Bumpass Hell Nature Trail in northeastern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, right at the southern end of the Cascade mountain range, is one hell of a hike that will put a heavenly smile on your face.
Late one August night, I arrived at Lassen National Park after a long drive and slept in the back of my sports utility vehicle. I felt miserable the next morning. The temperature had dropped so much that I had to get out an extra blanket in the middle of the night. I didn’t get the best of sleep, but you never really do when you are road-tripping and living out of the back of your car.
The park is a geological wonderland with steam vents, mud pots, boiling pools, volcanic peaks, and even painted dunes. That chilly August morning I took an early morning stroll along the boardwalk through an area of sulfurous mud pots and fumaroles. Fumaroles, small vents that let out volcanic gases, are the most common hydrothermal feature in Lassen. They have the pungent smell of rotten eggs, which is really hydrogen sulfide, one of the volcanic gases released by the magma cooling at great depths. One can tolerate this foul odor for just so long. So I was back on Lassen Park Road in no time.
There are more than 150 miles (240 km) of trails in the park. Yet Lassen Park Road is the only paved road and can be covered in and hour or two, which makes it ideal for those with limited time. Just 4.5 miles (7.2 km) into Lassen you arrive at Bumpass Hell Nature Trail. Here, you find your first view of Lassen Peak (10,462 feet, 3198 m) due north.
Lassen Peak is the main attraction for most visitors and offers some breathtaking views of the park. After being dormant for 200 years, the peak awoke in May 1914 and burst into eruptions. It had its most significant activity in 1915 and minor ones through 1921. On a clear day you can even get a glimpse of Mount Shasta (14,179 feet, 4322 m), the second highest peak in the Cascade Range.
Before climbing Lassen Peak, which later took me about an hour, I decided to try the “Hell” trail for a warm-up first. It’s named after mountain man Kendal Vanhook Bumpass, who discovered the hydrothermal area in 1865 and lost his leg from burns when he stepped into a boiling mud pot. He later described the event as an “easy descent into hell.”
It is a barren but colorful place. High temperatures, acidic soils, water and high concentrations of sulfur compounds and other materials have created an environment where only a few species survive. About a half-mile (0.8 km) into the hour-long trail you’re treated to a beautiful view of Manzanita Lake to your left. It usually offers great mirror shots for amazing photos.
You know it the minute you make it to the end of the trail and enter Bumpass Hell area proper. It is hot and steamy with a thick smell of hydrogen sulfide trying its best to choke you. The only thing that looks alive is the ground surrounding you as you walk over on the designated Bumpass Hell boardwalk.
Staying on the boardwalk is a must, unless you can spare a limb or two. You are surrounded by superheated steaming fumaroles, acid sulfates hot springs and boiling mud pots. Shades of gray and doom are the prominent tone, surrounded by sights of life and death. Sulfuric acid produced by the sulfur bacteria attacks the rocks making up the basin. Decomposition of the rocks produces a whitish powdery material that is a mixture of silica and kaolinite, and aluminum and silica-rich clay mineral. Colored iron and orange brown oxides are scattered due to the sulfuric acid being diluted by rain and snowmelt. Other iron compounds form many stains of red, yellow and tan. The bright pure yellow deposits with prominent crystals lining the active fumaroles vents are pure sulfur. The yellow and orange colors on the ground are a variety of sulfates.
The last pool on the Bumpass Hell boardwalk is a beautiful emerald green, and it looks inviting and refreshing. With all the steam and the heat from the fumaroles you might be thinking about jumping in. Don’t! The seemingly cool emerald pool is just the devil’s way of tempting you while you are in Bumpass Hell. Be sure to keep your distance. It is a beautiful, yet dangerous place.
If You Go
Lassen Volcanic National Park