VOLCANIC LEGACY SCENIC BYWAY, Ore. — Quartzite mountains. Pumice plains. Cinder cones. Volcanoes are the geology that shaped the Pacific Northwest — and there’s an easy way to view them on an incredible, scenic road trip.

This 500-mile Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, which stretches from Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon to Lassen Volcanic National Park in Northern California some 220 miles to the south, takes one back in time for a living geology lesson.

We drove the route in mid-August, and because much of the route is 4,000 to 8,500 feet in elevation, we had temps in the mid-70s. Including a day at Crater Lake, our trip to and from Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascades, took six days. We barely skimmed the surface of the route’s marvels.

From Seattle, we drove 500 miles to Klamath Falls, Oregon, an ideal staging area to begin the trip.  

Before going, we ordered an official Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway Guide for $10, a 162-page primer on the must-see attractions along the way. Worth noting: The book is written starting in California; anyone coming from the north has to start at the end and read backward.


Although the byway officially begins at Crater Lake, we first stopped at the Newberry National Volcanic Monument 11 miles south of Bend, next to the 500-foot Lava Butte to the right of Oregon Highway 97. You can’t miss this huge brown basalt cone. The Lava Lands Visitor Center to the south offers shuttle rides to the top for a $3 round-trip. Drop by the center to get a feel for the geologic history of the region and relax on the shaded patio.

We then drove a few miles south to the turnoff for the Newberry Caldera, then drove 13 miles to Paulina Lake, which, along with East Lake (5 miles farther), are great for swimming. They were formed about 75,000 years ago.

The next day, we drove 54 miles from Klamath Falls to the south entrance to Crater Lake. As you drive on the flats toward the park, you can see a huge gap on the nearby Dutton Ridge that 7,700 years ago would have included the 12,000-foot Mount Mazama. Its eruption created what is now Crater Lake.

Crater Lake National Park was its usual stunning self when we visited. So — unfortunately — were the crowds.

The park lacks enough food concessions, so the Rim Village Café was packed. We quickly left to drive the 33 miles around the rim to view the country’s deepest lake at 1,943 feet. The park’s main visitor center was closed this summer for renovations and its signature boat tours had been canceled — for lack of workers, I was told. Afternoons are the best time to enter the park to avoid lineups at the entrances.

From Klamath Falls, one can also drive an hour south to the Lava Beds National Monument, a massive collection of lava tube caves, craters, spatter cones, cinder cones and at least 22 caves on the northern side of the Medicine Lake volcano. It is near Tulelake, California, a flat, dry area where 120,000 Japanese American citizens were incarcerated for four years during World War II. You can still see the camp buildings from the road.


Roadside construction prevented us from getting there, so we headed south on 97 from Klamath Falls through 50-some miles of range and grassland, crossing two summits at around 5,000 feet and seeing increasingly gorgeous vistas of the 14,179-foot Mount Shasta, the second largest stratovolcano in the Cascades after Mount Rainier. Along the way there’s a fire lookout, a vista point and a short hike through a lava tube known as Pluto’s Cave.

(Stratovolcanoes are built from layers — or strata — of the lava, pumice and volcanic ash flowing from volcanic vents. Each eruption forms another layer. Other types of volcanoes en route were cinder cones, steep-sided hills only a few hundred feet tall, and shield volcanoes, large flat formations with multiple vents that covered the earth with lava like a massive shield.)

The byway takes drivers briefly on Interstate 5 to the cities of Weed and Mount Shasta, which abut a huge cinder cone: Black Butte. Take Exit 738 into downtown Mount Shasta to enjoy its hippie vibe and businesses with names like Gaia Hair Design and Shasta Vortex Adventures.

Stop by the Chamber of Commerce building on West Lake Street just off the exit to get instructions on local hikes and ways to drive up the 15-mile scenic Everitt Memorial Highway to a viewpoint of the mountain at 7,858 feet. We elected to cross over the freeway and drive a few miles to Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort, which had a beach with a stunning view of the mountain. We then headed east on the byway on Highway 89, driving 10 miles to McCloud, a historical town on the other side of Shasta, to spend the night.

Continuing south on 89 the next day, we found McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park within an hour. One could walk down a path to the sparkling emerald green and cobalt blue pool, and the spray from the falls lowers the outdoor temperature by some 20 degrees. The rocks over which Burney Creek flows are made of porous basalt, allowing hundreds of springs to seep directly into one cascade. The nearby snack bar and picnic tables under the pines are quite pleasant, as is the adjoining campground and nearby Lake Britton.

As we drove south for 51 miles, we could see one charred landscape after another from the Dixie fire of summer 2021. That hellacious blaze, which burned nearly 1,000,000 acres through five counties for more than three months, was the largest single wildfire in California history. Clear-cuts and piles of salvage logs were everywhere.


At the intersection of Highways 89 and 44 was Old Station, a crossroads with a well-stocked food store (milkshakes, basic first aid, food, camping supplies), visitor center and gas station. There were several interesting hikes in this area (all detailed in the byway guide). We turned east, climbing up the Hat Creek Rim, an escarpment 1,000 feet above the Hat Creek valley floor and an overlook showcasing multiple volcanic peaks and cones.

