3 amazing volcanic parks in the Pacific Northwest

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.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

The leading edge of the lava field.

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.

Can you spot the tiny people climbing the cone?

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 is what the inside of a volcano looks like!

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.

Newbury National Volcanic  Monument

img_3624-1You’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.

That’s not a hill; we’re camped at the base of a massive lava fall.

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.

Crater Lake National Park

img_3682It’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.

Travel Guide: Chauchilla Cemetery, Peru

Clearly visible bones at Chauchilla. Photo: E. Lawrence
Clearly visible bones at Chauchilla. Photo: E. Lawrence

Against the parched Andean earth, flecks of brilliant white. Drawing closer, there are hundreds–thousands– of what look from afar like smooth,white pebbles here.

Woven among them, scraps of cotton bleached by decades of blinding sun, and piles of what appear to be broken sticks. But this sun-whitened debris is not at all what it seems; across this vast plain the remains of and unknown number of humans lie scattered in the open.

The wide landscapes continues unbroken as far as the eye can see, save for a couple of small palm huts. Those rickety structures are all that marks one of the largest graveyards in Latin America; Chauchilla Cemetery in Peru’s Nazca region.

An untold number of human remains lie scattered across the sand in Chauchilla Cemetery, Peru.
An untold number of human remains lie scattered across the sand in Chauchilla Cemetery, Peru. Photo E. Lawrence

Though the famous and mysterious Nazca lines get top billing here, the surreal quiet of the graveyard and its neglected condition is perhaps equally unforgettable.

For years the extinct Nazca people came to this pebbled plain to bury their dead, knowing they would be watched over and protected by the Andes mountains squatting in the distance. But even as the Nazca laid their family members here, grave robbers were never far behind them. The carefully wrapped bodies , lovingly appointed, were soon dug up; their bones and wrappings, even the odd tuft of human hair, left to scatter in the dry desert wind.

Underneath the palm huts, several graves have been properly excavated, and the mummies within exposed. They are bleached bundles that sit upright with skulls propped atop and jaws agape, stretched wide by decades of exposure and decay.

Locked in a grimace centuries old, a Chauchilla mummy is still bound in its funerary wraps.
Locked in a grimace centuries old, a Chauchilla mummy is still bound in its funerary wraps. Photo: E. Lawrence

In many cases, dehydrated, leathery flesh is still visible, and lengths of hair coil to the floor. These mummies are remarkably preserved, still bound in their funerary wraps and looped in rope to hold them fast. All still clutch their knees in the traditional fetal burial position. This is the only archaeological site in Peru where mummies are displayed in their original graves.

Laid out alongside the bodies are stacks of human bones, most still unbroken, and the pile is topped with a collection of skulls. These tidy if gruesome piles are the exception, not the rule, for just outside this hut, something gets stuck in my sandal, and as I try to flick it free with one finger, I realize it is in fact a piece of human bone.

There are bone shards everywhere here. Just bending down, dozens are visible; raising my eyes, the trail leads all the way to the horizon.

Our tour guide tells us there are still many complete mummies under our feet. She twists her hair into a ponytail and, like a human divining rod, spreads her arms wide and begins walking towards some place only she seems to see.

Stopping a few meters from one of the huts, she crouches and begins sweeping sand from what would seem to be a random spot. Within seconds she has revealed the smooth surface of a kneecap, then a leg.

Dusting off a jawbone uncovered under shifting sands in Chauchilla.
Dusting off a jawbone uncovered under shifting sands in Chauchilla. Photo: E.Lawrence

Shifting, she grinds away the grit of the sand to expose another skull, its eyes now wide to the bright afternoon sun. There is still clearly so much history here. But our guide, as if recovering memory of some taboo, hastily covers the bones again; these graves, she says, are not meant to be disturbed further.

Grave robbers cared nothing for the people whose eternal rest they were obviously ending. The bodies here have been yanked unceremoniously from the ground, stripped of valuables, clothing, jewels, and left to scatter with the help of birds, small animals, and the dry desert wind.

The land now bears these scars–pockmarks and potholes dot the landscape where sand has filled in the space left vacant by the removal of a mummy. The desecration so common, that hundreds of years ago, people stopped trying to undo the damage, and left the bones to their fate.

Bodies that were somehow missed by looters are amazingly well preserved and became naturally mummified by the dry desert climate. Those are the bundles that now sit propped at the bottom of these tombs.

The vast sandy plan near Chauchilla; unremarkable, except when you start finding bones in the sand.
The vast sandy plan near Chauchilla; unremarkable, except when you start finding bones in the sand.

This site was left to the whim of the winds and sporadic visitors until the late 90’s, when Peru’s government finally took over the site to begin preserving it. And though the thousands of bone shards and shredded scraps of cloth will be allowed to remain where they’ve scattered across this desert plain, those bodies that are left below are now afforded some measure of safety in final rest–if not peace from prying eyes.

Map of Chauchilla Peru, courtesy mysteryperu.com
Map of Chauchilla Peru, courtesy mysteryperu.com

Learning the history of Calgary’s Barron Building through Beakerhead 

IMG_7205Not many organizations could take a stripped to the bricks, abandoned art deco era office building and into something cool that people want to see. But Calgary’s art science and engineering mashup known as Beakerhead is doing just that.

In this case, they’ve taken Calgary’s Barron Building and turned it into a chic art showcase space.

The art is really really cool. But the inside of the barren building is also pretty neat all on its own. First to the art then to the architecture.

On display in the building is Peter William Holden’s Solenoid.  It’s a sound and light installation featuring tap shoes which dance on their own and tap to food beats under white spot lights.

