Camping Guide:Lassen Volcanic National Park

a snow covered mountain rises above the forest, reflected in a lake

A towering mountain, often covered in snow yet full of explosive lava, gazes over endless forests and alpine lakes. Bear and fox, martens and woodpeckers, wildlife galore fill the spaces between the trees and even frequent the campgrounds in and around the national park. Blue skies frequent above it all and the entire masterpiece reflects in Manzanita Lake, near the primary place people tend to call home for the night when visiting the park.

Lassen could be described as the stereotypical national park, and in no diminutive a way. It’s everything we expect from a natural area, something taken right out of a National Geographic special on North America. Rugged mountains that spring skyward like triangles dropped from the heavens, deer peeking their antlers around the thick trunks of tall, dense forests, and eagles soaring above the water, searching for fish to call their next meal.

The park is largely secluded, given the easily 30 minute drive from the main campground to nearby conveniences like tiny grocery and liquor stores, and even when the campgrounds seem full, driving and hiking through Lassen is largely a lonely affair. Expect to see more Stellars jays than fellow humans, and if you choose to keep you and yours quiet, little beyond the wind rustling through the trees stands between you and absolutely silence.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is also a dangerous place, an active volcano, with active flows of boiling mud. A video in the visitors center shows a scientist giving a tour, warning his patrons to be careful, that the area is fragile, when suddenly his own leg cracks through the thin surface and plunges into flowing liquid rock. This real and immediate danger can be avoided, of course, but it is also what makes this, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Mountains, such an amazing sight to behold.

RV Camping in Lassen Volcanic National Park

Campgrounds in the park tend to open in early June and remain so through October, though snowfall and how quickly it melts largely affects these timeframes and, should you be on the fringes of summer or fall, you should call ahead to make sure the park is open.

The campground at Manzanita Lake (GPS: 40.531, -121.561), directly within the national park and immediately surrounded by a visitors center, museum, the lake of the same name and more, is the most popular place to camp with an RV. It places you close enough to enjoy plenty of things by foot, and sets you up for immediate success for driving deeper into Lassen. This campground offers showers, flush toilets, a general store and laundry facilities, and while it hosts 179 sites, they are somewhat well separated, so you don’t feel like you’re right on top of your neighbor. Bear boxes are provided as black bears do frequent the entire park, especially these areas where humans tend to leave behind their waste. One camper’s trash is a black bear’s treasure, after all. Camping here, all of which is dry camping, costs $26, and both the showers and laundry are coin operated.

Elsewhere in the park, your options begin to vary, both as to how easy it is to get there and how essentially alone you’ll be after you setup camp.

Butte Lake Campground (GPS: 40.5645, -121.3035) is situated about 6 miles up a dirt road, rocky at times but nothing you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to traverse. In some of the sites, you can connect directly to a water spigot, but if you choose a dry camping spot, you can fill up your tank throughout the park. Whether you are in a spot where water is immediately available determines if the price will be $15 or $22 per night. Camping here puts you practically in the shadow of Cinder Cone, one of the two main attractions which earned this area its national park status in the first place.

Summit Lake Campground (GPS: 40.4942, -121.4245) is smaller than Manzanita, but easier to reach than Butte Lake, and more centrally located than any other campground in the park. Day use visitors to Lassen flock to Summit Lake to fish and swim, but in general the area tends to be quiet, the majority of campers staying in the better equipped Manzanita Lake.

All of these national park campgrounds have a picnic table and fire ring (assuming fire restrictions haven’t been put in place) and you can buy wood at Manzanita Campground’s general store.

Still more camping exists immediately within the park at Warner Valley (GPS: 40.442, -121.394), where high clearance vehicles like our Revel Class B RV are required, and the Southwest Walk-In area (GPS: 40.4361, -121.5325). Warner Valley is located near the park’s Drakesbad Guest Ranch, a lodge where, in addition to renting out rooms, one can get dinner and a massage, go horseback riding, or swim in their thermal pool. The Southwest Walk-In area is really intended for tents, but parking is nearly adjacent to your spot and works for small RVs, such as the Class B RV rentals we offer here at Trail Mix. Overnights are also allowed to camp at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center parking area, for $10, if all other options have been exhausted (or it’s wintertime, when the majority of the park is closed to vehicles.)

Aside from bears and the occasional rough road leading to two of the campgrounds, it should be noted that there is little to no cell service throughout the park, and even in the popular Manzanita Lake Campground, service is spotty and practically unusable if the rest of the campground is trying to use their phones at the same time. Otherwise, camping immediately within the park cuts down the time you spend driving in and out, and waiting in line at the entrance stations, making it easily worth a few days of leaving your phone in a drawer and just watching nature’s splendid figure.

More RV Camping Near Lassen Volcanic National Park

The handful of places to camp within Lassen are beautiful, mostly accept reservations, and don’t tend to fill up completely except during busy summer weekends. That said, should you find yourself interested in camping just outside of the park, the options are abundant.

Hat Creek Resort & RV Park (GPS: 40.6513, -121.46) is the closest private campground to the park’s northern entrance at just under 15 minutes, but the crowd favorite is half an hour from the entrance, at Rancheria RV Park (GPS: 40.7403, -121.4695) where you’ll be greeted with just about every activity you might want from a campground, from fishing to a cable TV hookup, full hookups to a laundromat, restrooms, hot showers, a general store and more.

If you couldn’t get into the park but still want that “out in the woods” feeling, sites in the surrounding Lassen National Forest don’t tend to disappoint. Hat Creek Campground (GPS: 40.668, -121.447) is situated on a rushing flow of trout-filled water, and within walking distance to a lava tube. You’ll have a better chance at picking up some cell phone service at this campground than you will in the national park as well.

A little further out, but still within 30 minutes to Lassen proper, free camping exists at Mud Lake Trailhead (GPS: 40.7035, -121.4023), essentially a dirt parking lot with an outhouse in the middle. You can hike to a nearby overlook, the Pacific Crest Trail runs nearby, and a few picnic tables are scattered about, loosely marking the “sites” here. Cell service exists here as well.

Getting further away from the entrance stations to Lassen, Butte Creek Campground (GPS: 40.611, -121.297) and Cave Campground (GPS: 40.6849, -121.4231) are bare bones, but beautiful, spots. Butte Creek is free, Cave Campground will run you $16 per night.

Any of these options, especially the national forest, will tend not to disappoint, but if you’ve driven all the way from San Francisco to see Lassen Volcanic, your best bet–short of needing cell reception–will always be the national park.