Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

Journey-Man’s Journal By Fran Cain

Everyone knows that California is earthquake country. But it is also Volcano Country. After visiting enthralling Kilauea in Hawaii, I was delighted to learn that an entire chain of volcanos is just up the road right here. Northern California and Oregon have plenty of geologic activity. It can be experienced up close and personal along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, a spectacular journey of endless natural attractions starting at Lake Almanor and ending at Crater Lake National Park.
Although I liked the idea of doing every bit of the 500-plus mile adventure in one trip, reality forced me to pick and choose some highlights. I was first exposed to and enchanted by Lassen Volcanic National Park a number of years ago. Not only did I ambitiously climb Lassen Peak, a dome volcano where I once stood on a glacier (no longer there), but I did it twice, once during a fire storm where the sky was dark with smoke. Ah, youth. I probably inhaled the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes that day, but my husband and I had the mountain to ourselves. Driving into the park, surrounded by lava flows and boulders fields, one can imagine the force behind the explosion that landed them miles from the crater.

Lassen has bubbling mud pots galore. At Bumpass Hell where signs warn against straying from the easily accessible paths and boardwalks, bright turquoise pools will boil a person in seconds. In fact, it is named after an early settler who fell and was severely burned. There are enough of the steaming pools, and oh that sulphur smell, to keep anyone intrigued. The trailhead is at Lake Helen and the elevation is a breathless 8,000 feet.
Outside the park on Highway 44, Subway Cave offers a fun first-hand exploration of a lava tube. Descending the steps into the creepy pitch-black tube, I was glad to have a real flashlight in addition to my iPhone. Even in summer the interior is a chilly 46 degrees. The tube is cavernous with ceilings 15-20 feet high and walls 15 feet thick, and the floor is uneven as expected. It did not take long to go through, but it was an experience I’ll always remember.

Cinder Cone Trailhead
Cinder Cone


If I hadn’t spoken to the park ranger, I would never have known about the Cinder Cone, an ancient volcano that last erupted in the 1600’s. Found on Butte Lake Road off Highway 44,

Cinder Cone Caldera

adjacent to Butte Lake Campground at about 6,000 feet, the 1.2 mile trail passes the idyllic little Butte Lake and meanders along an impressive wall of lava. At the base of the cone, the loose cinder trail winds around to the top for a 25-minute hike. With a 700-foot elevation gain, it felt fairly steep. It was hot and dry, so I carried plenty of water. The 360-degree views from the top are stunning.

My favorite parts were looking out over the Fantastic Lava Beds (yes, that’s really the name) and the Painted Dunes that reminded me of a gigantic colorful golf course. I followed the trail down and stood on the bottom of the caldera, now solid ground, or so it seems.
Leaving the Butte Lake area, I stopped by Drakesbad Guest Ranch in Warner Valley (Route 36 to Feather River Road) a verdant area with more geothermal delights. The trail starts out from the guest ranch through a lovely green meadow to Devil’s Kitchen, an area with bubbling mud pots and steam vents, and Boiling Springs Lake, another impressive geothermal wonder of this rich volcanic area. My bucket list includes a stay at Drakesbad, but lunch in the dining room was all I had time for.

Burney Falls

Seeking relief from steam, mud and lava, I headed north to the waterfalls. From Route 44 to Highway 89, I found McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. The spectacular 100-million-gallons-per-day Burney Falls are fed from springs out of a 1 million-year-old underground reservoir of porous black basalt. Yes, volcanic in nature. I walked the pretty Headwaters Trail, only about a mile round trip.

Mt. Shasta Big Springs – Sacramento River headwaters


Another hour north from Burney, close to where Highway 89 meets I-5, tiny Mount Shasta City is the proud home of the original Black Bear Diner. I was thrilled to visit and have the Volcano breakfast to stay on theme. At 1710 calories, all the hiking paid off. After breakfast, I stopped by Mount Shasta City Park. Here at the Mount Shasta Big Springs, the Sacramento River headwaters emerge almost magically from some rocks and the water is so pure that drinking right out of the stream is perfectly safe. Many people bring bottles to fill and take home. According to the sign next to the headwaters, the water has been filtered through the mountain from 8,200 feet elevation, taking 50 years to get there.

Crater Lake


From Mount Shasta City, the next stop was Crater Lake National Park, 2-1/2 hours north into Oregon. The serene drive belies the area’s violent beginnings from a volcanic eruption. Crater Lake, in the caldera of the Mount Mazama volcano that collapsed after it erupted, is the deepest lake in the United States at 1,949 feet. The water is from rain and snow which took 720 years to accumulate. There are no inlets or outlets. Amazingly, the water is pure because there are no pollutants.
The visit started with a drive around the 33-mile Rim Drive and a stop at the Crater Lake Lodge and the Sinnott Memorial Overlook at Rim Village for my first panoramic view of the magnificent body of water. While there I ran into some PCT’ers (Pacific Crest Trail hikers) who had taken a break from the trail to see Crater Lake. Many overlooks along the rim make for great photo ops, with the Phantom Ship Overlook possibly the most popular.
There are no beaches as the lake is INSIDE the volcano’s caldera, so only one small area affords access to the water at the bottom of a one-mile hike down the Cleetwood Cove Trail with many switchbacks. Going down is easy. Watching the red-faced, panting people struggling up the trail, my suspicions were raised about how long it would take to get back. I booked a two-hour boat tour ahead of time. Even with a reservation, it was iffy whether the tour would go out. Only two boats conduct the tours and one was broken down. The operator would not take people out on the lake unless both boats were functioning for emergency purposes. I waited patiently, enjoying climbing down the steep tumbled rocks to the water’s edge and dangling my legs in the crystal-clear lake. Kids, braver than me, were jumping in from a rock platform above. Eventually, the boats were back in service and the tour began. It felt mind bendingly surreal to be inside the 2,148 foot-deep-caldera of a huge volcano that erupted 7,700 years ago but could erupt again one day.

Phantom Ship Rim View
Phantom Ship Lake View

The group tour took us around Wizard Island, created by lava eruptions, and Phantom Ship, a fantastical rock formation that looks like a ghost ship. The guide helped collect the pure water directly into our bottles so that we could taste it. After relaxing for two hours, the climb back out of the caldera to the rim was quite stimulating, helped by the scenic beauty of the setting sun.
Although I did not see all the possible attractions on this route, I look forward to visiting again and again.
For more information, visit https://www.visitredding.com/volcanic-legacy-scenic-byway and https://maps.roadtrippers.com/stories/volcanic-legacy-byway