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In Volcano Country
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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A Turbulent Past

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By Priit J. Vesilind Photographs by Jim Richardson

Sleeping volcanoes inspire eerie fables and New Age religions as well as fear of deadly lava spills.

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The first snow had fallen the week before I arrived. Cold had bleached the ferns that clustered around trout streams, but aspen leaves billowed sunny yellow in the valleys. This is not the classic basin-and-range California; it’s more a part of the Pacific Northwest.

Most of the summer folks had retreated from Chester, a lumber-mill town in a valley near Lassen Peak, southernmost of the Cascade volcanoes. A sign on the Pine Shack Frosty stand offered free ice cream to anyone ordering during a volcanic eruption.

“We’re not really in danger here,” said Jerry Young, the cheerfully gruff, retired sheriff sergeant of Plumas County, as I sat with him and his cronies one morning at Danny’s Kopper Kettle Cafe. “But since Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, it’s always in the back of our minds. Lassen blew on the other side in 1915, but the only effect the mountain has had on us is flooding. We get heavy snows up here.”

Before the California gold rush of the mid-1800s tens of thousands of Native Americans, in four tribes, lived around Lassen, subsisting on fish, game, roots, and acorn meal. In Yana oral history Mount Lassen was Waganupa, the center of the world, whose snows melted and created canyons, caves, and ridges. Some heroes and gods are said to have transformed themselves into the ancestors of men, bears, and other living things. But some local Indians believe that two of the supernatural beings still live, like Lemurians, deep inside the mountain.

Mexico still owned California when Peter Lassen, a Danish immigrant, arrived in the early 1840s. The peak bears his name, and in 1916 President Woodrow Wilson corralled nearly all the wonders of the area for Lassen Park, now more than 150 square miles (390 square kilometers). That was barely a year after the peak erupted.

On May 30, 1914, Lassen awoke with steam explosions that eventually blasted out a crater that is a thousand feet wide. When the eruption climaxed nearly a year later, rock fragments and pumice spiraled 30,000 feet (9,150 meters) high. A pyroclastic flow—an avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock, snow, and gas—thundered down Lost Creek, northwest of the summit, turning into a mudflow, flooding the valley, and destroying houses near the town of Old Station.

Michael Clynne and I drove the 30-mile-long (50-kilometer-long) park road just before it closed for the snow season. “There have been three major eruptions at Lassen in the past 1,100 years,” said Clynne. “The winter of 1915 was an El Niño year, with 30 feet (10 meters) of snow on the slopes. An avalanche took out trees on both sides; you can find car-size rocks that it carried down.”

Some of the features look as fresh as yesterday. Rising 700 feet (200 meters) from its base, a cone of cinder sits symmetrical as sand in an hourglass on the park’s northeast edge. It formed when lava shattered in midair, settling in fragments. Dunes of ash, tinted yellow and red from minerals, drift from the cone, a Martian landscape colonized by a few stunted pines.

It’s a much abused country. Forest fires, fortified by too much brush and tinder, often sear the land on top; fire and brimstone rise like demons from below.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Why do some people settle down in dangerous areas? And what do they do when disaster strikes? Tell us your stories.

Nature’s engineering and engineering nature—intriguing choices for desktop wallpaper.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

When Glass Mountain formed 900 years ago, it must have made quite an impact on the local populations. New analysis of Glass Mountain’s obsidian sheds light on the importance of the mountain as a resource for Native Americans of the Medicine Lake highlands. The obsidian’s high quality makes it an ideal material for shaping tools, but University of California, Berkeley, graduate student Carolyn Dillian has found that local peoples didn’t rely on the mountain’s obsidian as a source for tools such as arrowheads, knives, and spear points.

Using X-ray fluorescence to determine the geologic source of obsidian artifacts, Dillian has shown that less than five percent of obsidian found at local sites came from Glass Mountain. Other sources in the Medicine Lake highlands located within two miles of Glass Mountain make up most of the other 95 percent of obsidian artifacts. Dillian explains: “What was being made at Glass Mountain were large bifaces of the kind known from sites along the northern California coast as ceremonial and wealth objects. Bifaces were traded for other valuables, wives, and payment of fines, and they were displayed during the White Deerskin Dance, an important ceremony performed by Native Americans of the Northwest California Coast. My work suggests that Glass Mountain was reserved for the production of these ‘special’ objects and purposefully neglected for utilitarian objects.”

On a broader scale, this suggests that prehistoric peoples assigned a special importance to their raw material sources above and beyond their role as places where stone objects were made, giving archaeologists additional insight into the culture and belief systems of prehistoric societies.

—Michelle R. Harris

Lassen National Volcanic Park
This National Park Service site contains photographs, maps, travel basics, and information about the park’s geology.

Lava Beds National Monument
This National Park Service site will answer all your questions about visiting the monument and provide information and links on Modoc history and cultural resources for the region.

Mount Lassen
The USGS site for Mount Lassen. See photographs, learn about the national park, and find out more about the 1914-17 eruption.

Mount Shasta
The USGS site for everything geologic about Mount Shasta. Learn how the mountain has shaped the region for 600,000 years.

Mount Shasta Snowcam
Take a look at the current conditions on the summit of Mount Shasta at this site.

Medicine Lake
The USGS site for information on the volcanic history and geologic facts of the Medicine Lake volcano and highlands.

Tule Lake Internment Center
Rich in photographs, this site tells the history of the Tule Lake Relocation Center for Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges
This U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site links you to any of the six national wildlife refuges in the region. You can link to the bird identification center to find photographs and information, read about recent sightings, and find out more about the history of the refuges.

Geologic Dictionary
Need to know the definition of a tricky geologic term? Check out this USGS site for definitions of everything from accretion (a process that adds part of one tectonic plate to a larger plate along a convergent plate boundary) to vein (a mineral-filled fracture or fault in a rock).


Clynne, Michael A. and others. “How Old is ‘Cinder Cone’?—Solving a Mystery in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California,” USGS Fact Sheet 023-00, U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service, 2000. Also available online at

English, Jane, and Jenny Cole, eds. Mount Shasta: Where Heaven and Earth Meet. Ram Offset, 1996.

Harris, Stephen L. Fire Mountains of the West: The Cascade and Mono Lake Volcanoes. Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1988.

Kane, Phillip S. Through Vulcan’s Eye: The Geology and Geomorphology of Lassen Volcanic National Park. Published in cooperation with the National Park Service, 1998.

Miller, Joaquin. Life Amongst the Modocs: Unwritten History. Heyday Books, 1996.

Muir, John. “Modoc Memories,” Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco), December 28, 1874. Also available online at

Renfro, Elizabeth. The Shasta Indians of California and their Neighbors. Naturegraph Publishers, 1992.

Schulz, Paul. Indians of Lassen: Volcanic National Park and Vicinity. Loomis Museum Association, 1988.

Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8: California. Smithsonian Institution, 1978.

Zanger, Michael. Mt. Shasta: History, Legend, and Lore. Celestial Arts, 1992.


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Webster, Donovan. “Inside the Volcano,” National Geographic (November 2000), 50-65.

Williams, A. R. “Popocatépetl: Mexico’s Smoking Mountain,” National Geographic (January 1999), 116-137.

Williams, A. R. “Montserrat: Under the Volcano,” National Geographic (July 1997), 58-75.

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