When many folks think of a first-time visit to California, it doesn’t always occur to them while they are planning and packing that it isn’t sunny and warm everywhere in the state all the time. That is kind of how movies and television paint the climate in the state but, if you stop to think about it, California is shaped like many a Hollywood star – tall and slender. If you were to flip the state over to the east coast, its coastline would run from roughly Georgia to Rhode Island. You wouldn’t plan and pack for a trip to Rhode Island the same way you would for a trip to Georgia. The same is true in California. Depending on where you are headed, conditions can vary greatly.
One beautiful but potentially fickle destination in the northern half of California is Lassen Volcanic National Park. Given that the main Kohn Ya-mah-nee Visitors Center sits at 6673 ft elevation and there is only one road through the park, unless you are prepared to ski or snowshoe in and out, your visit will depend on whether or not that road is open. The only truly certain months are August and September. Looking back through the records, the road frequently opens in mid-June but there have been a few years where it was still snow-covered and preventing park access until the third week of July! And, on the other end of the season spectrum, the road usually becomes buried in snowfall sometime in November or December, but there are several times when the snow brought things to a close as early as the third week of October.
The year we ventured off to Lassen, there wasn’t a lot of snowfall and the road was opened by mid-May. Perhaps this was a result of the latest drought. I don’t know. Whatever the cause though, we seized the early opportunity to go hiking and check things out before the summertime crowds.
As you can see from the photo, there wasn’t much snow left at 10,463 feet atop Lassen Peak. Driving the highway from one end to the other, we were able to stop and check out the highlights along the way. We took a five-mile hike to check out one of the falls and a loop trail to explore the geological activity from the last time Lassen Peak erupted in 1915.
Temps were warm and we enjoyed lovely hiking in the park. In fact, usually in the first days after a mountain park opens after the winter, you should expect the trails to be muddy and experiencing runoff but there was none of that. Hiking conditions were superb – great temps, perfectly maintained trails, not a lot of hikers and beautiful scenery. A lovely pearl in the string of national parks found in California that you should make the effort to visit if you haven’t already.
In the evening, we found a campground a few miles outside of the northern entrance to hunker down for the night. After setting up camp and enjoying our dinner by camp stove (no fires allowed in many places due to dry, drought conditions), we wanted to go for another short hike so we headed off to follow a sign across the highway from the campground toward Subway Cave. What a totally unexpected yet totally awesome surprise!
We were very far from any metropolitan area so Subway Cave is not some abandoned mass transit station in the woods. Being very close to an active volcano, Subway Cave is a 1/3-mile lava tube formed from a past eruption that you are free to explore on your own. It is completely self-guided! Of course, day or night doesn’t matter; it’s really dark down there no matter what the time is.
Inside the tube, there are reflective arrows that you can follow with your flashlight. (Note: This is NOT doable with a cellphone flashlight. You need the real deal.) There are also a few signs that are brilliantly marked with reflective tape that explain what you can see as you look about in the tube.
Like Lassen Volcanic National Park, Subway Cave is also a California destination that isn’t the stereotypical sunny and warm all year long. Rather, it is a constant 46 degrees Fahrenheit so, along with those flashlights, remember to bring the jackets! Just a little bit of planning for dark and cool make these two destinations great stops next time you are in northern California.