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The Park Less Traveled Isolation: Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California has much to offer the few tourists who visit there.

You have risen early, but not all that early, and hiked a couple of not-too-demanding miles. Now you stand in Devil's Kitchen at Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. It's an early-morning landscape of dewy meadows, jumbled rocks and towering, moss-draped pines. All around you, great clouds of steam hiss from the earth, and each time the wind shifts or the sun slips behind a cloud, the scene is recomposed and relighted, and the stink of sulfur deepens or fades.

But the eeriest aspect of the scene is this: In a national park, on a relatively popular path, after the closure of most schools for summer vacation, you are alone.

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The 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, among the southernmost mountains of the Cascade Range, rises four miles to the northwest. A marmot skitters through the brush, and deer cannot be far away. The nearest hiker is a mile behind you, and she's your wife, temporarily horse-crazy and hurrying down the trail in hopes of catching the 10 a.m. ride at the nearby Drakesbad Guest Ranch.

This is business as usual in Lassen. Here in the national park that rangers call "the one and lonely," there are forests, snowcapped mountains, some of the most dramatic geothermal activity west of Yellowstone National Park, a much-admired fly-fishing lake, an old-fashioned guest ranch and, on an average summer day, fewer than 4,000 visitors scattered over about 150 square miles. For every visitor who finds his or her way into this park, more than 10 enter Yosemite National Park, a few hours to the south. Aside from August, which Lassen Park spokesman Scott Isaacson calls "extremely busy," Lassen is slow and lonely.

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This has a lot to do with weather and location. Buried under deep snows through the winter, the park's only paved road, the winding 30-mile-long Lassen Peak Highway, is targeted for opening on Memorial Day each year, but unpredictable weather frequently upsets those plans. The road usually closes by mid-October.

To reach the park, most visitors from outside Northern California either drive five hours north from San Francisco or fly in a commuter-size plane to Redding, then drive 50 miles east, as Mary Frances and I did recently.

Places to stay

Our first base of operations was Mineral, a wide spot in the road with a population of 90, a handful of lodges and a location eight miles outside the park's southwest entrance. We stayed at the passable Lassen Mineral Lodge for two nights (though next time we might try the nearby but off-the-highway Mill Creek Resort), then moved on to idyllic but pricey Drakesbad Guest Ranch for two more nights.

The southwest corner of the park, where we began, includes two of Lassen's most popular hikes.

One is the trek into the steaming puddles and strewn rocks of Bumpass Hell. Even if you don't make the hike -- and we didn't, because we heard that deep snowdrifts on the path had not yet melted away by late June, when we were there -- the trail-head parking lot offers one of the park's most scenic panoramas: a boulder in the foreground, an infinity of pointed pines covering the valley, plumes of steam above the roadside Sulphur Works area and other geothermally active pockets, the stark slopes of Lassen above.

The other popular hike, the Mill Creek Falls trail, begins just inside the park's southeastern boundary, and we set out upon it on our first morning in the park. Starting at the parking lot of the Lassen Chalet (where a concessionaire offers meals, souvenirs and bathrooms), we meandered 2.3 miles across ridges and canyons until we reached an overlook above the falls. After pushing on 50 more yards, we finished our sack lunches and lazed awhile in the sun by the rocks above the falls. And we counted hikers. In our first 90 minutes on the trail, we tallied 13 other human beings.

In broader numerical measures, Lassen has been among California's least visited national parks for years. In 1989, the Park Service counted 466,115 visitors to the place, a 6 percent decrease from the year before. Last year, when the summer season was shortened by late storms, rangers counted only 351,890 visitors.

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The landscape is the reason to venture into a national park. In a series of eruptions in 1914 and 1915, Lassen Peak sent up pre-atomic mushroom clouds that rose 7 miles into the stratosphere. While thick vegetation survived all around, flows of lava and mud scoured many areas beneath Lassen Peak to an otherworldly bareness -- hence such site names as Chaos Crags and Devastated Area.

Until the trouble at Mount St. Helens in Washington state came along in 1980, Lassen's was the most recent volcanic eruption in the continental United States.

National park since 1916

In 1916, federal officials designated the area a national park. And volcanic aftermath continues. As recently as 1974, geological surveys warned of the potential for further volcanic side effects.

