Singing into a Volcanic Crater

“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” I found myself singing into a volcanic crater in the high reaches of California. “…What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming…” What was it about this volcano that spurred on my patriotism and brought forth the anthem? I was in Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California. This active volcanic area is asleep, but it was only about a hundred years ago it experienced hundreds of volcanic eruptions in a three year span. In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt, noting the exceptional beauty of the area, designated it as two National Monuments: Lassen Peak National Monument and Cinder Cone National Monument. Nine years later in 1916 these monuments were established as one National Park. 

Lassen Volcanic is quite a wonder. Although “asleep,” it’s clearly alive. In the park museum I learned that early pioneers and homesteaders making their way across California noted the “fire in the sky” from the volcanos. Although this fire in the sky hasn’t been seen for a hundred years, there are still areas of the park with thermal springs and fumaroles boiling up from the earth’s fiery depths, reminding the visitor that beneath the earth’s thin crust much is in motion. Here all four types of volcanoes are present: cinder cone, composite, shield, and plug dome. The park features the world’s largest plug dome volcano: Lassen Peak and the last volcano in the Cascades mountain range. Although now monitored for seismic activity, Lassen Peak  will not be asleep forever and will erupt again, they say. It’s all in a matter of time. Comforting. 

I was very much looking forward to visiting this park. The pictures I had seen of it were just beautiful with pine forests, picturesque lakes, towering volcanic peaks, rich blue skies. It was even more beautiful than photographs could depict. It is certainly one of the underrated National Parks in my opinion. It is quite astounding and unique and doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s just so scenic, straight from magazines, and its volcanic landscape is so young and fascinating. 

When I first arrived, I visited the Loomis Museum which also doubled as a visitor center. It was constructed in 1927 by Benjamin Franklin Loomis who was a homesteader and photographer  instrumental in incorporating the area into a National Park. His museum displayed his photographs of the 1915 eruption, and he eventually donated the museum to the National Park Service. Here I soaked up some history and geology and to my dismay learned that the majority of the park was closed due to impassible snow. I was quite disappointed initially. I particularly wanted to see Bumpass Hell, the section of the park with the fumaroles and thermal springs, a mini Yellowstone-like area. Despite this closure, I’d still find plenty to explore and enjoy. I started off with a stroll along Reflection Lake, which was beside the museum. It was so tranquil. The ground was carpeted in large golden pine needles, beneath aromatic pines, and I beheld some pinecones as large as my head. This park reminded me in some aspects of Great Basin National Park in that it was this hidden little wonderland up in the mountains. 

I decided I’d spend the afternoon and evening going for a hike. One of the most popular hikes of the park was still accessible. That was the trail to Cinder Cone. The trail started into the sparse forest, proceeded to black sand, and spiraled up the cone to the crater atop. I trudged. It was quite challenging. Going uphill in sand took extra effort and strain on the leg muscles. I naturally tried to push myself up with each step but ended up partially digging my feet into the sand. My rate of progress was not adequate for the effort I was exerting, but this was the only way. This cone I was ascending was completely barren and I was so curious as to see what the crater way up there would look like. 

The air was hot, dry and thin, and there was a calm stillness to it. I was out here alone. At least I thought so, until a man started coming down the trail as I rounded a turn. I asked him something like “Is it worth it?” or “Am I almost there?” and then we got to talking. I told him I was from Kentucky. He told me he was from a city in California.

The question of “What brings you all the way out here from Kentucky?” led to me explaining how I was a teacher on a National Park road trip, and then we went right into talking about teaching. I came to find out he was also a teacher, a 5th grade math teacher. 

“You’re a Spanish teacher? In elementary school?” he questioned in surprise. “We don’t even have Spanish in elementary school here in California.”

 I wanted so badly to say: “Well, we’re just a bit more progressive in Kentucky,” but I bit my tongue. I thought it was a funny statement, but wasn’t sure if he would find it so. “Progressivism” is a hijacked political term, but California as a whole prides itself on being “progressive.” Kentucky isn’t often regarded as cutting edge, but in education, and particularly in the district in which I teach, I’d say it is- in a more classical sense of the term. Secretly, inside, I was proud Kentucky one-upped California in this regard.

When I got to the top of the volcano, a large crater was on display, uniform in appearance, of dark brown sand; and at the rim were fragments of red rock, so bright they almost looked bloody. I trailed a worn path padded into the malleable terrain around the rim of the crater. I was in awe of its size and magnitude. I found myself standing there at the rim singing the National Anthem into the crater. Maybe it was a ripple from the patriotism I felt at Roosevelt Arch in Yellowstone; maybe it was because I felt like I had really achieved something by climbing up to the top of this crater, like America has achieved so much in its young life through so much toil and effort; or maybe it was just simple appreciation for the marvelous natural wonders of my nation. Maybe it was the line “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” conjuring up images of a volcano erupting. I was sincere, but I also laughed at myself afterward. Who sings the National Anthem into a crater? Well, I do. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time out in the wild alone. Perhaps I’ve lost it. If I’ve lost it, I quite enjoy it. It’s not everyday I get to sing the National Anthem into a volcanic crater. 

On the opposite side of the crater from where I arrived at the time, I could look out and see the marvelous lava beds stretching across the landscape. Apparently marvelous is not the formal word for the lava beds. The official name is the “Fantastic Lava Beds”. And they certainly were fantastic! Unlike Craters of the Moon, where the entire landscape seems to be some volcanic wonderland, here, from up on the crater looking down, one can certainly see precisely where lava had once flowed alongside the forest, for the forest grove is still complete by the beds. Petrified waves of lava sprawled across the land, dark and ominous, and eventually spilled into a rich blue lake nestled at the foot of another volcano laden with snow. Aside this lava bed, and closer to the volcano I was upon, were pumice fields. These “fields” were very bumpy and rolled like waves frozen in time. On the tops of some of these mounds were spots of red, orange, and pink rock appearing almost like welts or blisters on the earth’s skin- a certainly unique natural wonder to behold. 

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Lost it? Not yet, but soon I was about to become genuinely lost as a mountain trail would disappear on me. 

Read the previous entry “Bruneau Dunes and the Kangaroo Rats” here: Bruneau Dunes and the Kangaroo Rats – on the verge (

Check out my book Canyonlands: my adventures in the national parks and the beautiful wild here:

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