We are a family that flies much more than we drive in our travels. My kids can do a cross-country flight like champs, but they aren’t used to long road trips. When my husband and I started planning a summer road trip from our home in the San Francisco Bay Area through Northern California and into Southern Oregon, we knew needed to prepare and probably even sell the kids a little bit on it.
Our hook? We started calling the weeklong vacation our “Volcano Road Trip.” After realizing we would hit a few volcano-related sites in the Cascades range along our route, the name seemed apt. My kids have been to Hawaii several times and have definitely developed an interest in volcanoes. The name appealed to their sense of adventure and made the idea of many hours in the car a bit easier to digest.
I didn’t realize until we were somewhere near the California-Oregon border that our “Volcano Road Trip” was actually a thing. We suddenly began spotting signs along the road labeling the route we were taking as the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. Who knew? (Seriously, someone work on the PR for this road stat!)
While we didn’t follow the entirety of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, we hit all the highlights. Ultimately, our “Volcano Road Trip” took us past 5 different volcanoes in less than 500 miles. The trip was full of outdoor adventures – lots of hiking and exploring in nature and enjoying each other’s company. The kids learned more than they have on any trip I can remember in recent years. And they didn’t even realize they were learning because they had so much fun.
This road trip (or portions of it) is easy to do for anyone in Northern California or the Pacific Northwest. I’d recommend close to a week if you want to hit all the highlights, but you can certainly do parts of this route on a long weekend. Because a number of these sites are at high elevation, this is very much a trip I’d recommend doing in the summer or early fall unless you are going specifically to seek out snow activities.
Here are the best stops if you want to try a similar volcano road trip of your own through Northern California and Oregon.
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Top Stops on a NorCal & Oregon Volcano Road Trip
1. Lassen Volcanic National Park
About an hour outside the city of Redding is one of the nation’s least visited national parks, Lassen Volcanic National Park. But don’t let its low visitor numbers scare you away. It’s remote location and the fact that is is snowed in about 8-9 months of the year keeps away a lot of crowds.
Lassen is in many ways a mini-Yellowstone, filled with are bubbling mud pots and sulfuric steam vents. The geothermal activity is truly fascinating for kids and adults alike. I’d recommend a full day on a road trip to drive the entirety of the park from south to north (or north to south depending on your approach).
The best hike for families is Bumpass Hell, a 3 mile roundtrip (with some elevation change) that takes you to the most active geothermal area of the park. A boardwalk covers the thin crust so watch younger kids carefully. Plan also to visit one or both visitors centers for educational displays about volcanoes. A quick stop at Sulphur Works to see bubbling mud near the southern visitor center is worthwhile too.
There are minimal services within Lassen (just a snack counter at the southern visitor center), so pack your own food, water, and supplies. A great place for a midday picnic is at North Summit Lake picnic area, which has a lakefront view of Lassen Peak.
2. Mount Shasta
Head north from Lassen about 60 miles north of the city of Redding to reach the next volcanic stop at Mount Shasta. At over 14,000 feet, Mount Shasta is a popular climbing destination for the the more adventurous traveler (my husband has made it to the summit – twice!).
If you leave Lassen and take Route 89 on the way to Mount Shasta (instead of returning to I-5), then you pass some amazing waterfalls well worth a stop – McArthur-Burney Falls and McCloud Falls being a few of the most well-known.
We were making tracks and didn’t have much time on our own road trip to do more than eat dinner and stay the night in the nearby town of Weed (insert jokes here – the town is used to it). But if you have more time, there are hiking trails, lakes, and all sorts of outdoor adventures to be had around Mount Shasta. There’s even a ski area that we are hoping to try one winter soon.
The towns of Mount Shasta and Weed are two of the last inhabited spots you’ll see for awhile, so I’d recommend the area as an overnight or a good stop for at least a meal or to fill up on gas. We dined at Say Cheese Pizza on our trip north and the Hi-Lo Hotel, Cafe, & RV Park in Weed on our return trip. Hotels in the area are very basic but we thought the Quality Inn & Suites in Weed where we stayed one night was clean and well-priced.
3. Lava Beds National Monument
After leaving the Mount Shasta area, head northeast on Highway 97 to follow the Volcanic Scenic Legacy Byway towards Lava Beds National Monument. Lava Beds National Monument is one of the few places in the continental U.S. where you can hike through hollowed out lava tubes — remnants from the Medicine Lake Volcano. Yes, it is as cool as it sounds.
Getting there requires some intentionality in your travels. Lava Beds is truly in the middle of nowhere, far from every major highway or other attraction. In fact, my husband was trying to convince me to skip this stop on our road trip planning, thinking it wouldn’t be much to write home about for the detour required. I’m glad I prevailed upon him. Lava Beds was probably the top highlight of our entire trip.
