This Lesser-known California National Park Is a Perfect Alternative to Yellowstone — With Fewer Crowds, Stunning Lakes, and Volcanoes

Lassen Volcanic National Park, about a four-hour drive north of San Francisco, feels like a secret getaway.

<p>kitz-travellers/Getty Images</p>

kitz-travellers/Getty Images

Every year, 3.3 million people clamor to experience the natural magic of Yellowstone National Park, bubbling with geothermal beauty, including half of the active geysers in the world. As the nation’s first National Park Service (NPS) site, the iconic landmark located in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana might get the most attention, but another much quieter park offers similar volcanic activity, minus the crowds.

Located about a four-hour drive northeast of San Francisco, Lassen Volcanic National Park in Mineral, California, also bubbles with hydrothermal activity, creating “boiling mud pots, steaming ground, roaring fumaroles, [and] sulfurous gasses,” the park explains on its brochure.

While Yellowstone may have six volcano types, this 100,000-acre park has four — shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome — including one of the world’s largest plug dome, Lassen Peak, which last exploded between 1914 and 1921. In fact, it was a businessman photographing that activity that helped the area gain more attention, eventually establishing it as a national park.

With seven hydrothermal areas in the park, one of the best — and easiest — spots to take in the activity is at Sulphur Works, which the NPS describes on its site as “an otherworldly place of vibrant colors, pungent scents, and shifting ground that is both ancient and new.” Just two miles up the Lassen Volcanic National Park Highway from the southwest entrance — the area is accessible via a paved sidewalk.

The largest area, Bumpass Hell, is reachable by a three-mile trail in the summer and fall months, usually from June through October. Starting from a parking lot seven miles from the southwest entrance, the boardwalk portion of the path allows visitors to get a close-up view of the 16-acre basin’s hydrothermal activity.

While Lassen may not have anything quite like Old Faithful, there is the Terminal Geyser, slightly misnamed since it’s not a true geyser, but a steam vent in the middle of a creek, which the park says “provides a spectacular show.”

Also unique to the park is Cold Boiling Lake, where cool-water bubbles fizz up, similar to sparkling water. Technically “dying” it bubbles near the shore as part of its end-of-life process.

While Lassen may not have a marquee name, the California gem has been a national park for over a century. It was first established in 1916, making it the 15th out of the 426 NPS sites, cementing it as a quietly underrated superstar of the system. With 446,291 annual visitors during its last official count in 2022 (2023’s numbers have yet to be released), it’s just the 124th most visited.

“You can come out here and hike in the wilderness areas of the park and not see a soul, depending on time of year,” the park’s supervisory park ranger Carlo Arreglo told USA Today. “We have volcanic features and hydrothermal features that you might find in, say, Yellowstone, but without all the crowds of Yellowstone.”

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