Tuesday, July 8, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part II): Lassen National Park, California

Since I moved out West almost a decade ago and started visiting National Parks, I've noticed that the areas around them often remain remarkably undeveloped, in spite of the number of visitors who pass through to reach the parks. This also seems unusual because accommodation in many parks is so limited; you’d think some reasonably nice lodging would be available to accommodate the overflow, as well as off-season traffic. This is true, for example, at Capitol Reef in Utah and Death Valley in Southern California. (Moab, Utah, which is very close to Arches and not so far from Canyonlands, is an exception, but the development there is also fueled by other outdoor pursuits, like mountain biking.) I guess that such tourism infrastructure isn’t economically feasible in these remote, not-quite-resort places – otherwise, someone would have taken up the opportunity.

This lack of development was certainly evident when we visited Lassen Volcanic National Park a few days ago. Leaving our home in Sacramento, we headed north on I-5 through the ag-oriented Great Valley, through Yolo, Colusa, Glenn and Tehama Counties before leaving the freeway at Red Bluff and heading about 40 miles up Highway 36 toward Mineral, population 143, near the southwest entrance of the park. We ascended a winding road and enjoyed many changes in the terrain and vegetation en route to Mineral. (As with our journey back to I-5 on Hwy 44, we encountered a remarkable amount of truck traffic -- could it be serving communities like Quincy and Chester -- or the prison-industrial complex at Susanville?)

We had called the Lassen Mineral Lodge at about 6pm to let them know that we wouldn’t arrive until around 8. They warned us that everything would be closed so be sure to eat before we got there. It turned out that “everything” in Mineral is a 3-building complex (top photo) of general store, motel/lodge, and restaurant, apparently all owned by the same family. (OK, I am exaggerating a bit; we also saw a coin laundry a quarter of a mile away, and a competing gas station across the street that was for sale, but you get the idea).

When we called, the folks at the lodge said they’d leave room 49 open for us if they were already gone for the night. Room 49, at one end of a strip of about ten lined up motor lodge fashion, was spartan, but clean. Stenciled images of bears, elk and evergreen trees made a decorative border around the white walls. The room's only amenity was a checker board; no TV (no problem!). About half the rooms were occupied on that final night in June. I suppose they were all, like us, en route to Lassen.

As we’d been told the night before, “everything” opened at 8 am, and we were finally able to get some coffee and picnic supplies at the general store.

We were soon off to the park, the least visited according to a story in Sunset magazine’s July issue. It’s a fantastic park, though. Our pre-schooler came along (reluctantly) for the 2.5 mile round trip hike to Bumpass Hell, which features mud pots, fumaroles and other geothermic activity. It’s like a diminutive, really tiny Yellowstone. We also enjoyed Summit Lake and the interpretive trail at the so-called Devastated Area, that which was hit by the lava flow from the 1915 eruption.

Leaving the park at the northwest exit, we descended on a remarkably straight, evergreen-lined Hwy 44 toward Shingletown. While you don’t see many houses along the road, you do see lots of roads, all well marked with signs naming them, winding back into the forest. Sometimes we caught glimpses of what seemed to be a housing development through the dense curtain of trees. While the Census Bureau shows Shingletown, a Census Designated Place, with a population of 2,222, that must count folks outside its apparent commercial district – like those living down these roads off Hwy 44.

Our destination that night was a very different style of rural accommodation, Weston House, a bed and breakfast. (lower right photo). As far as I could tell, there were no other accommodations in the area – the closest might have been in Redding, about 40 miles away. Of course, Weston House could also be easily missed since it’s not on the main drag of Hwy 44; it is a coupla’ miles outside town on Shingletown Ridge Road. We’d initially found it on the internet.

Weston House might be called posh or faux rural, though it isn’t actually that posh and it’s not trying to be rural. But it is in a rural locale, and it does take nice advantage of its stunning views over the valley below, where a cinder cone looms and where one occasionally catches a glimpse of a wild mustang in a nearby preserve. Plus, the establishment is posh as rural goes; it’s posh in comparison to, say, the Mineral Lodge. Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that it isn’t run by a “local.” The owner is a woman who moved up to Northern California a few decades ago from Monterey. The rooms and suites, some in separate buildings but all overlooking the valley, are nicely decorated and have amenities such as fireplaces, TVs, refrigerators, microwaves -- and lavender soap. The owner serves a great gourmet breakfast with lots of whole grains and fruit. She even ground some coffee beans so I could make my own early morning brew in our upstairs suite.

So, in terms of tourism infrastructure, Weston House offered quite a contrast to what we saw ‘round Shingletown and the greater Lassen National Park region, including what we experienced in Mineral. To be clear, both were enjoyable – just very different.

Next we were on to Crater Lake National Park in south central Oregon where, again, the dearth of commercial activity in a 50-mile radius of the park was striking.

1 comment:

kumara said...

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