says Billie, our hostess, while introducing us to the lay of the land. "We're on the honor system." This applies to everything from the sodas and beer in the ice buckets to the items in the concession store. Candy bars, sweatshirts, and books about the history of Drakesbad - you sign your name and room number on the roster and settle up upon your departure.
It's not easy to get to Drakesbad, but that's part of what makes it so worthwhile. Hidden in the southern side of California's Lassen Volcanic National Park, the ranch is accessible only by a narrow country road that winds over three one lane bridges before losing its pavement before turning up a gravel track. The last few miles are unpaved, but easily navigable by careful drivers. Nope, no need for four wheel drive.
We arrived in time for lunch and dined on a buffet of fresh salads and deli fixings. Meals are included with the price of your stay. The staff understands that you might want to spend the day hiking in the surrounding splendor; they will pack a sack lunch for you if you sign up the night before. The kitchen is happy to accommodate any special dietary needs if you let them know before arrival.
After dining al fresco in the afternoon sunshine, we headed out to Devil's Kitchen. The lodge sits on the edge of an expansive meadow frequented by dragonflies, mule deer, and red winged blackbirds, to name just a few of the remarkable denizens. We crossed the meadow to the forest and hiked up a moderately easy trail shared with horseback riders. (The ranch maintains a corral of horses and offers rides for all skill levels.) The two-mile hike ends in an array of steam vents and boiling mud pots. Deposits of sulfur coat the rocks and the air is filled with steam. Yes, there is a strong smell, described to us in advanced by two little boys on the trail: "It's really stinky up there!" This is just one of a number of hiking destinations and the ranch even keeps a canoe at one of the nearby lakes - but you have to take advantage of that early in the season. The lakes are formed by snow melt and evaporate by the end of summer.
When we returned to the ranch, I poured myself a glass of cold lemonade that's available all afternoon outside the dining room. Then we explored the possibilities the ranch offers for the most essential of vacation activities: doing NOTHING. A covered porch offers comfortable seating and a shady place to rest. There's a hammock hanging above a circle of wild trillium. My favorite place was the bench swing on the edge of the meadow where the deer came to graze. And of course, there's a pool for lazy soaking and sunbathing.
It's not just any pool, though. It's fed by the hot springs up the valley. For over 100 years people have taken comfort in these healing waters.
Bring a swimsuit and sturdy shoes for hiking and horseback riding. A good flashlight is useful for finding your way around after dark as the generators are shut down "right after we run the last load of dishes in the dishwasher."
Expect cool evenings and sunny dry days during the summer, but remember that the weather in the mountains can be unpredictable.
Drakesbad will accommodate your dietary needs, just be sure to let them know before you arrive.
You can schedule just about any activity that Drakesbad offers - from guided fly fishing to horseback riding - by signing up at the lodge.
Make your reservations well in advance. Drakesbad is very popular in high summer. For a quieter (read, "less kids") vacation, try off-season, either in very early June or after September.
The park serves as a laboratory of volcanic activity. Lassen was the most active volcanic area in the Northwest, until Mt. St. Helens. Lassen is the southernmost peak in the Cascade Range. The western part of the park features lava flows, thermals, fumeroles, lava beds, and steaming sulphur vents. The eastern part of the park is a mile high lava plateau.
Lassen Thermals - Sulphur Works, Bumpass Hell, Little Hot Springs Valley, Rolling Springs Lake, Devil's Kitchen, and Terminal Geyser. Some of the thermal features are getting hotter. What this means is that Lassen may be ready for another explosive pyrotechnical event. This 106,000-acre park, located in the Cascade Range, has a history of volcanic activity. The park is filled with cinder cones, lava flows and thermal springs, alpine meadows and pine forests. Campgrounds in the park are open in the summer months. Backcountry camping is open year around. At Manzanita Lake there are hot showers, laundry, gas, and food.
Operating Hours and Seasons
Summer - Park Headquarters open 8:00 a.m.- 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, closed on holidays. Loomis Museum 9:00 a.m -5:00 p.m.: open weekends, Memorial Day through mid-June, then daily mid-June through early October. Southwest Information Station 9:00 a.m. -4:00 p.m.: open weekends, Memorial Day through mid-June and in September; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., 7 days a week mid-June through Labor Day.
Fall, Winter, Spring - Park Headquarters open 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, closed on holidays. Loomis Ranger Station open 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. weekends during winter months.
Getting to Lassen -
Plane - Major airlines serve Redding and Chico, California as well as Reno, Nevada.
Car - The best access to the park is by private automobile. Auto rental services are available in Redding, Red Bluff, Chico, Susanville or Reno. Fifty miles east of Red Bluff on Highway 36, and 50 miles east of Redding on Highway 44.
Public Transportation - Greyhound bus lines serve cities within 60 miles of the park. Major airlines serve Redding, Chico and Reno.
Weather and Climate -
Snow covers much of the park mid-October through mid-June. The Park Road (the main road that connects Hwy. 89 through the Park) is usually closed late October through mid-June. During years of heavy snowfall, the road may open significantly later. Please call the Park for road and trail condition updates. Many of the main park attractions are snow covered and inaccessible by car and foot during the winter. The months of July, August, and September may bring mostly sunny skies with warm daytime temperatures and cold nighttime temperatures.
Accessability - The Loomis Museum and Park Headquarters are accessible. The Devastated Area Interpretive Trail and certain naturalist programs are accessible. Park Headquarters offers a TDD information line for the hearing impaired: the number is (530) 595-3408.
Activities - Auto touring, backpacking, biking, bird watching, boating, camping, cross-country skiing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, interpretive programs, nature walks, snow skiing , snowmobiling, snowshoeing , stargazing, swimming, wilderness area, wildlife viewing.
Naturalist programs are offered late June through late August. Snowshoe programs are offered to the public on Saturdays, usually mid January to late March or early April.
By Pam Mandel, Seattle Correspondent.