Lassen National Park

Distance: 56 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5180 ft

A Best of the Best ride

This is a typical National Park ride—one and only one paved road, running straight through the heart of the park, and it’s grand and expansive and mighty.  Lassen Peak itself isn’t postcard pretty like Shasta or Hood, and the scenery isn’t as in-your-face stunning as Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, but this place gets in your blood.  Splendid vistas abound.  And since it lacks the roadside waterfalls and dramatic chasms, it’s one of the least-attended of our National Parks, so the traffic can be downright light on a weekday or in spring or fall.   There is no flat here, so you’ll be climbing for 28 miles, but it’s all moderate, 4-6% stuff.  Perks include a good Visitor Center at one end of the ride, lots of history, geothermic activity, a nice mountain lake halfway in, and a photogenic pond and store at the turn-around.  Check Afterthoughts for a way to avoid the traffic.

(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)

Start at the southern entrance Visitor Center.   The Center has great bathrooms, interesting displays (there are X number of kinds of volcanos—I can never remember the number or any of their names), friendly people, and a good food counter than does smoothies, hot dishes, and the like.  There’s a prize for anyone who can remember the Center’s Indian name, a prize yet to be claimed.


It’s all the same road

Ride up an uninterrupted seven-mile moderate climb.  Keep noticing what’s around you—that’s why you’re here.  You’ll pass some mud pots at the first bend in the road.  They’re worth a stop.

Seven miles in brings you to the road summit, which is a saddle between Lassen Peak and a bump. You just passed the big parking lot for the hiking trail to Lassen Peak summit.  There are bathrooms In the parking lot, and you can watch people setting off up the trail on their adventure.  Now is a good time to think about how much climbing you want to do.  It’s 21 almost uninterrupted descending to the turn-around point at Manzanita Lake, so it’s 21 easy-to-moderately-challenging climbing back out.  There are three natural turn-around points between the summit and Manzanita: King’s Creek (5 miles past the summit), Summit Lake (despite the name, 9 miles past the summit), and the Devastated Area trailhead (19 miles past the summit).  The riding gets a little less marvelous the farther in you go: wonderful from the summit to Summit Lake, good from Summit Lake to the Devastated Area (including the best views of the mountain itself), less good thereafter.   The further you go, the shallower the descending, so coming back out the climbing gets steeper as you approach the summit: easy to Summit Lake, moderate to King’s Creek, moderately challenging in the last 4 miles (mostly thanks to the elevation).  My computer recorded 6200 ft vert for the entire ride, which is a not insignificant total for 56 miles.  I’m not trying to talk you out of it—just know your limits and don’t say I didn’t warn you.  After all, 23 miles at 7 mph is 3+ hours of continuous climbing.

Assuming you decide to continue on north past the summit, the 4-mile descent that follows is full of big, sweeping curves you can take at speed AFTER the first two switch-backs, which come early in the descent and are very tight.   On my last ride my riding buddy ended up face down in the snowbank on the first one.  Some of the best vistas are along this stretch of road, but you can gawk at them on the return ride, when you’re doing 6 mph.  Five miles down the mountain, the road goes nearly flat, you pass the lovely King’s Meadow, and then see parked cars on your R—they’re there to see King’s Creek cascades, which you must stop and see if you’re into tumbling water.

Morning mist in the lower mountains

Morning mist starting the climb to the summit

The next likely stop is Summit Lake.  There’s water here (in the summer—check at the Visitor Center before riding any other season), campgrounds, bathrooms, and a sweet little lake (hardly more than a pond) to meditate by before getting back in the saddle.

The Devastated Area (so-called because the Lassen eruption devastated the surrounding forest) is a parking lot, a bathroom, and no water.

Our turn-around point, Manzanita Lake, is a lovely spot well worth the effort to get there.  There’s a little museum and a nice store (in the summer—again, ask before riding if you’re planning on resupplying),  a flat hiking trail that circumnavigates the Lake if you want to take a short, effortless stroll, and a tree-identification loop.

Ride back the way you came to your car.  There’s a handy “8000 ft elevation” sign telling you you’re close to the 8500-ft summit.  From the summit it’s a wonderful 7-mile curvy descent back to the Visitor Center (if the cars stay out of your way).  Watch for gusty winds, especially around the sharp right-handers.

