Parks are more than picnic tables and trees. America is fortunate to have several amazing places where the word ‘park’ just doesn’t do enough to describe the eye candy you’ll find. The US is home to several preserves with a truly interesting volcanic and geologic pedigree.
The sights you see at volcanic National Parks and Monuments include towering triangular cinder cones, crumbly piles of lava stretching across expansive fields, and even bubbling mudpots and boiling water. I took a two week roadtrip recently through many of these parks and can’t get over all there is to see and do.
This amazing park, located in the northeastern corner of California is filled with amazing features. Start your visit at the charmingly rustic wood and stone cottage that doubles as a visitor centre and get some hints about what to do from a ranger. While you’re there, you can see archival photographs of an eruption captured in progress, back when taking photographs was a labourious minutes-long process, and check out the tiny outbuilding that houses an old seismograph.
There are several short hikes and walks where you can check out mountain lakes or more dynamic geological features, but be warned; some of the roads are closed well into June due to snow. One of the big lures here, Bumpass Hell, features “boiling springs and mud pots, hissing steam vents, and roaring fumaroles,” according to tourism California. However snow on the trail to this spot meant it was strictly off limits to tourists the week I visited.
Instead, we made due with another breathtaking climb. One of the highlights of this park where I spent a day was hiking through pine forest, paralleling a massive lava field and some painted hills, to climb a volcanic cinder cone, then get down into the inside of the crater.
This hike is a long time going up, and a quick ride down. The trek begins with a walk in shifting volcanic sand, deeply scattered through a tall, wide, and thus bakingly hot pine forest. While it’s just a 4 mile hike, it’ll take you at least a couple hours. That’s mainly because the forest walk amounts to a beach or dune hike thanks to the soft sand, and because once you start to climb the cone, the black and rocky sand is doubly deep and for every step you take upwards, you slide back half a step.
Once at the top the views are stunning; snow-capped mountains in the distance, rippled hills at the base that look as if they’ve been dotted with pastel colours from an artists palette, plus a craggy charcoal rockfall of lava scattered like jagged marbles as far as the eye can see.
If you want to camp in this park, be warned that even in slower months like June, it’s booked solid during the week.
Another easily accessible site to see is Sulphur Works. Located right off the side of the road, with a parking lot carved out nearby, is a bubbling mud pit and steaming fumaroles. The mud and water mixture tumbles through the mountain valley, and falls under the road as it meanders towards oblivion.
You’ll know you found the right spot when the steamy scent of hot sulphur, not unlike rotten eggs, wafts through the vehicle and assails your nostrils. You can park and walk over to the big mud pot, which is more active in the spring, thanks to lots of runoff.
You’re unlikely to find this park in a lot of the guidebooks. While this volcanic park takes up a lot of real estate, it flies under the radar, but it’s definitely worth the trip. Located just off US highway 97 in the Deschutes National Forest just south of Bend Oregon, this park is minutes from a major city but feels like a world away.
The park has a visitor center which butts up against a large cinder cone with a winding pathway travellers can stroll. It’s a good climb, with beautiful views from the top. But the best experience I had was miles away from the crowds. We asked a ranger for a great off-the-grid (but still vehicle accessible) campsite, and were rewarded with a spot just feet from the remnants of a massive ancient lava flow.
Several miles from the visitor center, up an unmarked dirt road, and in the thick forest, we found a large clearing; the site of an old logging camp, according to the ranger. Steps from where the trees thinned to form a circle, was a massive wall of haphazardly piled rocks. This was the leading edge of the ‘Newbury Flow’, a massive lava flow that cooled and crumbled even as it was pushed forward, leaving now heaps of crumbled sponge-toffee-looking black rocks. It made quite the spectacular backdrop for our remote camp.
We hiked a couple of times to the top of the pile, which is probably 2-5 storeys tall in various places, and the rocks are loose and sharp. But the views from the top are spectacular; you can only see charcoal coloured lava rock all the way to the horizon. Gnarled trees cling to whatever small dustings of soil have gathered in the pockets in the rock, but otherwise vegetation is nearly non existent across the flow, making it look like an otherworldly landscape.
The Newbury park’s big attraction is a giant lava tube cave, the Lava River Cave, which is one of the longest in the world. It’s a good couple hours to hike it, so we passed. But for cavers, it’s a big draw. We did, however, make time to hike the short rocky trail called Big Obsidian Flow. Obsidian is a shiny black rock that’s essentially volcanic glass. (As a hobby silversmith and jeweler, I geeked out on the geology of this, and loved seeing massive obsidian boulders in their natural habitat)
The climb up some steel stairs is easy enough, and the short loop trail has some plaques to help you understand what you’re seeing. Seeing what looks like giant chunks of black diamonds glinting in the sun is surreal. While it’s tempting, taking souvenirs is verbotten.
It’s a massive tourist draw for a reason; Crater Lake National Park may look like a puddle on a map, but the massive sky-high volcanic lake cupped in the Oregon Cascades mountains will have you feeling like you’ve climbed to the top of the world.
The highway is frustratingly slow, clogged with vehicles, RVs and cyclists. Make peace with that quickly, since your traffic situation won’t improve the entire time you’re in the park. The snowfall remnants along the road are impressive; the drifts and piles tower meters overhead, a testament to just how much snow falls here each winter. (In the Lodge overlooking the crater there are archival photos that show it’s not unusual for the lodge to be entirely buried in the winter, with the roof barely visible.)
In June when I was in the park, much of the road that circumnavigates the crater was shut down because it hasn’t been cleared. As with the other parks in this list, if it’s important to see certain sites or features, you’ll want to make sure they’ll be accessible when you plan to visit. That’ll likely be July and August, but you will need to compete with the higher volumes of tourists then. We were able to drive about half the road, and had beautiful vistas from several viewpoints along the rim. The photo opps here are stunning.
Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States at 1,943 feet, but for many years before it could be properly plumbed, it was thought to be bottomless. The water is pristine and blue, but don’t get the idea you can dip a toe in it’s glacial coldness; sheer cliffs with a jagged drop mean visitors can’t get close to the water easily.
“Crater Lake rests in the belly of a dormant volcano,” says nps.gov, “The volcano once stood 12,000 feet tall, but it collapsed after a major eruption 7,700 years ago. Later eruptions formed Wizard Island, a cinder cone that rises from the water. The park has an abundance of fascinating volcanic features, including a second rocky island, the Phantom Ship.”
You’ll need a warm coat to spend any time up here even in summer. My best advice is to plan to get here early, and make peace with fighting the hordes through the afternoon, and really take time to enjoy all this volcanic park has to offer. If you don’t have a reservation months in advance, don’t even think you’ll get a camp spot near the crater.
Bonus Park: Craters of the Moon National Monument
I’ve previously written about another amazing volcanic park, Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. It’s a staggering landscape, and a mind-bending visit. Read more about it here.
Have I missed checking out a volcanic National Park that you really enjoyed? Let me know in comments below or on Twitter @ ErinLYYC.