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    Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway: Road Less Traveled

    By John Chen–

    Lassen Volcanic National Park, McCloud River Falls, and Lava Beds National Monument are some of the most scenic, iconic, and historic places to visit in Northern California on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. While temporarily closed now due to the coronavirus pandemic, these unforgettable locations remain in my memory as we all shelter-in-place.

    I have traveled the entire length of the beautiful 500-mile byway, which is divided into a northern Oregon section and a southern California section. Although the Oregon byway begins or ends at the spectacular Crater Lake National Park, I will primarily share with you my experience on our amazing California side of the byway.

    Approximately 250 miles northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area lies Lassen Volcanic National Park, a geo-historic park that houses all four types of volcanoes on Earth: composite, shield, cinder cone, and plug dome. In addition, numerous hydrothermal sites or bubbling mud pots can be found at Lassen, similar to those found at Yellowstone National Park. A relatively moderate one-mile hike takes visitors to Bumpass Hell where numerous out-of-this-world, bubbling hydrothermal features are on full display. Bumpass Hell was named in honor of Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, who in the late 1860s unknowingly stepped into a boiling mud pot and had his leg amputated.

    Burnpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic Park

    Lassen is a haven for nature and geo-thermal lovers with beautiful and pristine emerald lakes, majestic peaks, and miles and miles of hiking trails above 8,000 feet. Take several deep breaths when you go because you are going to need the boost. But, if this somewhat in-shape and out-of-shape guy can do it, so can you! Lassen is a national park less traveled by most and well worth the visit, especially if you love the history of our planet.

    Transitioning from hard geo-thermal landscapes to spectacular soft waterfalls, head north on the byway to McArthur Burney Falls and McCloud River Falls. Yes, I do agree with most that Yosemite National Park has amazing waterfalls, but, in my opinion, the most picturesque waterfall in California has to be the McArthur Burney Falls. Surrounded by lush greenery, a fast-moving above ground creek combined with several underground water channels come together at a single point to create this magnificent waterfall. At 114 feet high and 250 feet wide, this is truly a sight to behold. During one of my several visits, I even spotted a giant osprey nest perched atop a barren tree with chicks chirping, waiting for their mother to return with delectable lunch.

    McArthur Burney Falls

    Nearby are the three McCloud River Falls: Upper, Middle, and Lower. Unlike the McArthur Burney Falls, lots of families take to the water pools at the base of the falls where rock jumping, swimming, and even fishing during the summer are popular activities.

    Further north on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, near the Oregon border, is the Lava Beds National Monument. I discovered this hidden treasure by accident after seeing a photo of a beautiful underground cave in a relatively unknown magazine. My research into this picture took me to a series of underground caves created by lava flow hundreds of thousands of years ago at Lava Beds National Monument.

    A lava cave entrance at Lava Bed National Monument

    Armed with a lantern, one of those lights miners wear on their foreheads, a hard hat, a pair of the least expensive but sturdy hiking shoes, I set out to explore the caves. Of course, the visitors’ center rents all of the essentials, including maps of the caves, for a reasonable price. What I discovered was a world of wonder underground. Some of the caves are large enough for groups of people to walk through; others you may have to hunch over or even crawl through.

    There was one cave I explored that started out spacious with lush greenery everywhere due to rays of sun coming through the collapsed ceilings. After maybe a quarter of a mile, the cave got darker and smaller where I had to hunch over and make a decision whether to crawl further or not. Suddenly, in full darkness, I heard faint unfamiliar rustling sounds moving ever closer and nearer. My heart pounding, I bolted towards the cave entrance in one third of the time it took me to get to the crawl space. Moments later, a young man emerged from the same cave telling me he just came through the crawl space.

    For those outdoor adventure lovers and seekers who haven’t experienced all the natural wonders on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, I urge you to do so as soon as possible before all the Instagrammers take over. My advice before you go: do a little research (Google, of course) and planning, so that you are well-prepared for the task at hand. Hiking at extremely high elevations, swimming at waterfall base pools, visiting thermal features, and exploring lava caves all come with some level of risk. In this way, you will be certain to enjoy your byway road trip to the fullest.

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.

    Published on April 9, 2020