For the 50+ Traveler

For many travelers, a vacation can mean many things, a trip to the beach, the mountains, or a family-themed amusement park. But for others it’s an opportunity to see the world around you and bask in its unusual moments of beauty and wonder. Such a place is the Painted Dunes in northern California.

Where Are The Painted Dunes?

The Painted Dunes can be found in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The 100,000+ acre park is located 130 miles north of Sacramento at the southern end of the Cascade Mountains. As remote as this park is, it is one of the most popular in the state, attracting hundreds of thousands annually, who come to see hot sulfurous gases rising from steaming fumaroles, picturesque meadows, and lakes. But the highlight for many is discovering the undiscovered -- the mysteries of the Painted Dunes.

The Painted Dunes are located in the northeast corner of the park, near Butte Lake. Hikers can find a trailhead there, and traverse through the Fantastic Lava Bed, the Cinder Cone before arriving at the dunes. The Cinder Cone is a 700-foot-high volcano that is believed to have last erupted in the 1650s. The ash from the volcano is responsible for the landscape of the Painted Dunes.

The colorful dunes of Lassen Volcano National Park.

Why Are The Painted Dunes Unique?

When you’re looking at the beauty and wonder of this unique place on earth, you’re looking at a pumice field. The bright spots of red and orange amid the vast blackness of the pumice is the “paint.” The artists, the volcanos.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey the colors were caused by ash spewed from the Cinder Cone becoming oxidized because it fell on the lava flows when they were still hot. The same oxidized ash is found on the nearby Fantastic Lava Beds, which leads scientists to believe all the materials that came from the Cinder Cone, happened during one eruption that lasted several months.

The colorful dunes of Lassen Volcano National Park.

How To Visit The Painted Dunes

The Butte Lake Campground is about a 45-minute drive from the northwest entrance of the park. From the trailhead, follow the hiking trail southwest towards the Cinder Cone, where you will be rewarded with the best views of the Painted Dunes.

The Butte Lake parking area can be found just off of Butte Lake Road, which is accessible by taking Highway 44 approximately 24 miles east of Manzanita Lake. The Cinder Cone trailhead is located on the southwest side of the boat ramp for Butte Lake. You can find maps online here.

From the trailhead, you hike southwest through the Fantastic Lava Beds, toward the Cinder Cone. The hike up the 700-foot-high Cinder Cone is challenging. Be on the lookout for loose rocks.

The best view, according to can be found on the southeastern face of the cone: “The most magical time to see the Painted Dunes occurs during the ‘glow hour,’ which starts about 15 minutes after sunset and sends a light over the dunes creating jaw-dropping scenery.”

Due to winter conditions and access to trails, the park recommends the summer and fall as the best times to visit. You can track conditions year-round on the park’s Day Hiking page.

The colorful dunes of Lassen Volcano National Park.

Know Before You Go

The remote nature of the Painted Dunes warrants much preparation. If you’re traveling during the summer season, make sure to bring plenty of sunscreen, water, and food. The trails are rugged and rated difficult in many areas. Proper hiking gear is recommended.

From the Butte Lake trailhead, be prepared to hike 4 miles round trip. You’ll experience an elevation change of 846 feet, but 700 of that will be within a half-mile as you ascend the Cinder Cone. At 1.2 miles in, you’ll be rewarded. Here the trail reaches a fork at the base of the cone. Look to your left (south) for the best and most colorful view of the Painted Dunes.

In addition to the Painted Dunes, Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to more than 150 miles of hiking trails, with other beautiful features such as hydrothermal areas, alpine lakes, and mountain meadows.

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