Cinder Cone in Lassen Volcanic National Park
● By Laura Christman
Walking on the Moon
Story and Photos by Laura Christman
THERE'S NO MISTAKING Cinder Cone’s identity. Its looks are classic volcano.
Rising 750 feet above the flatlands in the northeast corner of Lassen Volcanic National Park, Cinder Cone is part of a volcanic area with raw beauty and a jumbled history.
“It has a different feel from the rest of the park,” says Lassen Park guide Shanda Ochs. “It’s more of a moonscape, more of a desolate area.”
Cinder Cone formed some 350 years ago, so it’s a geological youngster.
“I like to tell people it is the youngest volcano in Lassen, and the youngest cinder cone and volcano in California,” Ochs says.
Other volcanoes have erupted more recently, but they’ve been around much longer. Composite volcanoes, such as Mt. Shasta, have eruptive periods mixed with long stretches of dormancy.
Cinder cones form during a single eruptive phase. Lava blobs blasted from a vent break into fragments and fall around the vent, forming a cone. When a cinder cone is finished launching lava into the sky, it becomes a peaceful lump in the landscape.
“Cinder cones, otherwise known as tephra cones, are the most common types of volcanoes in the world, and also the smallest,” Ochs notes.
For more than a century, there was confusion about the age of Cinder Cone at Lassen Park. The U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet on the volcano says amateur scientist H.W. Harkness estimated Cinder Cone to be only 25 years old in an 1875 report compiled after he visited the area. His estimate seemed to be backed up by tales of volcanic activity in Northern California in the mid-1800s. The fact sheet notes an 1850 San Francisco newspaper story about someone witnessing “burning lava” running down the sides of a mountain. And in 1851, two prospectors reported seeing fire spewing from the top of a volcano and walking on rocks so hot their boots were destroyed.
Joseph Diller, the first geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey to study Cinder Cone, concluded in 1891 that Cinder Cone was a much older volcano – emerging between 1675 and 1700. But in the 1930s, volcanologist R.H. Finch revived the 1851 eruption idea, saying it was the last of five lava flows, with the first in 1567.
That’s where the story stood until Mt. St. Helens shook things up. The Washington volcano’s explosive eruption in May 1980 prompted the Geological Survey to reevaluate Cascade volcanoes. Scientists looked anew at Cinder Cone studies and used chemical analysis, paleomagnetic evidence and carbon-14 dating of eruption-killed trees to conclude Cinder Cone resulted from an eruptive sequence – likely lasting only a few months – in the mid-1600s.
The area has pioneer history tied to Nobles Emigrant Trail. Today’s trail to Cinder Cone follows the historic trail used in the 1800s. Cinder Cone was a conspicuous landmark along the way for those headed to California’s gold fields. The Fantastic Lava Beds, piles of big blocky lava, and the Painted Dunes, resulting from oxidized ash on lava flows, are other highlights. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the area’s special geologic character by proclaiming it Cinder Cone National Monument.
Lassen Peak stole a bit of Cinder Cone’s thunder when it awoke from a 27,000-year sleep in May 1914. A year of small blasts was followed by the big eruption on May 22, 1915. Lassen in action drew worldwide attention and resulted in the designation of Lassen Volcanic National Park in 1916.
Though not as well-known as Lassen Peak, Cinder Cone is a worthy destination. Hiking to the top offers a sense of accomplishment and great views. It’s a four-mile round trip from Butte Lake. The first section of trail gains slight elevation and stays shady. After just over a mile, the trail leaves the forest and Cinder Cone looms ahead like an enormous anthill.
“There’s a 750-foot gain in a half mile, and it is not an easy trail because it is loose cinder,” Ochs says.
The cinders – scorias – are lightweight and look bubbly. They make for a slow slog to the summit at 6,907 feet in elevation. The trail circling the rim provides views of Lassen Peak, Fantastic Lava Beds, Painted Dunes, Butte Lake, Snag Lake and Prospect Peak. A short trail leads into the bowl-shaped crater.
Be prepared for sun, wind and the possibility of thunderstorms, Ochs says. “It’s actually better to go in the morning before the sun gets too hot out there.”
And be sure to grab one of the guides at the trailhead with details about the history and geology along the way. •
Directions: The turnoff to Butte Lake and Cinder Cone trailhead is 73 miles east of Redding off Highway 44. A six-mile gravel road leads to the parking area.
Lassen Volcanic National Park: www.nps.gov/lavo