In the winter, Lassen National Forest transforms into a completely new playground. The vistas are snow-covered and the air, crisp. Cross-country skiing
is an enjoyable way to see the park at a very reasonable price.
My December weekend began at a cabin on Lake Almanor in Peninsula Village. Having no equipment of our own, my friend and I drove to Chester to rent X-country skis, poles and boots for a mere $16 per person. Our backpack was already filled with lunch and plenty of fluids; we were ready to hit the trail.
One can access Lassen National Park from Chico by taking Route 32 and turning left where it T’s at Route 36. From there, drive for about 18 miles to the southwest entrance of the park and turn right onto Route 89, which will bring you to the southwest campground after about a 30-minute scenic drive. Wintertime vehicular access stops at the campgrounds. The road continues, unplowed, on a gradual ascent through the park, laying the ground for an amazing ski trail. Vistas opened to the east on the zig-zag of the wide trail. Steadfast, we slid our skis upslope, remarking on the striking difference in air quality from that of the valley floor in Chico.
Our goal on cross-country skis was to reach Lake Helen, which is only a little more than six miles up the trail. It seemed like a short jaunt, but the uphill climb proved otherwise. We settled for Emerald Lake, about a half-mile sooner on the left. The first major stop of interest came only 30 minutes from the parking lot: The Sulphur Springs. On both sides of the trail, they gurgled with stinky vapor as we approached. A double-yellow line and gray pavement peeked out from the snow, where the sulphur had heated the ground. Darth-Vader breathing sounds welcomed us as we found the only narrow strip of snow left to accommodate us over the bridge. The rust-colored rocks emitted the smell of rotten eggs as they spit sulfur and water from their tiny caverns. Incidentally, we smelled this odor in many places along the trail, without seeing any obvious sulfur pits nearby.
Around the next bend was Windy Point, which offered the first wide view from the north across the east and back toward where we had parked our car. From here the trail offered two options (although, at the time, we were unaware of the cut-through trail). Skiers can continue on the road-trail or take the shortcut, which avoids the area around Diller Peak that is known for its risks of avalanche in mid-winter after sufficient snow accumulation. We took the long route, or the original trail that is open to the broad vistas. In December there was no danger, as the snow was very shallow and posed now real risk of a snow slide.
We passed over several switchbacks that tricked us into thinking Emerald Lake was closer than it really was. When we finally reached the lake, it was covered completely with snow. Its flat, level surface told us it had to be the lake. We ate lunch among the long shadows, studying the faint moon over the hemlocks. Once the chill of our sweat was working against us, we clipped ourselves back into our skis and headed back down the slope. What we thought would be a breeze, actually became quite a workout, different from the slow uphill climb. Balance, agility and knowing how to slow down were tested skills along our descent. Fortunately, this gradual slope is gentle enough for athletic beginners and a piece of cake for seasoned skiers.
For those who would like to enjoy this winter wonderland but don’t want to learn the ropes of X-country skiing first, snow-shoeing is a gentle, easy alternative. Bodfish’s Bicycles and Quiet Mountain Sports on Route 36 in Chester rents out this type of gear. Sledding down the hills near the Southwest Campground is also an option for groups with small children.
It was free to park and use the Southwest Campground access on Sunday, however there is a ranger’s booth at the entrance, which collects fees on other days. For more information, check out the park website at www.nps.gov/lavo or call the Loomis Ranger Station (weekends, winter only) at (530) 595-4444 ext. 5187.