One of the things that brought us to Lassen Volcanic National Park is JJ’s love of volcanoes. He’s a dinosaur-obsessed five year old, and volcanoes seem to go with the territory. All four types of volcanoes are represented at Lassen: shield, plug dome, composite, and cinder cone. On our second day in the park, we set out for an adventure with a big goal for our little ones: hike the Cinder Cone with the kids and peer into the crater of a volcano!

You can find more information on our first and third stops in the Lassen area, including exploring nearby Burney Falls, the Subway Cave and our day driving through the main section of the park, in the following posts:

Cinder Cone Trail Overview

  • Cinder Cone Trailhead: Access via Butte Lake Day Use Parking Lot or Butte Lake Campground
  • Parking: $30 per vehicle day fee
  • Hours: 24 hours per day, access and services limited seasonally
  • Lassen Park Map
  • NPS Cinder Cone Page
  • Dog Friendly: Dogs are not allowed on trails or day-use areas.
  • Stroller Friendly: No
  • Distance: 4.2 miles
  • Elevation: 873 feet (1,373 for John!)
  • Remember to check the Lassen Volcanic Park Page for updates related to Covid-19 safety guidance.

Cinder Cone Nature Trail

We did a lot of research on whether or not we should do the Cinder Cone Trail with the kids, and even as we started out on the trail we still weren’t 100% sure. We aren’t the kind of family that has been out trekking since the kids were born, and this type of hike was a new challenge for us. As we started off, little Bug was grumpy and dragging his feet on the trail. It wasn’t looking good.

That being said, the trail itself was interesting from the start. We picked up a Nature Trail brochure at the trailhead, and let the boys hop off the trail when they wanted a closer look at something. The kids thought this tree looked like a dinosaur fossil.

Fantastic Lava Beds

Along the way, we learned that every rock in Lassen originates from volcanoes. We brought the Jr. Ranger booklet with its Rock Hunt Page along for fun, but we weren’t prepared for the scale of the Fantastic Lava Beds.

These lava beds are the remains of several basalt lava flows that erupted from the Cinder Cone Volcano that we were on our way to meet. Its last eruptions are thought to have occurred around 1650. At that time, the lava spread northeast and southwest, damming creeks and forming Snag Lake and Butte Lake.

We hadn’t ventured too far in the trail, when it became clear that all of the cool stuff we were learning wouldn’t get Bug moving that morning. We don’t have a hiking carrier, so we brought our old Stokke as a backup (did I mention that we were new to hikes like these as a family?). Bug perked up at this, but the easy start to the trail was over for John.

Looking Up at Cinder Cone

A little over a mile into the trail, we finally got a glimpse of the ascent with its notoriously sandy trail. I looked at John with Bug, who was too heavy for our old carrier, and JJ’s little five year old legs, and still wasn’t sure we should do it. We’d passed several hikers on the trail, but I hadn’t seen a kid under 10. Likely sensing my hesitation, JJ looked up at me and said what I’d been thinking since the ascent came into view, “This looks hard. I’m not sure I can do this. I’m a little scared.”

In that moment, I was very tempted to agree with my five year old, plop down under a tree with the boys, and munch on some trail mix while watching other hikers come and go. But instead I heard myself say, “It does look hard, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We’ll do it together, step by step. And if it feels like it’s too much, we can just turn back around.” Queue the Daniel Tiger song.

So off we went to see inside the crater of Cinder Cone with our kids.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

H. Jackson Browne Jr.

We took our time and inched up the volcano. Walking sticks helped on the sandy trail, and JJ quickly learned to place his feet in footprints to stop from sliding back. We took it one step at a time and, with plenty of encouragement along the way from fellow hikers, we eventually made it to the top.

We Made It!

There’s nothing like enjoying payoff views after a challenging hike, and this one definitely had it. JJ felt so proud of himself as we got to the top of the trail, with his dad and fellow hikers cheering for him. And then he finally got to look inside the crater of a volcano!

John was uncomfortable with Bug on his back, so he had raced up the trail ahead of me. We really approach challenges differently. Apparently Bug had been driving him nuts, telling him he needed to move faster and saying he wanted to climb the one with the snow (Lassen) next! Fellow hikers struggling on their own were shocked to see John with Bug in the little Stokke carrier. When we met up at the top again, I took the boys, and he decided to descend all the way into the floor of the crater.

At the very bottom of the crater, visitors construct little rock cairns to mark their presence. John made the one in the foreground for our family.

As JJ and I watched John in the crater, he decided he wanted to see it too. Until we watched John struggle on the walk back up the trail. At that moment, we both decided we were good.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

We were nervous for the steep sandy descent, but it was easier than we imagined. The walking sticks helped with sliding again, and this time Bug joined me for the hike down. John and JJ were off having fun in the distance.

As we were heading down, we saw another kid close to JJ’s age, maybe even a bit younger. She was wearing shorts and sandals and flying up the mountain without a care in the world! It made me realize how much of JJ’s nervousness had stemmed from him reading me. I know I’ll probably never be the cool mom who lets her kids fly up a volcano like that little girl, but perhaps it’s time to find a place in between that’s a healthier balance for all of us.

At the bottom of the trail, we finally paused under the trees to munch on some trail mix. JJ discovered how much better it tastes after conquering a challenging trail. I was so proud at him for seeing something that looked difficult and then trying it anyway. Even better, I could see how proud he was of himself.

After one last glimpse of Cinder Cone, we were back on the trail for the mile and a half walk back to the campsite. We were tired enough that we forgot to take photos on the way. Bug fell asleep on my back.

Relaxing by the Lake

After stretching our legs at the campsite for a bit, we decided to check out Butte Lake. We didn’t have to go far into the Day Use area before we found a little stretch of beach just for us.

The top of Cinder Cone was cold and windy, and it wasn’t very warm by the campsite, so I hadn’t changed the boys into their swimming gear. Big mistake. Somehow our beach spot was perfectly warm and sunny with no wind. Little by little the boys took off layers as they splashed by the lakeshore.

I was so relaxed in our little spot on the beach, that I fell sound asleep in the sun while John took blackmail video of me snoring. It was the perfect end to our family’s adventurous day in Lassen Volcanic Park hiking Cinder Cone with the kids.


A note on our approach to travel during Covid:

We believe that it’s important to get outside and experience the positive emotional and physical health benefits of being in nature during these unprecedented times. We are doing our best to enjoy these beautiful places responsibly by social distancing, wearing face masks indoors and when others are around outdoors, and moving aside on trails to let others pass. When we do travel overnight, we bring as much of our food and supplies from home as possible so as to avoid crowding local stores.

Let’s all do our part so that we can continue sharing the beauty of our outdoor spaces while protecting our families and the folks that are local to these areas. Hopefully, if we work together, we’ll be able to move on to better times as quickly and safely as possible.