King's Creek meadow with Lassen in background

King’s Creek meadow with Lassen in background

Not a lush landscape

Not a lush landscape

I’ve begun the ride at the southern end of the road, but the ride works equally well beginning from the north end.  In fact, since my favorite stretch of road is from Summit Lake to the summit (in both directions), if you want to ride just to the summit and back I’d start from the north end.

Adding miles: There is no other riding in the Park.  From Manzanita Lake you can ride north out of the Park and as far down the highway as you like.  It’s a straight road on a very open, barren landscape with its own sort of beauty.  At the southern end you have the Mill Creek Road ride.   The Warner Valley Road ride is about 30 minutes down the road.

Lots of people ride Lassen Park from Morgan Summit (not really a summit, but rather a saddle), where Lassen Peak Highway, the road through the Park, takes off from  Highway 36/89.  There’s a large snowpark parking lot there and bathrooms.  This adds a 7-mile moderate, straight, boring climb to the beginning of the route, or 14 miles to the out and back.   Some people start with our Mill Creek Road ride.  This adds about 40 miles to the out and back (so most people who start with Mill Creek Rd. turn around at the summit.)

Afterthoughts: Summit Lake is Ground Zero for mosquitos.  Bring repellent.  The last time I did the ride, I forgot, and, on the brink of hysteria, had to beg repellent from a camper.

Always get the official word at the Visitor Center about the availability of supplies on the ride before heading out.  Ask specifically: is there water at Summit Lake?  Is there water at Manzanita Lake?  Is the store at Manzanita open?  It can be hard to get trustworthy answers to these questions.

The Park road is closed by snow in the winter, and the snow lasts longer than most flat-landers can believe.  Before the drought it was common to have piles of snow alongside the road in July.  Call the Park Service for an update if there’s a chance it’s closed.

In 2014, the Park began an annual program where they open the road only to bikes and walkers for two days, one day in the early summer soon after the road is clear of snow and one day in the fall.  It’s a swell idea, but keep in mind you’re trading sharing the road with 40 cars with sharing it with 400 bikes.   The date is determined by the snow level, so you just have to watch the Lassen website/Facebook page and be ready to go with 2 weeks notice.  I’m told that the Park Service takes heat from angry motorists about the closures, so, if you want the closures to continue, go to the Lassen website or Facebook page and add a comment telling them they’re a swell idea and you’re grateful as hell.  The early ride is usually before Park water sources are functioning, so the Rangers thoughtfully put water thermoses in the Lassen Trail parking lot.  Don’t assume they’re there.

Lassen is a National Park, and they charge standard NP fees.  If you have any sort of annual pass or a geezer’s lifetime pass (like me), remember to bring it and photo ID (that’s the part I always forget).   Some rangers don’t charge entrance fees for bikes, but you can’t count on it.

The park’s official name is Lassen Volcanic National Park.

4 thoughts on “Lassen National Park

  1. sharon

    Jay: Lassen Park is hosting a vehicle free weekend May 16-18th, 2014. Hope they have a great turn-out. if anyone needs local lodging please check-out St. Bernard Lodge.

    Great job on your write ups of biking this area. Thanks.

    1. Jack Rawlins

      We’re all hoping this becomes an annual event. In the interest of fairness, other places to stay near the Park besides the St. Bernard Lodge include the town of Mineral, Fire Mountain Lodge, and Childs Meadows–all similarly mountain-funky, charming, unpretentious places.

  2. corvetti

    This was amazing! We did it in reverse, making the S entrance (with it’s fruit smoothies and ice cream options) our mid-point, which I would really recommend. It also means that on your way back, after you summit, you have a very long gradual cruise which you have truly earned. Really awesome ride. The only regret you’ll have is that you can’t go down all the little side hikes that you’re passing by.

  3. sharon

    Quick update: Fire Mountain Lodge is closed. New Highlands Ranch Resort should open in May 2015.

    Lassen Park is planning another vehicle free day Spring of 2015. As Jay says in blog post make sure to check Lassen Park website or FB page for updates.


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