Take a look at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Benjamin Spillman
The first steps of a newborn foal are more elegant than my first ski run on a recent trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park.
It started with an awkward kick turn to position myself for the steep, upper pitch. Midway down my knees buckled and pushed my ski tips into an ugly wedge shape. I then completed the top half of the run with an inglorious, backward fall – much to the amusement of my ski partners.
It didn’t matter, though, because at Lassen beautiful scenery and incredibly abundant untracked snow make even ugly turns beautiful.
That’s why it’s worth the effort to bypass crowded Lake Tahoe resorts and hike into Lassen.
“Tahoe is famous and it also has a lot of lifts,” said Karen Haner who was raised near Lassen and returned to the area to work as a spokesperson for the park. “(Lassen) is just backcountry, it makes it a pretty special place for those who do want to venture out.”
Few people visit Lassen in comparison to other popular national parks and outdoors destinations in California, such Lake Tahoe.
In 2016 there were about 536,000 recreation visits to Lassen, with summer months among the most popular time for guests. Lake Tahoe, in contrast, sees an estimated 3 million annual visits. Yosemite National Park gets more than 5 million visits.
“If you doubled the number of people there on any given day it is still not crowded,” said Richard Bothwell, who lives full time in Truckee but is a longtime Lassen winter skier and rider.
Lassen’s lack of crowding is remarkable when you consider its location and the available terrain.
From the San Francisco Bay Bridge it’s 240 miles to Lassen with an estimated drive time of three hours and 40 minutes. By way of comparison, the drive from the bridge to Lake Tahoe is 197 with an estimated time of three hours and 25 minutes. From Reno Lassen is about 150 miles and a little more than two and a half hours of driving.
As if convenience and massive amounts of snow aren’t enough reason to ski Lassen there’s also affordability. Skiing Lassen costs next to nothing compared to a weekend anywhere near a Tahoe resort.
During winter a mere $20 will get you into the park and pay for a night camping near the heated restrooms and water station at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center.
Sure, you’re sleeping in your tent, car or truck as opposed to a slopeside condominium. But what it lacks in fanciness it makes up for in simplicity and peacefulness.
Once you park at Lassen there are no nightclubs, spas or outdoor concerts. It’s just you and whoever else happens to be crashing in anticipation of another day of backcountry exploring.
On our recent trip we considered lack of evening distractions a feature not a bug.
If you’re skiing Lassen you want a good night’s sleep before heading into a winter sports paradise where a typical winter dumps more than 400 inches of snow at 6,700 feet of elevation and more as the terrain rises toward Lassen Peak at 10,457 feet.
We spent just 24 hours in the park yet still managed to squeeze in about 3,000 vertical feet of downhill on two mellow tours covering about eight miles on skis
In addition to skiing the trip included a gorgeous mountain sunset, a chance to photograph unspoiled Cascade Range terrain and comfortable and convenient camping.
The group included myself, an intermediate alpine skier with less than three full seasons of backcountry skiing experience, an experienced telemark skier and an advanced alpine skier with extensive backcountry experience.
We rolled up to the park’s southwest entrance at about 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning with warm temperatures and sunny skies.
After paying entrance and camping fees we pulled into the visitor center parking lot where car camping is allowed and space was ample.
Within an hour we had set up camp and were ready to ski.
Since it was already afternoon we decided to take a short tour to a peak overlooking the visitor center known as The Nose.
It’s about 1,000 feet of elevation gain and a mile of distance by our route from the visitor center to the top of the peak.
From there we skied down to the top of a former ski area then back to the visitor center. The ski area is no longer in operation and lifts were removed in 1993.
Even on a sunny, Saturday afternoon we skied untracked snow within a mile of the parking lot.
The following day we skied to the Ridge Lakes area about two miles from the visitor center with an elevation gain of about 1,500 feet.
Along the way, we passed the Sulfur Works, a visual and olfactory reminder of where Lassen Volcanic gets its name. Lassen is the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range and last erupted in 1915.
Once we reached the Ridge Lakes area we found a wide, treeless bowl beneath the peaks of Mt. Diller and 8662.
From the top of the ridge there are close views of the neighboring peaks and in the distance Mt. Shasta and the Trinity Alps are visible.
Even though it was a pleasant, sunny Sunday afternoon ours were the only tracks in the bowl.
We chose Ridge Lakes because it fit our schedule and ambition for the day. But there are so many options to choose from at Lassen just about any group should be able to create a tour plan that safely fits the goals and skill level of everyone involved.
It’s important to note that unlike the Tahoe-area which is covered by the Sierra Avalanche Center daily advisory there is no comparable advisory for Lassen.
Winter visitors will need to rely on their own observations and choices about terrain and snow conditions to avoid triggering avalanches.
If you go: Skiing and snowboarding in Lassen Volcanic National Park
Location: Mineral, Calif.
Drive time: 240 miles or about three hours and 40 minutes from the Bay Area, 150 miles or two and a half hours from Reno.
Cost: Park admission is $10 in the winter, camping is $10 per night.
Amenities: Restrooms with running water and drinking water available 24 hours.