Ahjumawi Lava Springs

Saturday 3 September-Monday 5 September, 2016

The Setup

Adventure. Fabulous scenery. Tranquil canoeing. Exciting lava rocks. Boat-in camping. No running water. No showers. Adventure, right? Adventure wouldn't be adventure if it didn't sometimes go wrong, would it? But might the rewards be worth the pain?


I must have heard about remote Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park not by reading about it in some well-researched travel book or thoughtful magazine like Sunset, but rather because I have a California State Parks app that lists parks not regionally but alphabetically, and you see the exciting-sounding name right near the top of the list. An alphabetical list of parks provides no vetting whatsoever as to level of excitement, ease of access, or any balance of those two considerations. While there are some fantastic things about this park, it's nowhere near as exciting as nearby and much more accessible Lava Beds National Monument. Ahjumawi Lava Springs is strictly for those prepared to overcome inordinately adverse conditions for insane adventure, who are either seeking a high degree of escape from civilization or are such volcano freaks that they're willing to go to great lengths to see a few relatively minor surface features. We, of course, are in the latter category.

On the right side of this brochure page is a list of warnings about Ahjumawi Lava Springs, as delineated by the State of California.

The northern third of California is, from a geologic perspective, part of the Pacific Northwest, full of volcanoes. Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park lies right in the middle of the area between stratovolcano Mt. Shasta, plug dome Mt. Lassen, and shield Medicine Lake Volcano. The park lies on part of the 3,000-5,000 year old pyroclastic flow from the Medicine Lake Volcano, among some surface features that didn't rate national monument status. The entire Modoc Plateau to the north is starkly beautiful.

I, of course, never head off on an adventure with insufficient research. I read the entire state park web site on the park, which is much less informative than any National Park page. I read the weather forecast, which predicted partly cloudy skies with highs of around 23C (73F) and lows of around 5C (41F). I prepared for cold conditions, packing a full set of silk long underwear, a thermal top, my heavy winter parka, and our low-temperature mummy bags. When I saw on the web site that reservations were not available, I called the ranger (who was not actually at Ahjumawi Lava Springs but at relatively nearby Burney Falls State Park).

"If I show up late on a Saturday, will I be able to get a camping spot?" I inquired.

"Oh, sure," she blithely assured me. "No problem."

"Even on a holiday weekend?" I asked.

"Absolutely. No problem at all."

Cue ominous music.

Before we left, I looked at some of my guidebooks, and saw that there were some very cool caves in the vicinity, Lake Shasta Caverns and Jot Dean Ice Cave. I thought maybe we'd have time on our way back on Monday to see one or both. Eric thought it sounded like too much and that we should save the caves for another trip. I reluctantly agreed, and, not wanting to risk carrying it in a canoe, left my DSLR at home, bringing only my pocket camera.

A more relaxing way of accomplishing this adventure would have been to have driven from the Bay Area on the interstate as far as Redding, spent the night in a Super 8 there, and then driven the remaining 120 km (75 mi) on CA 299 to the park in the morning. Lacking sufficient funds for such frivolity, however, we decided to go to sleep at 20:30 and get up at 4:15, attempting to leave Berkeley by 6:15. Things started out particularly badly because I had pulled a neck muscle the previous Tuesday, which had left me significantly sleepless for the previous several nights. Then, during that early night right before the trip, Eric started coming down with a cold. My pain and his sickness left us both with fewer emotional resources to overcome what lay ahead of us.

Even though we had laid out all of the camping gear beforehand, of course it still was something like 7:45 before we actually got Sydney loaded up with the Weeble tied down on top, and exited the driveway of the Zuckershack. As we had both slept fairly poorly because of our respective medical issues, I stretched out in the back seat for a few hours while Eric drove as far as Redding, and then he tried to sleep while I drove the rest of the way on windy 299.

Since we would be unable to obtain ice after leaving home, for maximum food freshness, we acquired our food not in Berkeley but at Trader Joe's in Redding. I was very excited to find a whole spatchcocked lemon rosemary butter chicken. Wouldn't that be perfect camp food? We had considered oatmeal for breakfast, but decided on turkey sausage and bacon instead. We lamented that we had decided not to bring along our new real two-burner camp stove, purchased at an REI sale last year. We had thought it would be too clumsy and heavy for the canoe, and so had only brought a single burner that sits on top of a propane can. Since we would need a lot of propane to boil the lake water to make it drinkable, I ran into a next-door sporting goods store to buy extra propane.

Traffic was light, and I made excellent time on scenic 299. In Fall River Mills, I pointed out to Eric what would be the closest hospital to us, just in case of an emergency.

"It looks like a motel," he remarked. I don't think either of us had ever seen a single-story hospital before.

In McArthur, which was full of dirty pick-up trucks, we turned off 299 onto a dirt road, and continued out to the boat landing at a place called, for some reason, the "Rat Farm."

Oh, look, our car is even dirtier. On the way home, we would see much dirtier cars, those that came from Burning Man.

Now look at this picture of the map from the state's park brochure.

You'll see there are three campgrounds, Horr Pond, Crystal Springs, and Ja She Creek, in order of proximity to the boat landing at the Rat Farm. Only Horr Pond has a boat dock. We figured that the boat dock at Horr Pond would mean that campground would have the loudest people, and that we should shoot for Crystal Springs. At the Rat Farm parking lot, we saw and heard some people with a large motorboat on a trailer. One of the women kept shouting, "Where's my margarita?" We surely didn't want to camp near those people. We were relieved to see them drive away.

As we were unloading, three young men in inflatable green kayaks were also unloading, blowing up their kayaks, and setting out. They left about 15 minutes ahead of us. If only, if only, we had gotten up at 4:00 instead of 4:15 and gotten going before they did, it would have saved us oh-so-much trouble.

Our laden boat.

I sat with the boat while Eric took a bathroom break, and a couple pulled into the boat launch with a yellow kayak. They told me that they were on a supply run from the Crystal Springs campground, and that the Crystal Springs and Ja She Creek campgrounds were both completely full. Apparently, there were only three campsites at each campground. They said that there were two spots available at Horr Pond, and that the louder people seemed to be with them at Crystal Springs. I remembered the reassurances the ranger had given me and tried not to be nervous.

On to Part 2: The Conflict.

Last updated: 11 September, 2016 by Eric and Beth Zuckerman