Just a few steps from Hell’s door
Before starting down a hiking trail that has a name as grim as Bumpass Hell, you’ll probably want to know more about its moniker.
I found the answer on one of the many plaques that mark the way down to this bubbly, smelly -- but wonderful -- geothermal basin in northeastern California.
Here’s how the story goes: In 1865, a pioneer named Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, who had discovered the site the year before, guided a newspaper editor interested in covering it. While showing off his discovery, Bumpass stepped on what looked to be ground but was really only a thin crust covering boiling liquid. The crust broke, his leg plunged through into the scalding muck, and his injuries were so severe his limb had to be amputated.
Afterward, he reportedly said, “The descent to hell is easy.”
Actually, the hike is easy -- easy enough for families with young ones; I saw several as I traversed the three-mile round trip. The 1 1/2 miles slope down only 300 feet, although the thin air at this elevation (8,000 feet) can make the hike seem more difficult. The sulfureous vapor emanating from below probably doesn’t help your oxygen intake either.
But the walk is enjoyable, made more so by educational signs, including one illustrating what massive Mt. Tehama looked like before its collapse. The ancient mountain was a highlight of the southern Cascades at 11,000 feet high and more than 11 miles around. Bumpass Hell would have sat on its outer slopes.
Lassen Peak, which erupted in 1915 and is still one of America’s most active volcanoes, began as a vent on Tehama’s northern edge -- but that’s a different hike. Because most of the Bumpass Hell trail is along an exposed ridge, it provides great views and photo ops over Lassen Volcanic National Park. I stopped several times to take in these panoramas.
Approaching the 16-acre thermally active basin at the end of the trail’s downhill section, I could smell an infernal rotten-egg odor rising from the sulfuric hot springs. This may be called hell, but I was sure that stink could reach high heaven.
No matter. I wanted to see Lassen’s largest hydrothermal area, and I pushed toward the low, long wooden footbridge set in a largely barren landscape.
From this boardwalk-like platform, I could get a close-up look at a sputtering network of mud pots and fumaroles that perforate this friable earth. It’s loud: The hissing steam vents can be heard at least a mile away.
And standing amid the burbling and the bursts, I found something amusing about it all. It was hard not to be reminded of odoriferous bodily functions. In fact, another of Lassen’s eight hydrothermal spots is called -- no, I’m not making this up -- Fart Gulch.
The scientific reason for all the noise is the unusually large amount of underground magma beneath Lassen Peak, which heats groundwater, pushing it up and out and mixing it with minerals along the way. Some of it comes out as plumes of superheated steam -- the largest fumarole, called Big Boiler, has reached 322 degrees. The rest seeps out as creeks and large puddles of whitish water. The heat also liquefies clay into gurgling gray pools surrounded by fractured earth.
In all, Bumpass Hell is one of the best viewable examples of active volcanism in the country and a vivid reminder that eruptions are a constant possibility in this uncrowded national park.
After wandering the unusual site, I turned around to head back the way I came. Though many trails lead up to a pinnacle, a peak to be summited, the Bumpass Hell trail goal is a geothermal nadir. Just don’t let yourself get to as low a point as Bumpass did: Observe posted signs and stay strictly on the trail. Otherwise, what began as a pleasant, unique hike will end as, well, hell.
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Planning this trip
Lassen Volcanic National Park, in northeastern California, is 66 miles east of Redding. Take California 44 east about 50 miles, then turn right onto California 89. At the park’s southwest entrance, pay $10 for a seven-day vehicle pass ($25 for an annual pass), then continue on California 89 to the Bumpass Hell parking lot. Driving time from Redding is about 1 1/2 hours.
The park has 20 hiking trails, eight hydrothermal-activity areas, eight campgrounds, three visitor roads, a visitor center, the Loomis Museum (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most summer days) and several ranger-led programs. Bikes are allowed on paved roads only. Bumpass Hell usually opens to hikers July 1, unless it’s been a year of heavy snow, which postpones the opening date. The park is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, though snow will occasionally restrict access.
TO LEARN MORE
Lassen Volcanic National Park, (530) 595-4444, www.nps.gov/lavo.