The Road to Bumpass Hell is Paved with Good Intentions
I’ve been to Lassen Volcanic National Park twice before; once when I was a teenager and again about 5 years ago. Twice I’ve tried to take the hike to Bumpass Hell and back. When I was a teenager, I remember going to the trailhead, but I don’t remember the hike and I sure don’t remember Bumpass Hell. Admittedly I was a self-absorbed, too-cool-for-ski-school teenager, but I’m certain Bumpass Hell is unforgettable. In 2012, we drove through the park in early July. There was a surprising amount of snow still on the ground, but the roads were clear and I figured most trails were too. But, no. Not Bumpass Hell. The Bumpass Hell trail was closed. Again. Boo.
When Bumpass Hell Freezes Over
I really hoped the third time’s the charm applied when I planned a return visit. As part of our trip to see the Great American Eclipse, we decided to break up the long drive to Oregon by camping in Lassen for a few days. I didn’t give a thought to snow and icy conditions for a visit in August. August is the middle of summer, right? Heat and stealth mosquitoes that can drain the blood of a human in far less time than it takes to hike to Bumpass Hell and back concerned me more.
Our first stop was the Visitor Center. My first priority was getting a stamp in my NPS Passport. My second priority was to get maps and hiking information from the rangers. All of the rangers were busy talking to other visitors, so I was rude. I sidled up to the desk and eavesdropped! You’ll never guess what I heard!? Go ahead, guess. Okay, I’ll tell you. The most unbelievable words tumbled from the ranger’s mouth; the trail to Bumpass Hell and back was closed because of snow and ice. Again!
Finally, it was my turn to speak with a ranger (without being rude and eavesdropping). I asked about Bumpass Hell, and while I was prepared for the “trail is closed…” spiel, I was elated when these magical, beautiful words cascaded from the ranger’s mouth, “There’s an alternate route…” Yay! I don’t even know what she said after that. I was finally going to see Bumpass Hell.
What the Bumpass Hell?
Lassen is a volcanic park and Bumpass Hell is a 16-acre area of hydrothermal goodness. Bumpass Hell is alluring too, precisely because it is also rather elusive. It has hot springs, fumaroles, and boiling mud pots. Kendall Vanhook Bumpass discovered the area in the 1860’s. In 1865, he toured the area with the editor of the Red Bluff Independent newspaper. During the tour, Bumpass fell through the thin crust of a boiling mud pot which scalded his leg and it had to be amputated. Bumpass Hell is named in his honor, but it was also named for his misfortune. Today, though, there are boardwalks for visitors to walk on while they tour the area so we don’t have to worry about suffering the same fate.
Do you know the way to Bumpass Hell?
The alternate trail to Bumpass Hell is from the Kings Creek Picnic Area. The parking area was packed with people and vehicles, most of which were alternately parked in every spot in which a car/truck/van/RV could fit, instead of in one of the 15 or so parking spaces. We had a picnic lunch first, and there was one other group picnicking. The Kings Creek Picnic Area needs a new name; the Kings Creek Alternate Route to Bumpass Hell Parking Area And Oh, By The Way, You Can Picnic Here Too.
The alternate route starts on the trail to Cold Boiling Lake. Now there’s an oxymoron for you. At the lake, hikers to Bumpass Hell must then make a right turn. Other hikers informed us of this minor detail as we saw no signs indicating the way to Bumpass Hell. Apparently, there is a sign, somewhere, but we didn’t see it coming or going. When we made the right turn, we skirted along the southeast edge of the lake. Cold Boiling Lake hasn’t come to a full, rolling boil. It was lush and calm with a little bit of simmer here and there. After a brief photo stop, we continued up the path, climbing up out of the lake valley.
The alternate path to Bumpass Hell isn’t difficult and it’s quite nice. It is 2 miles longer to hike to Bumpass Hell via Cold Boiling Lake rather than on the primary trail. The path winds in and out of the forest, it climbs up quickly out of Cold Boiling Lake with great views of Cold Boiling Lake and Crumbaugh Lake. The view of Crumbaugh Lake was a bonus since we weren’t hiking to it. Despite all the foot traffic, the path is quite narrow and at times, the path disappears under streams and fields of wildflowers. And the trees bulge. Most of the trees grow to the south first (sunlight?) then straighten up. It was like hiking through the Thieves’ Forest on the way to the Fire Swamp. I alternately worried about running into ROUSes and thrilled at the prospect of happening upon Miracle Max and Valerie.
To Bumpass Hell in a (flower) Basket*
If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m a bit of a wildflower-ophile. Wildflowers have an amazing diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors and I love the beautiful combinations of these three elements. Wildflowers this late in the summer are a treat. The abundance of wildflowers on the trail, this late in the summer, was an unexpectedly delightful treat.
*sorry! there are no wildflower hell idioms, I made one up
All Over Bumpass Hell’s Half Acre
It felt like a very long 2.5 miles, but at long last, we knew we were getting close when the wonderful aroma of rotten eggs wafted over us. We were still hiking through a forest and we couldn’t see anything yet that looked hellish or geothermalish. Finally, as we walked along a ridge, Bumpass Hell suddenly came into view in a little valley below us.
The wait was worth it. Aromas, sights, and sounds bombarded my senses. The colors and formations of Bumpass Hell are striking. The sulfur and steam are pungent and astringent. The sounds of the steam vents, bubbling mud pots and fumaroles are mixed with songbirds. The landscape before me was alien and otherworldly, amazing and breathtakingly beautiful.
So I did have the luck of the third adventure. The third time was the charm. I finally got to see Bumpass Hell and so much more. Lassen Volcanic National Park is one of the finest and worth visiting multiple times. If you get the chance to visit, do it! If you’re in Lassen National Park, it is well worth the time and effort, regardless of which trail is open, to go to Bumpass Hell!