Northern California Parks: Guide to Lassen, Lava Beds, and the Redwoods
By Kristin Hanes
When people think about visiting California national parks, they usually stream in hordes to spots like Yosemite or Joshua Tree. But if you’re looking to rent a campervan and get away from the crowds, you might want to consider driving north. Lassen National Park and Lava Beds National Monument are just a couple hours apart, and why not throw in a trip to the towering redwood giants while you’re at it? Here’s why you should consider a stop at these three amazing Northern California parks within a half-day’s drive of San Francisco.
Lassen National Park
Tucked away by Mount Lassen just east of Redding, California, Lassen National Park is a less-crowded, mini Yellowstone. You can walk on trails past steaming fumaroles, bubbling mud pits, and a boiling lake. Or, if you’re up for a more difficult hike, try climbing to the top of Lassen Peak with an elevation of 10,457 feet.
Lassen is the place to learn about geothermal and volcanic activity. The park boasts all four types of volcanoes – shield, composite, cinder cone, and a plug dome volcano. In fact, Lassen Peak is one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world, with its last explosion in 1915.
You wouldn’t know it by the crowds, but Lassen is one of the oldest national parks in the United States, founded in 1916. Besides its geothermal wonders, Lassen is peppered with colorful alpine wildflowers, lush meadows, and crystal clear creeks. You can even take a dip in one of the chilly mountain lakes on a hot summer day.
Lassen is best to visit in the summertime, as it’s socked in by snow much of the year.
Lava Beds National Monument
Just a swift two-hour drive from Lassen National Park lies another volcanic park – Lava Beds National Monument. This high desert retreat near the Oregon border is covered with sagebrush and Juniper trees, with a vast labyrinth of cave systems underneath.
Most of the caves have paths and are located off a paved road near the visitor’s center. Just put on warm clothes and carry a flashlight to explore the lava tubes, which were created 10,500 to 65,000 years ago.
When you’re tired of a day’s worth of spelunking, you can hike desert trails to sites with ancient Native American art, or explore Captain John’s Stronghold, a Modoc holdout.
Amazingly, the entire national monument is perched on the northern flank of the Medicine Lake volcano and covers 10% of its surface area. This volcano, with a 150-mile base, is the largest volcano by volume in the entire Cascade Range!
You’re sure to find solitude and quiet at this national monument, which only brings in about 140,000 visitors per year. Compare that with the 4 million at Yosemite.
Redwoods National and State Parks
The Redwoods National and State Parks are home to the biggest trees in the world. Here, you can camp and walk through a prehistoric landscape, with ruddy redwood trees and dripping ferns. The state and national parks encompass 40-miles of rugged California coastline, and you’re sure to find an inspiring hike or campsite.
Try camping in your van for the night down a winding dirt road at Gold Bluffs Beach, where you can marvel at the 30-foot fern-draped walls of Fern Canyon.
Take a scenic drive down the Avenue of the Giants or zip your campervan down Howland Hill Road, where your neck will hurt from looking up at these phenomenal trees.
The redwood forest is a place of solace, where you’ll find peace within as you “forest bathe” among these trees.
Can’t find a campsite within the parks? Try the Forest Keller County Park, which is only $15 per night and offers cozy campsites within the redwood trees.
Kristin Hanes is an avid outdoorswoman who lives on a sailboat and in a van in the San Francisco Bay area. She runs the alternative living blog, The Wayward Home, where she writes about van life, RVing, sailboats and tiny homes.