Lassen Dark Sky Festival

Hiking and Stargazing in Northern California

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From the moment I heard there was a Dark Sky Festival at Lassen Volcanic National Park, I knew I had my excuse to return to this lesser-known gem of the national parks system. Katelyn and I had first visited in 2015. At the time, I was very impressed by the park – it takes about the same amount of effort to get there from SF as it takes to get to Yosemite, it has a lot of variety in a relatively small area, and it is in my opinion one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

The Dark Sky Festival is a celebration of Lassen’s relative isolation from light pollution. All weekend there are talks and activities, along with stargazing sessions. On this trip, I hoped to interweave day hikes with Dark Sky events and astrophotography.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

We timed our drive up I-5 to avoid traffic, only stopping in Willows for lunch and in Redding for groceries and fuel. Burger materials, fruit, greens and beer – the makings of a classic cookout. Speaking of cookouts, it was a searing 107°F (42°C)! To preserve ourselves we kept the stop short, and to preserve the groceries we blasted the A/C as we headed east on 44. After an hour slowly gaining elevation on winding forest roads, we pulled up to the rental in Old Station: a bigger-on-the-inside cottage with a covered picnic patio and an amazing VHS tape collection (though we wouldn’t have time to watch Total Recall, The Bodyguard or any episodes of The X-Files). We settled in, cracked some beers and sat at the picnic table, enjoying the breeze and birds chirping. The owner came by to say hello and make sure we had everything we needed.

Speculation about dinner began shortly thereafter. There aren’t many choices in Old Station and we didn’t feel like making something ourselves, so we decided on JJ’s Cafe. JJ’s is a small, homey diner with straightforward comfort food. I had a fantastic pastrami sandwich and lamented the fact that they were out of homemade pies. Appetites sated, we took the junction to 89 to scope out the Hat Creek Rim scenic viewpoint. I hoped to use this area for night sky photography. It turned out to be a nice spot with a parking lot, restrooms, and sweeping views. Lassen Peak rose to the south, Sugarloaf Peak was directly to the west, and Shasta was barely visible to the north through the dusty haze.

We did, in fact, return to the viewpoint around 9:30p, but it was unclear whether the gate might get closed and locked on us, and there was only one other car there, which can be creepier than no cars at all. Instead we used a large pullout on the road. The half-moon was high and bright, lighting up the entire landscape. It took me a few moments to find the Milky Way at all, so I was unsure how my photos would turn out. I thought they might be a bit washed out, but on the other hand the moonlight allowed me to use a lower ISO setting than usual. I took a few stacks while Katelyn watched for meteors. A few days later, back at home, I realized I’d captured one of my favorite shots of the trip!

dead tree bleached by sun framing the landscape
night sky over lassen viewed from hat creek rim

Friday, August 12, 2016

Our alarm went off at 6a the next morning. I was determined to get to the park ahead of the crowds and take advantage of some nice golden light. The drive took only 20 minutes from Old Station to the park’s northwest entrance. It felt great to be back at Lassen. There’s something almost intoxicating about driving along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway with the windows down. When we reached the Paradise Meadows trailhead, there was only one other car there – nice!

We set off up the trail, enjoying the fresh air, tall trees and cool temperature. One other person came the opposite way on the trail (perhaps the owner of the other car). Lassen Peak watched over us from the right. The trickling of Hat Creek eventually grew into the sound of rushing water and I was surprised to see beautiful cascades come into view. I love it when a trail has features you weren’t expecting.

