Kendall Bumpass lost his leg due to this geothermal area; we lost the trail.
During the winter and early spring, the Southwest Walk-in campground is the only open camp in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The popular Mill Creek Falls Trail starts right at the campground, near the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center, and leads to the 75 foot drop. Our plan was to connect this trail with the Bumpass Hell Trail and then walk back down the road for a 13-mile loop.
Sounded like a great idea, especially since the road was closed and plowed for the “Vehicle Free Weekend”. Little did we know that Bumpass Hell Trail was closed. There were no signs at the Visitor Center nor our trailhead. We had checked the current conditions of the park before leaving home; I had looked at webcams, road conditions, weather reports. We thought we had done our due diligence.
Southwest Walk-in Campground to Mill Creek Falls
The way to Mill Creek Falls was mostly snow free except for a few well-stamped patches. Our difficulties began shortly after crossing the bridge over the falls. The snow patches continued to increase in size. Then we had to cross a “creek’. The map says creek, I say gushing river: I tend to exaggerate, especially when my socks get wet.
Sulphur Creek to Bumpass Hell
Once we crossed the wide, gushing, man swallowing Sulphur Creek into Conrad Meadows, the snow patches had turned into snow fields; that’s not an exaggeration. Still not concerned, we pressed on. At the time, we had only been on trail for less than 2 hours; our energy was high.
The trail was impossible to follow but we had our map and knew we could find the way.
By the time we reached Crumbaugh Lake, our energy was depleting due to increasingly deep snow. Still we had not a care in the world. Postholing only once and awhile, we ate snacks and progressed with ever slowing speed.
Over time the postholing was more frequent and we were moving at about a mile an hour. Our toes were cold and wet but not yet problematic, as long as we walked. So walk we did.
Eventually we made it to the ridge above Bumpass Hell. We could see, and smell, the warm spot. But where was the trail? We had to make a decision. Unfortunately it was the wrong one.
About 15 minutes after leaving the ridge we realized we went the wrong way around Hell and couldn’t get in. Ooops. Rather than waste time on the off chance that we still might make it to the boardwalks by rock hopping through terrain that cost Bumpass his leg, we decided to backtrack.
That was the right choice. Even though we failed to find the trail, we eventually were able to butt slide down to the boardwalk.
Sure, Bumpass Hell has a cool name but its real charm is the smell emanating from the bubbles. Sulfur. Breathe it in. Take in the interpretive signs and steaming pools of acid that eat away at the landscape. Now deep breathe. Wonderful.
Bumpass Hell to the Road
Tired and down to our final snacks, we headed towards the road. Our route took us past steep cliffs, through avalanche terrain, and down some rocky outcroppings that needed a good scramble.
The worst of the it came when we could actually see the road. It was so close yet we would not reach it for another 2 hours. How in the name of Bumpass were we to get there? Carefully, slowly, safely.
Eventually, the road was right below us and all we needed to do was find a friendly slope. And that we did. We hoped onto the road, turned around, and saw the “Trail Closed Due to Extremely Hazardous Conditions” sign.
Thanks Lassen! Next time we’ll talk to a Ranger before heading out. Or check the “hiking” section of the NPS website. Who knew?
So what’s the takeaway from all of this? There are a few things we did right, and others we did wrong.
- We carried our ten essentials, including extra food which kept our energy up.
- We packed warm clothing and rain-gear which came in handy as the temperature dropped in the afternoon.
- We had the proper avalanche safety training and honed our route finding skills on previous adventures. Never head out into the backcountry without the proper knowledge or an experienced guide/friend/etc.
- We remained calmed when we lost the trail, backtracked, and chose the safest route out.
- We had forgotten to sign in at the trailhead register. This information would have proven invaluable to search and rescue teams should we have gotten in trouble.
- We didn’t research trail conditions thoroughly enough. When in doubt, ask a ranger.
- We didn’t bring the right gear. Gaiters would have helped keep our feet dry and the hike much more comfortable.
Every trip is a learning experience. Leave a comment and share your learning experiences.
Other Hikes in Lassen Volcanic National Park:
- The Butte Lake Area – Prospect Peak – 8 miles, moderate, Jakey Lake – 19 miles, strenuous
- Warner Valley – Mt. Harkness, Devils Kitchen, Terminal Geyser – 10 miles, moderate
- Summit Lake to Cinder Cone – 22.6-mile overnight, strenuous
- Manzanita Lake Area – hikes of various lengths and difficulties
- Brokeoff Mountain and Lassen Peak – 4 hikes in the Southern end, various difficulties
Visit our National Park Service Guide for more hikes in our national parks.