Solenoid art installation

The other art installation features Nanoleaf lightbulbs, which I’ve written about before. In this case they are set up in an abandoned warehouse style space inside mirrored triangle towers. They reflect crazily with in the spires to create a really cool environment. It’s like new and shiny technology contrasted with old and spartan space.


Barren Barron Building becomes temporary art space

Now to the venue for this crazy art installation. Strategic Group in Calgary opened up the historic Art Deco era building for Beakerhead this year. For  years  this  historic  building  has  been  hidden  behind  locked  doors.  Now,  thanks  to  the  Strategic  Group,  it  is  once  again  open  to  the  public. The building itself has been stripped to the bricks inside, and as you can see in photos is very bare.

BarronBuilding-Art  Deco  office  towers  are few and far between  in  Calgary.    It’s said that a local entrepreneur named Jacob Bell Barron found a lack of office space in the city, and set about correcting it. With the help of architect  Jack  Cawston, he had plans drawn up for an 11-storey tower with Art Deco lines at  610-­‐8th  Avenue which was built in 1949 and finished by 1951.barron
Insider Access Tour
I got a rare chance to tour the hidden areas of the building, with an authorized escort. The most noticeable aspect of the building is the now-defunct Uptown Theatre.
You could shoot a horror movie in the lobby alone; it’s dark, dusty and abandoned, but with hints of the Art Decor grandeur that made the building historic.
IMG_7245Gorgeous railings, and architectural details are still visible, along with beautiful deco-style light fixtures. Two theatres take up the first two floors of the building, which Strategic Group says will eventually be removed.
Abandoned movie theatre.

One theatre sits in ghostly darkness, with row upon row of seats folded permanently. The other theatre has gorgeous sculpted lines, and is lit with construction floodlights.

 IMG_7276-0We also got access to the old projector room, which is still filled with what looks to be a 1980’s era film projector that’s the size of a smart car. No film remains inside, but scraps of manuals, canisters, and a few 70’s era chairs are tipped acrosss the room like toys.
The Projector.
The Projector.
Floors three through ten are basic bricks and lathe, flooded with light from huge windows. Architecturally, these floors are barren, but for the stylized “B” in mosaic tile just outside the elevators. IMG_7167
The space is cavernous, in the way empty pre-built office spaces can be before someone puts in drywall, cubicles, closets and desks.
The Barron Building was originally  named “Mobil  Oil  Building” after one of its biggest tenants, and this is said to mark the beginning of Calgary’s status as the oil industry’s core in Canada. (Other notable tenants in the oil industry  have included  Mobil  Oil,  Halliburton,  Shell,  Socony, Vacuum  Oil,  Sun  Oil,  Trans  Canada  Pipelines,and even Smithbilt Hats.)
There are some neat features still inside the building; a safe room and a massive floor safe.  The safe room appears to be a former vault where film was stored, if the reel emblem on the door can be taken as a clue. While the door sits open, inside the room is just bare bricks and some wood.  If it was a safe or fire-proof room before, it isn’t any longer.
 In another room on the main floor sits a massive carved-footed floor safe.  It’s locked up tight. I wonder if it’s empty?

One of the most interesting floors is the penthouse on 11.  It has expansive views of the city.  But what makes it truly interesting is that it used to be living quarters for first, JB Barron and his dog until his death.  His sons then sold the building in 1981 to a Swiss family. Eventually Blake O’Brien bought the building in 1992 after Calgary’s real estate market fell on hard times (sound familiar?) and he was able to pick up the Art Deco relic for a paltry $250,000. He was the next resident of the soaring penthouse suite, which featured a  Frank  Lloyd  Wright-inspired roof garden.

While the garden’s location is still visible, it’s now filled in with unruly grass and broken glass.

IMG_7225IMG_7224In 2007 the  building  was  purchased  by  Strategic  Group, who are preparing for a massive renovation of the building.


Some type of metal storage canister in the old projector room.
An old mint green dumbwaiter.
Old office space in the basement
Massive giant boiler in the basement of the Barron Building
Old fixtures still intact.
Old fixtures still intact.


-with thanks to Beakerhead for sharing some of the historical information, and thanks to Strategic Group for the behind-the-scenes look.

The power of mushrooms! How fungi can replace styrofoam, at Beakerhead #YYC

mushroom 4Beakerhead is Calgary’s celebration of science, art and engineering.  For five days, there are myriad events all over Calgary, from massive art installations, the Ted-style Talks, plus food/chemistry events and even engineering feats.

One of those is In/flux, an art installation that uses mushroom bricks as faux-construction material.

In/flux is created by two Calgary engineers, who designed and built a castle-style structure with moveable walls from mushroom bricks.

mushroom1What are “mushroom bricks”?  They’re the creation of U.S company Ecovative, which can grow and shape these bricks to take any form. Using agricultural fibres like corn husks, and hay or straw, they mix these fibres with mushroom spores, pack them into a mould, and allow the spores to grow.  They form what’s called mycelium. which is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like fibres. These fibres are very strong, meaning the bricks hold together well. After the mycelium fibres have filled every nook and cranny, the bricks are heated to stop the growing process. The bricks are theyn ready to use.

While the Beakerhead installation looks like a structure, the bricks aren’t structural at all.  They’re mainly used for packaging materials and insulation, so I guess you could say they’re not necessarily bricks either. The company has sold them to manufacturers to use to keep washing machines from moving in their transport crates, and as wall panels of eco-friendly insulation.

While the bricks will biodegrade when exposed to water or the elements, kept dry they’re stable indefinitely.

The In/Flux structure at the corner of Memorial Drive and 10 St NW is a beautiful example of art, science and engineering, and it’s meant to show off an alternative to styrofoam packaging.  Because with mushroom blocks, once you’re done with the package, you just toss the blocks into your composter.