A Tale of Two Volcanoes
Lassen Volcanic National Park
Lassen Volcanic is one of the least crowded parks in California and a great destination for a variety of natural wonders, all snatched into a small park. We personally loved to arrange our itinerary around great photography spots in the early and late hours of the day with good light, while keeping the middle hours of the day for fun stuff such as swimming in a lake, hiking and driving around the scenic parkway.
It's a 5-6 hours drive from San Francisco up north, mostly staying on I-5. There is not really anything fun to see on the way so we tried to get there fast. If you have the time, consider combining this park with Redwoods National Park and the Mendocino coastal region but we'd recommend to plan at least 5 days for a combined trip as you'll be driving quite a lot. We ended up splitting the trips in two to allow enough time for each and limit the driving.
Where to stay
There are a few towns in kind of proximity to the park (Red Bluff, Redding and Susanville) with each about an hour drive to the park entrance points. These provide the usual mix of simple and non fancy motels (Motel 6, etc) and food places but they come in cheap.
We stayed a bit closer to the entrance but far away from civilization, in a tiny village called "Old Station" at the Rim Rock Ranch Resort, just about 10 min drive to the East entrance at Manzanita Lake. Great location for us as we spent two evenings at the lakes shooting the sunset and had a quick drive home. We really enjoyed the Ranch as it was a cute resort with a few cabins, campsite and motel rooms (we had a motel room), all with BBQ's (charcoal) and the cabins also had fire pits. It was pretty cheap ($60 per night during 4th of July weekend - not bad, right?). They also have a shop where you can stock up on food, drinks, camping and fishing gear, BBQ supplies and just anything else you might have forgotten at home.
We also think camping must be a pleasure here, the campsites looked very neat and were in close proximity to wonderful spots like Manzanita Lake, Summit Lake and Cinder Cone. It was quite empty with much availability when we were there on the supposedly most crowded weekend of the year so you likely don't even need to make reservations for the campground.
Where to eat
Plan ahead and don't expect to get dinner unless you drive to the named cities as listed above. Old Station has a very nice diner which provide outstanding breakfast and very good service. We had the "Light breakfast" with eggs, bacon and homemade toast - simple but great at JJ's Diner. They're not open for dinner except Saturday when they do a family style BBQ. We haven't been there though so can't say if it's good.
We brought our own gas BBQ and had some fabulous Hot Dogs at Manzanita Lake while shooting during the golden hour and sunset. Those Hot Dogs never tasted better! During the day you can grab some snacks at the store at the entrance stations or some light fare at the south entrance.
Best photography spots
We chose Manzanita Lake and Reflection Lake for our two sunset sessions and really enjoyed it. Gorgeous clouds and lighting and the calm lakes reflecting Lassen Peak (at Manzanita Lake) and the tree-lined lake shore (at Reflection Lake). We got there early to find a good spot and brought our BBQ to enjoy lakeside dinner and catch the full glory of the golden hour and after sunset light. King's Creek Falls, Painted Dunes, Cinder Cone and Bumpass Hell are must-sees and great photo opportunities, we've shot them during the day but would have much preferred better lighting conditions.
Where to play
We did a few hikes, from moderate to very strenuous.
Kings Creek Falls is moderately strenuous during the second half with some changes in elevation that you need to climb back up when you return. The waterfall is worth the effort and provides a great photo opportunity. It can get a bit crowded so rather go earlier during the day, it starts with a nice stroll through the meadows along the creek and finishes off with a rather steep decline down to the waterfall.
Bumpass Hell is a great spot to view the boiling waters and mud pots while standing above an active lava field. You'll notice you get close to it by the smell. It smells horrible but looks terrific. It starts easy with a even walk alongside the cliff but the last piece has quite a drop down to the place and is quite strenuous on the way back. Piece of advice: wear sturdy shoes, it makes it easier and reduces the risk of spraying your ankle dramatically - this is not a flip flop hike! There were crowds making their way down there, for sure not a hike if you seek serenity.
Cinder Cone & Painted Dunes is quick but evil. Period. The trail up to the cinder cone can be considerate easy to moderate but the hike up the volcano is nothing but a nightmare in heat and rolling pebbles underneath your shoes trying to get up an 70 degree incline. We packed only light gear and left all heavy items down there which was a good idea. But I can tell you, it was so worth it. Standing on the rim of a volcano, overlooking the petrified lava fields that fought their way down the slopes, leaving nothing but destruction and black rocks, was quite a view. To both sides you can see the lakes, surrounded by woods of fir and in the far distance, Mount Shasta is majestically overlooking the scenery. The highlight though (and reason for most photographers to carry pounds and pounds of gear up there) are the painted dunes which can only be viewed in its full glory from up here. You can catch a glimpse from below but this oasis of light and life in the destruction of nature, is truly breath-taking and you need to get up there to see it in context.