Paradise Meadows itself was wonderful – if overwhelming. I struggled to find good photo spots in the large, flat area as I repeatedly sunk my boot into clear streams and dark mud. With the clear sky and bright, flat light from the sun, I decided to just wander around. The guy from the other car had the right idea – show up earlier!

waterfall cascades lassen hat creek paradise meadow
morning sunlight filtering through forest

Back at the car, the parking lot was full up. We moved on to the Terrace Lake trailhead at about 8000ft elevation. It was somewhat steep, dropping about 500ft into a glacial cirque. The trail leveled to reveal clear, colorful Terrace Lake, surrounded by boulders and trees. Shadow Lake, further down another incline, was much larger but no less impressive. The water had a vibrant color gradient near shore that dropped off quickly, suggesting it became quite deep. An attempt at swimming became wading due to the frigid water temperature and rocky bottom. With a cool breeze coming off the water, neither of us could bear to dunk in – even with the heat of the day. To Shadow Lake and back was only about a mile, though the climb on the way back made it feel longer. Soon we were back at the cottage, preparing for the cookout and waiting for a couple of friends to show up.

That evening we returned, and as an introduction to the park, I took our friends to the Devastated Area interpretive trail. We meandered along the path, learning about different types of volcanic rock. During Lassen’s 1915 eruption, an avalanche swept over this area, wiping out everything and carrying enormous boulders for miles. It was a lovely short walk and I managed to catch some golden rays falling on Lassen Peak – a quiet portrait of beautiful mountain and a potentially destructive force.

At Manzanita Lake, we had some trouble finding the amphitheater for that night’s talk. Katelyn studied the map and cracked the code (an out-of-the way icon that looked like an upside-down wi-fi indicator… can you tell we needed to unplug?). However, the confusion led to a fortuitous encounter with a doe and her deerlets (fawns, I’m told). We made it to the amphitheater just in time for the presentation to start. We learned from Bonnie Meinke of the Space Telescope Science Institute that the James Webb Space Telescope is a highly sensitive, yet-to-be-launched infrared space observatory. It will be used to identify exoplanets within dense dust clouds and to help understand the distant past of the universe. The mirror is made up of smaller hexagonal pieces that will allow the assembly to fold inside a rocket for delivery into orbit. Don’t turn it toward the sun, though – the gold coating on its mirrors will melt!

mountain peak with sunset rays
deer crossing a creek

Afterward, we joined the astronomical observing session near campground Loop D. There were only 3 telescopes, long lines, and chilly conditions none of us had prepared for; but we still got to observe Saturn (with Titan making a guest appearance).

Saturday, August 13, 2016

On our first visit to Lassen, I’d bought a souvenir poster. The poster showed Lassen Peak with the Painted Dunes in the foreground. Painted Dunes?! They looked amazing – how had we missed them? I became determined to see them. After another early morning, we reached Butte Lake by 7:45a. We were ready to conquer Cinder Cone and see these dunes, along with their bordering lava beds.

The Cinder Cone trail is a fairly straightforward path through the forest until one reaches the cone itself. The trees each have quite a bit of space around them; the forest is dense in terms of quantity of trees, but it also feels open and airy. The path is composed of fine grey grains, like volcanic sand, perhaps, which made the going a little less easy than it otherwise would have been. To the south, the Fantastic Lava Beds accompanied us most of the way. They were formed during an eruption of Cinder Cone in the 1650’s, and when the lava cooled, it fractured, creating this mass of angular rocks.

hikers on cinder cone trail
hikers group photo cinder cone

On approach, we could see that climbing Cinder Cone itself would be a challenge. The way up looked fairly steep, made of loose material, and was totally exposed. We stopped to hydrate and eat something before attempting it. A couple of other groups started up and soon seemed tiny, like ants climbing an enormous gray anthill. It was indeed a strenuous hike. We took it slow, making sure to stop and catch our breath. Halfway up, it felt like we were making very little progress, yet I could see Lassen Peak coming into view. At the top we were greeted by a breeze and incredible views. We took a moment to rest in the shade of one of the few trees. The crater itself seemed to dip down another 400 feet (I was too tired to go down and up again). To the west, Lassen; to the north, Snag Lake, the Painted Dunes, and the Fantastic Lava Beds; and to the east, the lava flow terminating at Butte Lake. Walking along the crater rim felt a little like walking on Mars – all barren red rocks in an otherworldly environment. Going down was much easier than coming up! It felt nice to back in the shade of the trees.