From Lassen's southwest corner, the park's main road winds and climbs northward, rising to 8,000 feet, passing Emerald and Helen lakes, circling the base of Lassen Peak and continuing past the Devastated Area, a stark, growth-free slope created by the lava and mud-flows of Lassen's 1915 eruption. At the park's northwestern corner, the road reaches Manzanita Lake, a small and unusually placid bit of water that has become a favorite of fly fishermen.

On our third day, we repositioned, and the park seemed to change shape.

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Reloading the car, we drove from Mineral to the only lodging within the park.

Drakesbad Guest Ranch has been in operation for more than 90 years, and stepping onto the property is something like tearing a century from your calendar. There are 19 rooms to rent, some of them upstairs in the main lodge, others free-standing cabins or duplexes on a long meadow. The pool is heated to hot-tub temperatures each night by hot spring water, and bathers step from the 45-degree night air into the water's warmth while stars hang above, deer graze a few yards away in the meadow and steam clouds drift above the water.

Drakesbad has a transformative power: It makes a national park feel like a private playground.

Settled in the 19th century by a man named Drake (Drakesbad refers to Drake's bath in German), it was taken over in 1900 by the Sifford family, who, in those early years, charged guests $2 daily. In 1958, heir Roy D. Sifford sold the property to the National Park Service, though he used the ranch regularly until his death in 1991.

Comfortable place

The lodge's common area is dominated by a potbellied stove and an old stone fireplace, and cluttered with puzzles, old National Geographic magazines, children's games, reading -Z chairs, half a dozen propane lamps dangling from the wood-beamed ceiling, a telescope and the ranch's lone telephone. All meals are announced with the ringing of a bell, but whenever you like, you can grab a snack in the lodge, or a beer or soft drink from the ice buckets on the porch. Just remember to sign the honor-system clipboard.

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There are a dozen horses in the stable, and three guided rides go out daily. We saddled up and joined a ride past Boiling Springs Lake to perpetually blowing Terminal Geyser.

Meals aren't fussy, but the food is a definite cut above campfire grub. One typical night, there was black-bean soup and almond-crusted pork loin with roasted potatoes and tiramisu for dessert.

It was on our last night around the fire, after a day of hiking and riding and floating around in the geothermally heated pool, that a veteran Drakesbad guest, offered me a sort of initiation.

"Now," he said, "you only need to remember the golden rule: You can't tell anybody else about this place. Just say you went to a great place and forgot where it was. Or just say it's about 80 miles north of Mono Lake and leave it at that."

I nodded and laughed. But behind my back, I had my fingers crossed.

If you go...

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Getting there: Lassen Volcanic National Park lies east of Redding and north of Chico in Northern California. The nearest airport is Redding, and travelers can get there by flying to San Francisco, then connecting via United Express. For drivers, Lassen Volcanic National Park's southwest entrance is 230 miles northeast of San Francisco, 135 miles northwest of Reno and 74 miles southeast of Redding. The park is about 180 miles north of Sacramento. The park's northwest entrance is 45 miles east of Redding.

Where to stay: The only lodging inside the park is Drakesbad Guest Ranch (Warner Valley Road, 17 miles northwest of Chester via mostly dirt road), open this year until Oct. 13. To call when it is open, dial the AT&T; long-distance operator and ask for Drakesbad toll station No. 2 through Susanville; to call during other months or ask for brochures, dial (916) 529-1512. Rates: $92.50-$105 per adult per day, double occupancy; $59 a day for children 2-11; meals included. Horseback riding extra.

The Bidwell House, 1 Main St., Chester (916) 258-3338, is a B&B; in a restored home built in 1901. Double rooms: $65-$153 nightly.

Mill Creek Resort, 1 Highway 172, Mill Creek; (916) 595-4449, tucked into the forest a few miles off California 36. Cabins for two: $40-$60.

Lassen Mineral Lodge, P.O. Box 160, Mineral; (916) 595-4422. Rooms for two: $55-$70.

For more information: Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mineral, Calif. 96063; (916) 595-4444. Also, the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, 14250 Holiday Road, Redding, Calif. 96003; (800) 474-2782.

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Pub Date: 9/01/96



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