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.
Next: A mountain for the rest of us