Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Lassen Volcanic National Park trip report

We returned from Lassen Volcanic National Park late Sunday. Well, technically early Monday. Spent the day yesterday recovering. I'm not in decent hiking shape, and even the little hiking we did took its toll. That aside... Lassen is amazing! I got us a reservation at Butte Lake (we showed up on the wrong date, but that's another story...) more or less by accident. It was the first camping reservation I'd made, and the reservation web site is, well, lacking in user friendliness. Butte Lake is in a relatively remote north east corner of Lassen, inaccessible from within the park, off a gravel road. But there we find one of the most spectacular sites Lassen has to offer: the Cinder Cone. Bumpass Hell is great, but the scale and quality of Cinder Cone made it superior in my mind. Plus, you can hike to the top. We got to our campsite too late to attempt the hike, but we got close enough to really appreciate the spare beauty of the site. The Cinder Cone rises up from some impressive lava beds. I did of course take lots of photos, I'll post them when they're processed. Largely speaking, I feel we barely scratched the surface of the sites accessible from that corner of Lassen, and we'll have to return for a longer stay there some time.

Morning at Butte Lake was really amazing. It was cold when we woke, but nowhere near freezing. A couple of layers had me comfortable enough to take a trip out to the lakeside for some early morning photography, some of the best of the trip. We packed up and headed out to the main park area. We entered through the Manzanita Lake entrance, another wonderful sight. There we spotted a bald eagle! But I was too slow with my camera to make good of the opportunity. We stopped at the visitors center. I've decided the NPS has the best officials I've met, meeting them always leaves me happy. Got a few pointers for trails to take.

We first went up to Paradise Meadow. The trail was uninteresting to start with, but then as we climbed we found more and more wildflowers. The trail ran along a stream, and the end of the trail was in a large meadow surrounded by mountains. Our next trail was the Kings Falls. It is another short trail, goes down running along a stream, which cascades down some rocks. We initially thought those were the falls, but as awesome as they were, the falls were further along the way. The distance markers were a little confusing, we theorize that they stamped duplicates of certain signs and just decided to use all of them, even though they were a bit inaccurate. The falls go down many feet, but we can only see them from the top. So it is a bit difficult to fully appreicate them. On the return we went up a horse trail rather than along the cascades. The upper portion of the horse trail was quite wide open, very scenic.

After the Kings Falls trail we proceeded along the highway, climbing, climbing, climbing up to about 8000 feet. Right next to Lassen Peak. The peak looks quite doable, maybe next time we'll give it a shot. There's a rest stop with some food and water. Just past Lassen Peak is Helen Lake, one of two alpine lakes that are right by the roadside in Lassen. From there we went on to Bumpass Hell, just a few hundred feet further along. The trail is quite easy, runs along the sides of hills which challenged my fear of heights. Especially since my feet were not holding up so well. Bumpass Hell was other worldly. Anyone going to Lassen has no excuse for skipping out on this site, it is just that accessible.

From that high up we could also see the forest fires burning, and the smoke streaming out. The sight made quite an impression. I've captured some of it in photos.

Lassen is the highest I've been so far. I know, not that high. But we'll soon be going to the Eastern Sierras, to White Mountain, to see the bristlecone pines. We'll easily cross 10000 feet on that trip! I'm really looking forward to that trip.

As for photography, my new 24-105mm lens held up really nicely. The only problem with the lens is that the zoom drifts. I tend to wear the camera strap with the camera hanging down, and invariably the lens drifts out to 105mm. This is a bit disappointing. The expensive B+W polarizer turned out to be fantastic. Seems to lose less light than other polarizers I've used, even from B+W. Highly recommended. Using a tripod really brings out the best of the lens, otherwise even as good as the IS is on the lens, it still doesn't compare with the stability of a tripod. My best photos, morning at Butte Lake, were taken with a tripod. That is the only time I used a tripod. The difficulty with a tripod of course is that you have to carry it and set it up. This is difficult when you're trying to get through three trails, even short ones, through the course of the day. A good tripod, in other words, is virtually a necessity. Also, the 24-105mm is a good enough general purpose lens that I will try a different tack the next time: instead of carrying so much camera gear, carry a tripod instead. I didn't touch any of the other lenses I was hauling through the whole trip!