Fifty-two miles later, we arrived in Susanville, the easternmost point of the byway, with plenty of hotels, restaurants and other services. Its Chamber of Commerce had helpful maps including one for Lake Almanor, a lovely body of water to the west at the southern end of the byway.

Step back into Oregon’s prehistoric past at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Our search for a swimmable public beach there was an exercise in frustration; the eastern side of the lake had nothing, and the west side was quite primitive. We later learned it’s best to approach the western side of the lake from the town of Chester to the north, drive 10 miles, take the turnoff at signs saying Almanor West, then look for a boat ramp and beach.

Our biggest day came next: Touring Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is centered on Lassen Peak, one of the largest plug dome volcanoes in the world; it last erupted May 22, 1915. (Volcanoes form a rounded “plug” dome when the lava flowing out of the volcano is too stiff to flow down the flanks of the mountain. Instead, it’s “plugged” near its mouth, forming a dome-shaped mass.)

To get there, we drove past split rail fences, fields of black-eyed Susans and grassy fields alternated with acres of burned trees and black stumps. So many of the trees — if they hadn’t been burned off by the Dixie blaze — were done in by bark beetles, resulting in orange landscapes of dead trees.


Lassen Park had a newly paved road; nice bathrooms were at each of the stops and there were tons of pull-offs for the views. Unlike some national parks, Lassen was designed for 21st-century use. There were even Wi-Fi hot spots in some camping areas.

We first drove to Manzanita Lake at the north end of the park, then worked our way back. Manzanita was too muddy for swimming but ideal for boating and paddleboarding.

We scrounged some lunch — bagels, hot dogs and homemade sandwiches — from a camp store; the workers there told us that, since the pandemic began, supplies have been tough to get in these parts. We were always at some challenge to find places for lunch on the trip; most stops we made were at small general stores that only had sandwiches or hot dogs for sale.

My daughter tried swimming in one of the summit lakes — too cold at 7,000 feet — and Lake Helen, which was way too cold at 8,200 feet. Above Lake Helen was the 2,000-foot path to Lassen’s summit. The air was so pure, and temperatures so mild, but it was easy to get sunburned at those altitudes.

Across the road from Lake Helen and near the southern end of the park was the Bumpass Hell trailhead. If you can only do one hike, let this be it: an easy trek of about 45 minutes each way through banks of royal blue lupine to a basin of sky-blue sulfur pits bisected by walkways. Lassen has the most extensive system of hydrothermal features (boiling water, steaming mud pots, steam vents) in the Cascades. During one day in the park, which is all we had, we barely touched what is out there in terms of 150 miles of trails (including part of the Pacific Crest Trail), vistas, forests, lakes, wildflowers and various boiling springs.


How to get back? One can head due west, hit I-5 and simply take the freeway back to civilization, but we chose to retrace our steps along the byway back up to Klamath Falls.

One mistake we made was to follow the tour book’s suggestions to try a drive known as the Medicine Lake Volcano Loop starting at Bartle, 16 miles south of McCloud. What was supposed to be a pleasant 33-mile drive into the Shasta-Trinity National Forest turned out to be a confusing jumble of roads with terrible signage and not a soul in sight. We did see Little Glass Mountain, an enormous pile of black volcanic glass (obsidian) just to the east of the forest road. But hopelessly lost with no internet, we headed north on a paved forest road that eventually took us to the tiny town of Macdoel near the state line.

Once back at Klamath Falls, I suggest travelers find a lovely cabin on a mountain lake and spend the rest of the day relaxing for the long drive back to Seattle.

If you go

Download route maps or the official Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway Guide ($10) at volcaniclegacybyway.org.

Crater Lake Lodge, 570 Rim Village Drive, Oregon, in Crater Lake National Park; 866-292-6720; travelcraterlake.com; $238/night

Crater Lake National Park, nps.gov/crla/index.htm; $30/private vehicle, $25/motorcycle, $15/bikes and pedestrians

Lake of the Woods Resort, 950 Harriman Route, Klamath Falls, Oregon; 541-949-8300; lakeofthewoodsresort.com; $140+/night

Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort, 4239 W.A. Barr Road, Mount Shasta City, California; 888-926-2618; lakesiskiyouresort.com; park admission/$2

Lassen Volcanic National Park, nps.gov/lavo/index.htm; $30/private vehicle, $25/motorcycle, $15/bikes and pedestrians

Lava Beds National Monument, nps.gov/labe/index.htm; $25/private vehicle, $20/motorcycle, $15/bikes and pedestrians

McCloud River Mercantile Hotel, 241 Main St., McCloud, California; 530-964-2330; mccloudmercantile.com; $175/night

Newberry National Volcanic Monument, st.news/Newberry; $5/National Forest day pass

Running Y Resort, 5500 Running Y Road, Klamath Falls, Oregon; 541-850-5500; runningy.com; $209+/night

St. Bernard Lodge, 44801 Highway 36 E., Mill Creek, California; 530-258-3382; stbernardlodge.com; $150/night