A little preparation goes a long way for Lava Beds. Bring a bike helmet for everyone in the family for head protection (you will bump your head). We also purchased inexpensive headlamps on Amazon for everyone that strapped easily over the bike helmets. This allowed us to be more hands-free in the caves and only need 1-2 flashlights for our whole family.
There are no services within the park so pack a lunch if you plan to spend the better part of a day here (which we did). Stop by the Visitors Center to get a comprehensive cave map and advice on which caves are open and the best fit for your group. We hiked Mushpot, Golden Dome, Hopkins Chocolate (strenuous), Sunshine, and Skull Cave.
4. Crater Lake National Park
After leaving Lava Beds, it’s about another hour and a half to cross the Oregon border and head to Crater Lake National Park. (We detoured a little bit off the route to stay at an amazing lakefront cabin resort called Lake of the Woods for the night – highly recommended!)
Crater Lake is probably the most well-known stop on this itinerary and well worth the most time. You can easily spend at least a couple of nights, although we did it in just 24 hours.
Crater Lake was formed when a massive shield volcano Mount Mazama collapsed in on itself. Snow filled the crater with water, creating a lake. Further eruptions created a small island in the middle of the lake.
Unfortunately, there were a number of wildfires that were raging in Southern Oregon when we were at Crater Lake and the smoke really obscured our view of the lake below from the rim. Luckily, we booked the volcano boat cruise which allowed us to get down to lake level and see quite a bit more.
Be forewarned — the hike to and from these boats is not for the faint of heart. There are warnings everywhere about it being strenuous. Honestly, I didn’t fully believe them until I was huffing and puffing my way back up at the end of the day. Our 4.5 year old son hiked down just fine but was not able to do the return by himself. My husband got quite the extra workout carrying him on his shoulders. Luckily he had cooled down beforehand by being crazy enough to jump into the lake!
Book early if you want to stay within the park, as there are only two hotels — Crater Lake Lodge and Mazama Village Cabins. We stayed at Mazama Village which was basic but well-located. We had a special dinner at the restaurant at Crater Lake Lodge to celebrate my husband’s 40th birthday which was well worth the splurge.
Insider tip: If you want to book any of the volcano boat excursions, try to book as far in advance online as you can. About 50% of the boat inventory is available for advance reservations. The other 50% is available 24 hours in advance in kiosks in either Crater Lake Lodge or Mazama Village Cabins. We had no trouble snagging tickets by going a few hours after the 24 hour window, but it’s a bit of a gamble.
5. Newberry National Volcanic Monument
Although the official Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway ends at Crater Lake, we went farther north on our road trip to Bend, Oregon. Less than a half hour outside the city of Bend is another Cascades volcano worthy of a visit.
Newberry National Volcanic Monument is operated by the U.S. Forest Service (interestingly, one of 11 national monuments not operated by the National Park Service). National park passes work here as well, and there is even a Junior Forest Ranger program in which your kids can participate.
The must-do hike at Newberry is Big Obsidian Flow, a loop of less than a mile through enormous obsidian eruptions. You feel like you are hiking the surface of the moon going through it. There’s some elevation change at the beginning to climb up into the flow, but our 4.5 year old son was able to hike every bit of this trail himself.
Also do not miss Paulina Falls. There’s an overlook at the top that requires almost no hiking, but I’d recommend the quarter mile trail to the bottom for some amazing views of this double waterfall.
More Volcanoes Beyond
While our own personal volcano road trip ended this time in Bend, Oregon, yours doesn’t have to. Keep going north through the Cascade range into North Oregon, Washington state, and even into British Columbia to visit even more! Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Rainier are probably a few you’ve heard of but there are nearly 20 in total in the Pacific Northwest to visit.
Tips for Your Own Volcano Road Trip
Considering taking a volcano road trip of your own through Northern California and Southern Oregon? Here are the best tips and lessons learned from our own family adventure. (And if you are planning other travels around Northern California, don’t miss 12 epic things to do in Northern California. For travelers headed to the rest of Oregon, check out this complete Oregon road trip itinerary.)
- Get a National Parks Pass: Four of the stops on this road trip require fees totaling $75 (Lassen-$20 + Lava Beds-$20 + Crater Lake-$25 + Newberry-$10). Consider buying an America the Beautiful National Parks pass for just $80. If you have any occasion to use it at any other national park or federal land site in the next year, you’ll come out ahead. (If you are new to national parks, don’t miss my tips for beginners to national parks travel.)
- Pack a Map: There are significant portions of this road trip that are cell and data dead zones. Remember you are in remote parts of California and Oregon, even on a major interstate like I-5! Pack a map ahead of time or at least pre-program directions into your phone while you are within range.
- Book Lodging Ahead: The best time to do this volcano road trip is in summer. Naturally this is high season so lodging may be full in many places, especially on weekends. I’d recommend mapping out a route in advance and booking hotels or campsites before you set out on your trip.