Next, we planned to take the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway through the park and check out the visitor center. We made a lunch stop at JJ’s, where closer inspection of the menu revealed that the former owners were the same people who owned our rental cottage. I couldn’t resist another pastrami sandwich, they were that good.

lake-helen-snow-august-matt-mcleanBack on the road, we stopped at Lake Helen, marveling at patches of snow and ice that had refused to melt. At Sulphur Works, we listened to a NASA scientist talk about the Mars rovers and how they select landing sites (it’s related to elevation, and Mars’s thin atmosphere). Another scientists demonstrated how rock is dissolved by acidic substances (with the nearby boiling sulfurous mudpot serving as a prime example). NASA is particularly interested in the Sulphur Works and Bumpass Hell geothermal areas because other worlds likely consist of very similar conditions (think of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io), and we know that extremophiles can live in these conditions. Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center was packed. I found out that they have an outgoing mail service, so I scribbled quick notes on a couple of postcards and sent them out.

Our friends had offered to cook dinner, so off we went back to the cottage. We discussed the plan for the evening over delicious lasagna. Originally I had hoped to hike Kings Creek Falls, but we were running behind schedule, and 3 miles round trip was starting to sound long. We could do it, but would be hiking back after sunset and would probably miss the 8:30p presentation. Instead, we walked along the shore of Manzanita Lake, taking many photos of the area as the sun dipped below the horizon. On the return, we saw more deer up-close; they were taking the trail too.

fisherman on calm lake
lassen peak manzanita lake sunset

The presentation was “Come for the Stars, Stay for the Sun” by Tyler Nordgren. He spoke about the current state of light pollution in the U.S. and the role of our national parks in preserving not only nature, but in preserving dark skies. He pointed out that, with many communities switching to energy-efficient lamps, now is the best time to act to protect the sky. It could be as simple as having a shade installed on the upper part of the lamp so that productive light is directed downward instead of being wasted. I was impressed by his night photos and I would like to say I’ll keep an eye out for opportunities to be active about protecting dark skies.

stargazers in forestThis time, many more telescopes were set up in the viewing area and we made a point to look through almost each one. We saw incredibly sharp details on the Moon’s surface, a globular cluster, and even two galaxies colliding (the Whirlpool Galaxy and NGC 5195). The image in the eyepiece was small, and the galaxies looked fuzzy, but the galactic centers were surprisingly bright, relatively speaking. Then we found a spot and stargazed for a while, hoping to catch some perseids. We did see a few, but the bright moonlit sky and the shower being past its peak probably reduced what we could see. I made sure to take some exposures in the meantime and was very surprised to see I’d captured the Andromeda Galaxy in one shot!

I was inspired by Dr. Nordgren’s talk and considered waking up around 3am. My body had other ideas. Maybe if I had planned a ‘do nothing’ day and stayed up all night to catch the perseids, that might have worked; but when you’re in a place like Lassen, you want to take full advantage of it. Maybe someday I’ll put together a trip solely for night sky photography.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

hikers entering caveWe slept in a little bit and I made pancakes for everyone. Once the cottage was clean and everyone was packed up, we headed to nearby Subway Caves. I hadn’t known exactly what to expect, but it was really cool, literally – the inside of the cave was much, much cooler than the surface. We made our way through the one-third mile lava tube (which had drained out many years ago), following the interpretive signs. At one point we turned out our headlights to experience total darkness.

With that, our trip was complete. The decision to stay in Old Station really worked out for us. It was conveniently located between the northwest entrance and the Butte Lake entrance, with some points of interest of its own, too. Of course, you don’t have to attend the Dark Sky Festival to take advantage of Lassen’s clear nights. The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway is actually open 24 hours. So if you have a chance to visit, consider staying in the park after dark!