A Smelly Hike? Welcome to Bumpass Hell
This is the weirdest hike we've been on... to one of the weirdest places I've been. Bumpass Hell is perhaps one of the most popular spots in Lassen National Park, and while that would typically deter our interest, we just couldn't help it. I have wanted to see this place since we first looked into visiting Lassen several years ago. It was exciting to finally be heading to the park, to visit Bumpass and so many other cool places in this volcanic area.
This short hike takes you through some beautiful terrain, with some amazing views. It ends at a smelly, smoldering, boiling, steaming, colorful, weird land. California was a very snowy place this past winter, and some of that snow was still sticking to the trails when we visited in August and that made this area that is typically so crowded a little less so.
This trail starts off from the Bumpass Hell parking lot, and being one of the more popular places in the park, it's very easy to find. It's a large parking lot, too, so it has a lot of spaces and even has restrooms and a nice overlook area. We've heard that the parking lot tends to fill up on weekends, but on our Sunday visit in late mid-August, it was not even half full.
The trail starts off with only moderate incline. It slowly leads along the edge of a very steep drop-off into a rocky, grassy canyon below. The views are sweeping, so be sure to pause and look around. After a short distance, a short spur will appear on the right side of the trail. This spur leads to some stunning panoramic views or the nearby peaks and remnants from volcanic activity. A signpost will tells the story of the activity in the areas nearby, and it's a worthy stop to read and just enjoy looking around.
From there, head back to the trail and continue along this well marked pathway. This trail stays pretty rocky throughout the duration of the hike. There is not much shade along the way. It begins at around 8,000 feet elevation, so be sure to put the sunscreen and hats to use. The trail eventually seems to crest a bit, and the smell of the final destination might already be tingling your nose.
At this point, there is an 100 foot elevation drop, as the trail leads down to the active area that can be smelled long before it can be seen. At this point, we encountered several snowy patches along the trail with some steep drops - hiking boots are highly recommended for this trail. It is mostly rocky, and we had some snow and mud, and with some steep drop-offs, so it is smart to have good traction. We could see small peeks of the colorful earth ahead through the forest, as we got closer, but honestly, the smell is the first thing we noticed. We knew we were getting close, when it started smelling like rotten eggs (sulphur).
Then we came through the trees, and there it was. So much color and activity. The bright blue sky mixed with the bright green trees, and the aquamarine water flowing nearby and unusual multi-colored soils, stained orange, yellow and green by minerals, and white snow patches scattered around. It's just a crazy spectacle that seems hard to believe is naturally occurring.
The boardwalk allows exploration up close to many of the bubbling mud pots and bright blue puddles. It gets totally close enough to the fumaroles (steam vents) to let that hot, stinky steam burn your nose. While it's always the best choice to stay on the trail, at this place, it's extremely important. The "crust" of the ground in these hydrothermal areas is often thin and unstable. Stay on the trail, stay on the boardwalk, and don't throw things at the ground. Respect these amazing places, and keep yourself safe.
The area got it's name (supposedly) after a miner discovered the area and stepped on the crust and went right through it. His name was Kendall Bumpass, and he later referred to the place as "hell". He had such bad burns on his leg that it was eventually amputated. The boiling acidic liquids here are not meant to be touched, that is for sure.
The Big Boiler is the hottest fumarole (in a non-erupting volcano) in the world, with steam temps measured up to 322º, and is one of the main features viewed from the boardwalk. There are several signposts that tell the story of the area and why all of this activity is occurring.
Bumpass Hell is such a strange symphony of steam and bubbles and belching. The smell joins with the sound and it becomes such a unique experience. Consider the volcanic activity gurgling all around, and the massive mountains and rockfalls, and this place becomes such an intriguing place on earth.
The hike itself is only about 1.5 miles to the boardwalk, so about 3 miles round trip. Return to the parking area by the same route. It's a fairly easy hike, even when there was some snow on the path. Definitely a recommended stop in Lassen NP, and hopefully you can see and smell this gorgeous spectacle firsthand!