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  • Donna

Trip Report: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

June 20 – 24, 2017 Site #C41

“Let’s do it,” I told Wendy.

It was Darwin’s second birthday and we wanted to do something special. Walking through a lava tube seemed to fit the bill. We had just left the “Devastated Area,” one of the few sites open at Lassen Volcanic National Park. The main road—the only way to access most of the attractions—is still being plowed, so we had to settle for what was available.

Devastated Area Trail, Lassen Volcanic National Park
Devastated Area Trail

I popped the kids in the stroller and walked the paved, half-mile interpretive loop. Pretty, yes. Devastated? No. A more accurate description, though less catchy, is “Previously Devastated Area.” A volcanic eruption spewed rocks all over this area in 1915, but trees and vegetation have since made a comeback and now it’s just lovely. So the kids and I enjoyed the stroll among the trees, flowers, chipmunks, and lizards, while Wendy waited in the car with the dogs since we were dry camping and it was too hot to leave the dogs in the trailer.

We had passed a sign for Subway Cave earlier in the week during our stay at Rancheria RV Park. I was curious about it then, but without cell service or wifi, I couldn’t research it and we decided to just let it go. But a kid in the campsite next to us said his family went and it was cool, so we decided to give it a go. Darwin deserved a better birthday activity than strolling around Previously Devastated Area.

The sign outside of Subway Cave said headlamps were needed. We didn’t have any but figured my iPhone would suffice. Wendy leashed all three dogs, doing her best César Millan impression, and I held the hands of my little charges. We had hoped to use the stroller, but Wendy had scouted ahead and let me know the 20-or-so steps required to access the cave were prohibitive. So off we went—seven souls in a lava tube.

The floor was slick and bumpy, but there were so many other people we didn’t even have to use the iPhone. As we traveled farther into the quarter-mile-long cave though, the tourists dispersed, the footing became more precarious, and anxiety crept in. The dogs were unsettled. The kids weren’t happy about being in the dark, much less walking on unsure footing farther into blackness. They began crying. I carried Darwin but Emerson had to walk because he was willing to, and I was afraid to fall while holding a child in each arm. I had no way to hold the phone, so Wendy did her best to light our way, but it wasn’t enough.

We crept farther and farther into the darkness, following in the no-longer-lit footsteps of people who had actually planned their trip to this toddler torture chamber. Happy birthday, Darwin!

Subway Cave, a lava tube in Lassen National Forest
Subway Cave (aka Toddler Torture Tube)

Finally there was, as the saying goes, light at the end of the tunnel. I carried Darwin up another set of 20-or-so steps while Emerson held my hand and worked his little fear-shaken legs a little while longer. We noticed that most people chose to simply walk back through the lava tube to return to the parking lot, because no one joined us at the sunlit trailhead. But there was no way in Hell we were going back in there, so we followed the narrow, scrub-embanked dirt trail away from the tube, presumably back to the parking lot.

Path back to the parking lot at Subway Cave lava tube in the Lassen National Forest
Path back to the parking lot at Subway Cave

We followed it and followed it. Odie was hot and decided on several occasions that life just wasn’t worth living if he had to continue walking. The kids were more motivated than I’d ever seen them—focused on forward movement, turning around only to request my help to scramble over an obstacle. Scout Wendy ran ahead, to the extent Private Odie would permit, in an attempt to determine if we were indeed heading toward the parking lot. None of us wanted to turn back and fortunately our tenacity was rewarded. One more set of 20-something-steps and we were safely back in the car, returning to the campground.

Wendy and I were both a little hesitant to dry camp after our three weeks of glamping with full hookups. We had lucked into a heatwave and we found the prospect of no A/C daunting. As soon as we arrived, I re-screened the window CeCe had “improved” because I wanted to make sure we could have both windows open. But the weather was actually pretty mild, and we both settled back into dry camping pretty easily.

Site C41 at Manzanita Lake Campground Site, Lassen Volcanic National Park
Our site at Manzanita Lake Campground

The beauty of Manzanita Lake Campground didn’t hurt; we both commented how the KOAs and RV parks we stayed at just can’t compare. The campground itself is forested and the lake is beautiful. There’s a trail around it about a mile-and-a-half long that’s stroller-friendly if you’re up for a workout. Despite its mild current, Manzanita rivals Yosemite’s Mirror Lake in its ability to reflect the surrounding tress and snow-capped mountains. We spent about 90 minutes walking the perimeter and even though CeCe had “improved” another window when we returned, the experience was worth having to fix another screen.

View from the trail around Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park
View from the trail around Manzanita Lake

I really wish we could’ve driven through Lassen; it would’ve been beautiful. As it stands though, only two sections of the road were open—one at each end. So we went as far as we could at the end nearest to us when we visited the Devastated Area. On another day, we left the park and drove a couple of hours to the other park entrance to visit Sulphur Works, billed as an opportunity to see steam vents, mudpots, and boiling springs. We were really excited for that since neither of us had seen any of those things.

Turns out we don’t actually find those things very exciting. Once again, the dogs tagged along and our resident César Millan took CeCe and Odie while I walked with the kids and Clark. The “mudpot” was really just that—a small pool of bubbling mud whose warm wisps of eggy steam discouraged loitering. I believe the scientific term Wendy used for it was “dizguzting.” And there was some steam coming from the ground in various places. Whoopty-freaking-do. I felt like the tourists we saw stopped at the side of the road photographing one of the small waterfalls on the way to Yosemite. “Don’t bother stopping here!” I’d yelled to them from the car. “It gets so much better!”

Sulphur Works at Lassen Volcanic National Park
"River! River!"

I think it would’ve gotten so much better if we’d been able to travel farther into Lassen, but instead we ended up focusing on the stuff people usually see on their way to something better. That said, the kids did enjoy shouting “River! River!” and playing in the snowbank adjacent to the Sulphur Works parking lot. Sometimes I need to take my cues from them and focus on the fun that’s right in front of me, even if it isn’t what I’d planned.

Read the next trip report: Redwoods State and National Parks


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