Monday, October 26, 2015

Bumpass Hell

Sulfur-stained landscape of Bumpass Hell
3 miles round trip, 450 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead. As of autumn 2015, Lassen Volcanic National Park entrance fee is $20.

Bumpass Hell: what a name! The steaming fumaroles and hot springs aren't too shabby, either, and all this is easily accessible at the end of a 1.5 miles of hiking with just a bit of up and down. The hell is a small valley filled with bubbling mud, huge boiling pools, and the constant smell of sulfur, a geothermal wonderland formed by the heat from the volcanism of the Lassen Peak area. It's one of the highlights of Lassen Volcanic National Park, an oft-overlooked protected area in northern California that preserves the recently-active Lassen Peak and the surrounding landscape of varied volcanic features. Bumpass Hell is the most extensive area of geothermal features in the park. While you can't find geysers here, you can see Big Boiler, one of the hottest fumaroles in the world, and a barren landscape of wild colors.

I visited Lassen Volcanic with three friends from the Bay Area; we camped for a night at Manzanita Lake Campground, in the north of the park, before exploring the park and hiking Bumpass Hell the next day. The appeal of this hike lay of course in its geological features, but our interest in this hike was at least somewhat attributable to our (unfortunately) childish delight at the name. The Bumpass Hell trailhead is at least 4 hours driving from the Bay Area, so I won't go over driving directions. The trailhead lies to the south of the road just west of Lake Helen and is on the right side of the road for those northbound on the Lassen Park Road. The trail starts at over 8000 feet above sea level, so it's prudent to spend time acclimtatizing before heading out, though most will find this fairly easy hike doable despite the higher elevation when just barely removed from sea level.

The trail departs from the east end of the fairly large parking area for Bumpass Hell and proceeds to parallel the road for the first 200 meters or so, passing an excellent viewpoint of Lassen Peak rising behind Lake Helen. Past this point, the trail begins a gradual but fairly gentle ascent along the rocky west side of Bumpass Mountain, with increasingly impressive views to the west of Brokeoff Mountain. The views are the most impressive at a viewpoint about a mile into the hike that is accessible by taking a short spur to the right of the trail. From this point, there is a magnificent view of Brokeoff and Pilot Mountains, which are annotated on a series of interpretive plaques. These signs also detailed how Brokeoff Mountain is a remnant of the former Mt. Tehama, a great stratovolcano (a similar style of volcano to Mounts Shasta, St. Helens, and Rainier) that has since eroded. Brokeoff Mountain once formed the south side of that volcano. Views also stretch to the southwest into California's Central Valley.

Brokeoff and Pilot Mountains from Bumpass Hell Trail
Past the viewpoint, the trail swung toward the east and continued a gradual ascent. After another turn towards the south, the trail cut through a meadow that featured a clear view of Lassen Peak to the north. We could see Vulcan's Eye, a prominent round spot on the south face of the mountain that was once a volcanic vent.

Lassen Peak along the Bumpass Hell Trail
Soon after this viewpoint, the trail reached its high point on a saddle. From here, we could smell the sulfur wafting out of the valley of Bumpass Hell below. After reading some signage warning us of the dangers of wandering off-trail in the geothermal area, we began the descent into Hell. This was the steepest section of the hike and made for a decent workout on the return; during our way in, we were able to sneak peeks of the steaming valley below through the pines.

Bumpass Hell
Once we reached the bottom of the valley, we hopped onto the boardwalk leading through the geothermal area. It's prudent to follow the instructions posted around the area and stay on trail: the crust of the valley is very thin in many places and can often give way to boiling water below. The geothermal valley actually received its name from Kendall Bumpass, a European settler who severely burned his leg when it broke through the crust and came in contact with scalding water.

A short spur from the boardwalk led to a view of fantastically-colored pools of high-mineral content turquoise water nestled in a yellow, sulfur-stained rockscape. Bubbling pots of yellow and gray mud popped up in every little crustal depression; a steaming stream flowed down a mineral-stained gully from Big Boiler, one of the hottest fumaroles on the planet; an unseen pool flung occasional globs of mud a few feet into the air. The stench of sulfur was everywhere. Hell, indeed.

Fumaroles and mudpots in Bumpass Hell
The immense amount of geothermal heat under the cluster of volcanic features at Lassen Volcanic is responsible for the unusual features of Bumpass Hell. A large amount of magma lies fairly close to the surface beneath the park; groundwater that seeps down to that magma is heated to incredible temperatures, causing that water to rise back to the surface in the form of hot springs and fumaroles.

Sections of the boardwalk were closed off during our visit, so we were unfortunately unable to see the entire area. It took us just half an hour to make our way back to the trailhead.

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