Distance: 56 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5180 ft
A Best of the Best ride
(Note: In 2021 the Dixie Fire burned much of the park east of the main road. Damage was severe.)
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 it’s one of my favorite California rides. The road contour is excellent, the surface is nearly flawless, and great vistas are around every corner. 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.
A reader tells me the road has recently been re-chipsealed, which may be good or bad depending on the chipsealing.
By the way, you don’t get to ride to the top of the mountain. You ride through a little pass between Lassen and a small bump next to it, 2000 ft below the Lassen summit.
(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 (open early in the morning when the Center itself hasn’t opened yet), interesting displays (there are 4 kinds of volcanos—I can never remember 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.
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 parking lot for the trail to the mountain’s top. Stop and watch the line of hikers work their way up the mountain. Immediately after the trailhead is the unmissable road summit. There’s a sign reading “Elevation 8,511 ft.” (only after the snow clears).
Now is a good time to think about how much climbing you want to do. It’s 21 more miles of almost uninterrupted descending to the turn-around point at Manzanita Lake, so it’s 21 easy-to-moderately-challenging miles of climbing back out. 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. Once my riding buddy shot off the road and 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.
The next likely stop is the grossly misnamed Summit Lake. There MAY be water here (check at the Visitor Center), but there are certainly 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. For bliss, rent a canoe or kayak and paddle around the lake.
Ride back the way you came. The large lake you see in the distance as you ride from Summit Lake to King’s Creek is Almanor. As you near the 8500-ft summit, there’s a handy “8000 ft elevation” sign telling you you’re close (only after the snow is cleared). 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.
I’ve mapped the ride so it begins at the southern end of the road, but the ride works equally well beginning from the north end.
Just to summarize: there are bathrooms at the Sulphur Works, the summit trailhead, Summit Lake, and Manzanita Lake, but no guaranteed water at any of them. If you’re riding in spring when the road has been plowed, you may be looking at 56 miles with no water re-supply.
Shortening the route: The first obvious turn-around spot is the summit—from there, there is nothing ahead of you that’s any better than what you’ve done (or will do on the returning descent). The descent from the summit to King’s Creek is quite good, and I usually go that far past the summit (5 more miles) and turn around there.
There are two more natural turn-around points between King’s Creek and Manzanita Lake: Summit Lake (despite the name, 9 miles past the summit, and not spectacularly pretty) and the Devastated Area trailhead (19 miles past the summit). Except for Manzanita Lake itself, which is perfectly charming, the riding gets less interesting the further you go.
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. Seven miles from the Visitor Center you have the Mill Creek Road ride. The Warner Valley Road ride is 25 miles 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. 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.
This carless thing isn’t an obvious win. You’re swapping out the chance to ride with 20 cars for the chance to ride with 400 cyclists. The last time I did it, it was a zoo and I felt seriously at risk from inattentive pedalers.
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.