beauty that awaited!  Lying at the crossroads of three biologically diverse regions – The Cascade Range to the north, the Sierra Nevada mountains to the south, and the Great Basin desert to the east – this convergence not only offers a stunning variety of landscapes, it is home to over 745 distinct species of flora and fauna.  And on top of that, the twisty road was freshly paved and pristine! Finally, I hit road construction at the right time- after completion!!

The mountain you see between the trees in this photo is Lassen Peak.  During its most recent eruptions in 1915, over several days, hot lava touched off an avalanche of snow and lava rocks a half-mile wide, and hurled rock fragments and pumice high into the air.  A huge column of volcanic ash and gas rose more than 30,000 feet and could be seen from 150 miles away.  The boulder next to the people in the photo came to rest after the eruption…5 miles away from where it was ejected!  And the whole event was photographed and documented by a local businessman!  This information came from an on-site information placard that was accompanied by photographs- incredible!
Lassen Peak, at a height of 10,475 ft, is one of the world’s largest plug dome volcanoes.  There’s no way to predict when or where the next eruption will occur, but it will at some point, so scientists continue to monitor the landscape.
Close to 70% of the Lassen Volcanic National Park was impacted by the Dixie Wildfire in 2021, the largest wildfire in California state history.  Officials credit weather, firefighting efforts, and past fuel reduction with slowing the fire’s progression through the park. –NPS website
I finally hit a National Park AFTER road construction was complete!  CA-89 (the Lassen Peak Highway section of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway) was 50 miles of freshly paved, pristine, twisty road with almost no traffic!  This spectacular route, crossing over a crater, topped out at an elevation of 8,512 feet.
CA-89, the Lassen Peak Highway section of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway hugging to the side of the mountain.  Such a fabulous ride!
Lake Helen in Lassen Volcanic National Park is a 100 ft deep alpine lake that can hold snow and ice well into the summer months.  I didn’t see any, but I still didn’t go swimming 🙂 
A 16-acre hyrdothermal area known as Bumpass Hell has roaring fumaroles (steam and volcanic gas vents), thumping mud pots, boiling pools, and steaming ground.  In 1864, a man named Kendall Bumpass fell through a section of ground and scalded his leg while exploring the area, thereby earning the distinction of the area being named after him and his painful experience.  Molten rock beneath Lassen Peak heats rain and snow once it makes its way deep underground, manifesting all these bizarre features that indicate an ongoing potential for future eruptions of Lassen Peak.  –NPS website
That’s a boiling acid pool behind me in the basin of Bompass Hell. It was surreal to see a pool of water boiling and the whole area smelled like rotten eggs (hydrogen sulfide gas)!  I did the 3-mile round trip hike to to the basin in 100 degree heat- my body was not happy with me :-/

I have to say, Lassen Volcanic National Park was a very pleasant surprise.  Even though much of the forest still showed signs of last year’s Dixie Fire, the beauty and uniqueness of the park more than made up for the burnt landscape.  It’s a bit ironic that a wildfire detour put me in this park, to witness the aftermath of fire, both the destruction and reconstruction it brings.  It’s all so amazing!

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