Uncover the West's most beautiful, least visited wonderland
Getting to Lassen
Lassen Volcanic National Park is about five hours north of San Francisco; it's accessible from mid-June until early October. The entrance fee is $10 per vehicle for seven days.
From the San Francisco Bay Area: Take I-5 north to Red Bluff, then take State 36 east. Four miles east of Mineral, go north on State 89, the main route through the park. You can also enter through the north gate from State 44. Lassen's first visitor center, with interactive exhibits and a park shop, is scheduled to open October 2. More info: 530/595-4444.
Where to stay at Lassen
The park has five main campgrounds off State 89. Reservations are recommended, but half of the campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Our favorite sites in Summit Lake South include D9 and D10, which have nice views and good lake access. For fewer neighbors and a little more elbow room, try C9. The E loop is tents-only. More info and reservations: recreation.gov or 877/444-6777.
Discovering geographic wonders
We're off to see the bubbling mud pots at Bumpass Hell when we get sidetracked by a field of lupines so lush and alluring, we're drawn in like Dorothy to the poppies. It literally has us frolicking ― even my brother, who lives in New York and is not, as a rule, much of a frolicker.
We've been in Lassen Volcanic National Park for two days, and this keeps happening to us: We turn a corner or crest a hill and we are stunned, reduced to single-syllable utterances of wonder. "Wow," we keep saying as we come upon crashing waterfalls, turquoise lakes, or views that stretch out into unfathomable wilderness. Wow.
It's as if we've discovered some secret geographic wonder, which is weird considering that, aside from my husband, we're all California natives and thus used to nature's show-offy displays. But Lassen is different. At Yosemite or Sequoia, you expect to be impressed. At Lassen, a smaller and less famous park tucked into California's northeast corner, it takes you by surprise.
A mountain for the rest of us
My husband, Pete, and I have chosen Lassen because we want to climb a big mountain but have neither the gear nor the muscle mass for anything truly intimidating.
Lassen seems doable. To wit: The trailhead to the 10,457-foot summit of Lassen Peak begins at 8,500 feet. With a head start like that, we figure we can make it to the top - even with our twin toddlers on our backs - and be back for lunch.
Lucky for us, Lassen is also procrastinator-friendly, and we're able to get a campsite at Summit Lake with less than a month's notice. When my dad and my brother sign on to the trip a week later, we get another right next door. Once we're there and settled in, we hit the trail to the top, which starts out lined with wildflowers and shade trees but quickly gives way to rocky paths, steep slides, and views out to the Sacramento Valley.
I'm carrying our daughter, Magnolia, on my back, and she happily munches a breadstick as I plod up the mountain. We haven't gone far when we're passed by a 6-year-old and her dad. Soon after, an older couple, looking like they've stepped out of an ad for granola bars, wish us a good morning and jog past us on their way back down.
I use the stunning views as an excuse for the many pauses in my progress. As we stand huffing on the dramatic edge of the mountain, my dad points out Lake Almanor, where he went fishing as a kid. I nod and scan the green horizon, mentally mapping Northern California, while the twins begin to wail and the wind howls.
We are so close, so very close, to the top of the volcano when it becomes clear that mountaineering glory will remain out of our reach. For the sake of the kids, who are tear-streaked and really mad at this point, Pete and I leave my dad and brother to tame Lassen Peak without us.
We'll have to wait a few years before we witness the summit (we hear later that the view is worth every arduous footstep). For now we can claim to have changed a diaper at 10,000 feet. It's something.
Nature's softer side
Lassen is small (driving its length takes only about an hour), but it's dotted with streams, lakes, and hissing hydrothermal action. All the good stuff feels close and easy: You can take a short hike to some astonishing natural wonder and still have time for a lunch-ruining soft serve at the Manzanita Lake store.
We spend a morning at Bumpass Hell, marveling at the boiling mud and sapphire water. By afternoon, we're back at Summit Lake, splashing in the frigid shallows and snoozing on its warm banks. Two boys we call Huck and Finn paddle lazily in their inflatable raft.
The next day, the 1.5-mile trail to Kings Creek Falls takes us through fawn lilies and towering red firs. We stop to watch a six-point buck grazing in a meadow of wildflowers, and as we stand there, a hawk alights on a branch not 10 feet away. I half-expect Thumper to appear.
The trail, empty of other hikers, lets us out at an impressive tumble of water. It's our second nature-calendar moment in an hour, and we pause to exclaim appropriately. Even the twins seem awed.
We continue on, following the path as it hugs the bank of the stream. It's goal-less hiking now. We've seen the waterfall, we've even gotten a wildlife bonus. Now we walk for the simple pleasures of mountain air, perfect silence, and tired muscles.
But Lassen gets us again. We take a spur to the left and find ourselves on a lip of rock jutting out over what looks like the whole world. It's not a famous spot. It's not even on the map. But we cluster on its edge, looking out at endless forests and rolling mountains, and say again what has by now become our favorite word: Wow.
More Secret Peaks
Three other mountain ranges with a lot of beauty and darn few people
Where North-central Wyoming
Why they're a secret The slightly taller, flashier Grand Tetons have grabbed all the celebs.
Why they shouldn't be The Big Horns are just as beautiful as the Tetons, and nearby Sheridan is as much fun as Jackson. Find 189,000 acres of wilderness in Bighorn National Forest.
The Kofa Mountains, AZ
Where The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge near Yuma, AZ
Why they're a secret Summer vacation plans rarely call for a trip to one of the most sizzling spots in the West.
Why they shouldn't be They epitomize the stark beauty of the red rock desert and contain one of the few natural palm oases in Arizona (but, yeah, maybe wait until fall to visit). 928/783-7861.
Where Eastern San Diego County, all the way to Mexico
Why they're a secret They tend to be overshadowed by Palomar Mountain and its fancy observatory.
Why they shouldn't be They're close enough to San Diego for a day trip and offer spectacular views over Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. 619/445-6235.