A journey to hell and back in California

Sulphurous lakes and soaring peaks offer high drama in Lassen Volcanic National Park. Sarah Donnelly explores

I was ready for my descent into hell. Beneath me lay a scorched valley, where the lakes boiled acid and sulphurous fumaroles, as loud as jet engines, exploded from the ground. As I got closer, my throat tightened at every gust of hot, chemical wind.

This was Bumpass Hell, one of the largest hydrothermal regions in the continental US, yet tucked away in the little-known Lassen Volcanic National Park. I had come to this remote corner of north-eastern California to experience another side of the state of Hollywood glitz, Silicon Valley hipsters and wine.

Lassen Volcanic National Park sits just below the Oregon border, and is so remote that many Americans have never heard of it. It doesn't suffer the overcrowding you'll often find in its neighbour Yosemite – it receives fewer than 400,000 visitors a year compared with Yosemite's four million – and unlike sprawling Yellowstone, its geothermal features, rocky peaks, forest trails and crystal lakes are contained within a compact area. The tallest peak here, Lassen, marks the southern extremity of the Cascade Range, which forms a segment of the Pacific "Ring of Fire" and extends from here up into British Columbia. The last volcanic eruption took place here in 1915, when Lassen Peak shot out a 30,000ft ash plume. The area was declared a national park a year later.

Vulcanology has enjoyed a fair amount of coverage this month, with Kate Humble's Volcano Live series sending the BBC in search of some of the world's most active volcanoes. But it would have been hard to imagine a direct link between Lassen and the fiery plumes of Hawaii and Iceland when I arrived. Lassen Peak was reflected in the cool, calm waters of Manzanita Lake, whose shores were the location of my home during my stay here, in a log cabin. Manzanita Lake is popular among locals for fishing and canoeing, but now it is attracting visitors from further afield with the option of exploring the park on longer stays. That morning, I'd sat on my cabin's porch with nothing stirring around me but the breeze whispering through the lofty pines.

But in the simmering 16-acre pit of Bumpass Hell, it was as if the Earth's serene exterior had been peeled back to reveal the cranking, stinking engine room beneath. This spectacle sits within the great basin of Mount Tehama, a super volcano once 11,000ft high whose cone has been gradually eroded to leave a vast caldera. The corrosive waters that coursed through it hastened its demise, and now simmer on the earth's surface, in the form of lakes and pools, like bleeding capillaries.

Signs warned me to stick to the boardwalk, unless I wanted to share the fate of the valley's namesake Kendall Vanhook Bumpass. This 19th-century explorer was the first Westerner known to have ventured into this no-man's land. He named it "Hell" after he lost a leg plunging into one of the boiling mud pots. I heeded the park's advice and followed the trail around the bubbling pools and steaming geysers, but the sharp taste of sulphur soon prompted a nauseous retreat to higher ground.

From the upper trail, I could make out the distant lowlands of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Lassen Volcanic National Park lies at the crossroads of three geographical zones: the Great Basin desert to the east, the Cascades range to the north and the Sierra Nevada to the south. Prospectors started coming here in the mid-19th century, when Danish blacksmith Peter Lassen established a new trail towards the western gold fields. The pioneers who travelled west to California had no idea what challenges they faced along Lassen's mountain passes.

While mighty Lassen Peak dominates the landscape, it required stamina and climbing experience that I didn't possess. However, I was determined to climb a volcano – and happily there were plenty more to choose from. Lassen Park is one of the few places on earth that contains all four types of volcano (plug dome, strato, shield and cinder cone). I set off on the four-mile Cinder Cone trail, aiming to scale it before dusk.

The trail starts at Butte Lake, which is sliced almost in half by the effusively named Fantastic Lava Beds. These formed when a great tongue of molten rock burst out of the Cinder Cone, hardening into walls of tarry rubble that shield their creator from view. A stroll through the pine forest at the trail's head lulled me into a false sense of security, and when the volcano appeared, I wondered whether I'd made the right choice. This 750ft pile of black rock evoked images of the slag heap by the old steel works in my home town of Workington. The menacing Cinder Cone offered no rocky protrusions for my hand to grasp, no shadows to seek refuge from the sun, no plateaux to rest on.

Gold Rush-era news reports painted an even more fearful picture of the Cinder Cone, with tales of fire on the horizon and rocks that could melt your shoes. As I laboured up the great treadmill of loose gravel, I felt a sense of trepidation.

Then halfway up, the view opened out to the south-west and suddenly I was in the company of the great sleeping giant Kohm Yah-mah-nee, otherwise known as Lassen Peak. The Maidu Indians, who first populated the region, saw Kohm Yah-mah-nee – which translates as Snow Mountain – as mankind's great benefactor. When the Earth was a cold dark ocean, it was said that this fiery mountain rose to emit life-giving heat and light. Animals brought fire down its slopes for man's use, and when the ground shook, it was merely a shifting of the ropes that hold the earth in place. When I finally reached the summit, I was faced with a deep, black hollow, but a childish fear of being here after dark surpassed my curiosity to venture inside.

Back at Manzanita Lake, a family of deer was idling near my cabin and campfires illuminated the faces of my neighbours. Provided with a sleeping bag, cooking equipment and a bottle of Californian shiraz that I'd brought with me, I fell asleep easily.

The next morning, the trees were full of blue jays, and when I arrived – lantern in hand – at the Subway Cave, a woodpecker stood guard at the entrance. The Subway Cave, once thought by the Maidu to be the home of a fearsome beast, was formed when a subterranean river of molten rock cut a tunnel through the earth. Lowering my lantern, I inspected the last ripples the lava flow made before forming its eternal frieze. Further along, the roots of plants dangled from the ceiling – a reminder of nature's relentless determination. As if to labour that point, on the lonely drive from the cave to Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a bear leapt across the road, though I had only a brief glance of its glossy black form. I had been assured by a ranger that these bears pose little threat to visitors, and being unused to humans, they are shyer here than in the busier national parks.

I had one more appointment with the national park's thermal waters. Drakesbad Guest Ranch, which dates back to the late 19th century, is the place to seek home comforts and indulge in its hot spring pools, wholesome food and excellent Californian wines. I made my way across a field towards a row of black pines that framed a rising plume of steam. As I sank in to the steaming hot water, I wondered what Mr Bumpass would have made of this serene scene.

It was time to leave Lassen, but not before another dose of the hot stink of sulphur as I skirted the caldera of Mount Tehama. Driving past Lake Helen, I caught sight of Vulcan's Eye – an elliptical lava formation complete with staring pupil – locked in a steady gaze towards San Francisco. And five hours later, as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my time in Lassen had taken on the texture of a strange, rich dream.

GETTING THERE

San Francisco is served from Heathrow by Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) and United Airlines (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Manzanita Lake Camping Cabins (001 530 840 6140; lassenrecreation.com/where_to_stay). Cabins sleeping two start at $57 (£38) per night, room only.

Drakesbad Guest Ranch (001 866 999 0914; drakesbad.com). Doubles start at $280 (£187), full board.

Huntington Hotel & Nob Hill Spa, San Francisco (001 415 474 5400; huntingtonhotel.com). Doubles start at $275 (£183), room only.

MORE INFORMATION

Visit California: 020 7257 6180; visitcalifornia.co.uk

Lassen National Park: 001 530 595 4480; nps.gov/lavo

Shasta Cascade Region: shastacascade.com

San Francisco Tourist Office: sanfrancisco.travel

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