The moment had arrived. That magical wisp of time at sunset when the earth is transformed by golden light and the sky takes on kaleidoscopic colors.
We had been following a trail around Manzanita Lake, one of the most iconic features of California's Lassen Volcanic National Park. We'd seen a young deer eating grass beside the lake and watched a fisherman casting lines for rainbow trout.
Now, on the far side of the lake, the sun became a perfect disc, cut in half by the edge of the world. Both the sky and the lake turned crimson.
A couple of people nearby applauded. A perfect day-ender.
I had bypassed one of my favorite parks, Yosemite, last month and driven a few hours farther north to Lassen, in the northeastern corner of California. Unlike Yosemite, there were no crowds at the entrance gate, in the parking lots or on the trails.
What's more, the 166-square-mile park turned out to be a remarkable place. Sunset Magazine calls it "The West's most beautiful, least visited wonderland."
Only 400,000 people will make their way to Lassen this year; nearly 4 million will visit Yosemite, most of them during the summer.
"Not many people have discovered this park," said Karen Haner, Lassen's chief of interpretation and education. I nodded, feeling smug: That makes the experience nicer for those of us who have discovered it.
Lassen, about a three-hour drive north of Sacramento, features jagged peaks, clear alpine lakes, quiet meadows full of wildflowers and ground that bubbles, hisses and smokes from volcanic activity.
Eruptions have rocked the region for more than 2 million years, but the spectacular landscape visitors see today began to form 100 years ago when a 30,000-foot-high volcanic blast unleashed a 12-mile-long mud flow that mowed down forests and reshaped the land.
Like the Asian volcanoes Krakatoa, Pinatubo and Mt. Fuji, Lassen is part of the Ring of Fire, a zone of mountain-building volcanoes that circle the Pacific Ocean. Here in the Pacific Northwest, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Shasta and Mt. St. Helens, which erupted in Washington in 1980, also are part of the Ring — active volcanoes with the power to explode again.
The magma seething below the surface of Lassen's craggy mountains and quiet meadows is responsible for its tortured landscape: bubbling mud pots, shiny black lava beds and cinder cones, steaming lakes and smoking vents. It's given the park place names such as Chaos Crags, Devil's Kitchen and Boiling Springs Lake.
Lassen is unmatched in the park system because it contains nearly every kind of volcanic feature known.
I loved seeing these features, but I also loved taking that sunset walk around exquisite Manzanita Lake, hiking deep into the forest for a panoramic view of the Cascade Range and walking in a meadow shortly after dawn as a parade of ducklings marched by, presumably on their way to breakfast. Lassen's assets are many and varied.
One possible problem: Where to stay? There's only one lodge in the park, Drakesbad Guest Ranch, an aged facility that sleeps 60 in rustic cabins and a lodge. Reservations are hard to come by in July, when I visited, but late August and September are possibilities. It closes in mid-October.
Other than that, visitors can pitch a tent at eight campgrounds or drive in from nearby towns, most of which are 30 miles or more away. I opted to stay outside the park for the most part, but I tried one night at the Manzanita Lake Camping Cabins. They were a bit too rustic for me — just a thin plastic-covered mattress, a roof over my head, no electricity and a one-quarter-mile hike to a bathroom — but I met a family from Connecticut who loved them.
"We snapped it up right away," said John Mason, a teacher traveling with wife Jennifer and their three children. Their cabin was larger than mine, with two rooms, one for them and a bunk room for the kids.
"At $70 a night, we couldn't complain," he said.
And when it comes right down to it, I guess I shouldn't complain, either. If I hadn't spent the night in the Manzanita cabin, I would have missed that spectacular sunset.
Lassen Volcanic National Park's Bumpass Hell is a heavenly hike