When we started backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) many years back, we joined the PCT-1 forum where hikers can ask questions about the trail and experienced PCTers can share their knowledge. When discussing northern California and places to enjoy a stop, the name “Drakesbad” inevitably popped up.
Drakesbad Guest Ranch, that oasis in the SE corner of Lassen Volcanic National Park, is well-known to PCT long-distance hikers. The trail passes by just south of the ranch and dozens of backpackers making their way from Mexico to Canada on the 2,650-mile long trail stop long enough at Drakesbad to pick up their “resupply” (a box of food and other gear that they have mailed ahead to the park weeks in advance of when they expect to reach the area). Then, if the hikers have time, they’ll stop for a shower, a soak in Drakesbad’s hot springs-fed swimming pool—and perhaps a meal. In 2012, co-managers Pat and Valerie counted 424 PCT hikers coming through.
When Ralph and I backpacked through Lassen in 2006, we missed the opportunity to visit Drakesbad—it was between meals and we figured we didn’t have time for a break. I’ve kicked myself ever since—a shower and soak would have been a genuine treat. So, when the opportunity to visit the ranch as a guest of the park concessionaire came up recently, I jumped at the chance—and, as it turned out, Drakesbad exceeded our expectations.
The drive from the Bay Area was long: six hours including a 45-minute stop at the Olive Pit in Corning. The highways were good most of the way—Highway 5 to Red Bluff, east on SR 36 to Chester. After turning off 36/89 and heading toward Lassen Park’s Warner Valley entrance and Drakesbad, we had another 17 miles to go (the last two are unpaved, but doable in passenger cars).
Most of the houses along this stretch of the road were wood-frame, two-story homes that looked as if they had been enjoyed by a few generations of families. Powerboats in side yards attested to the fact that many of the summer residents enjoyed fishing or boating in nearby Lake Almanor when they weren’t relaxing in hammocks or lawn chairs or hiking in Lassen. The steep metal roofs were a reminder that the snow is deep here in winter. We felt like we were going back in time and it was the perfect transition from urban life to ranch house. At the end of the road was Drakesbad.
Drakesbad Guest Ranch in some respects has not changed greatly from how it was when Edward Drake settled there and acquired 400 acres in the late 1800s. Drake used coal-oil lamps; guests now enjoy kerosene lamps in their rustic bungalows, cabins, or rooms. The original buildings are long gone, but the replacements are still rustic wooden structures. Creeks may have changed course and vegetation may have evolved, but the fumaroles and mudpots at nearby Devil’s Kitchen or Boiling Springs Lake continue to reward those who hike a mile or so deeper into the park to see them.
The swimming pool and pool house have been modernized, but the waters from the hot springs still deliver soothing waters to guests. Drake was known to have allowed campers and others to enjoy the hot springs at his place in the Warner Valley, but it was the Sifford family that acquired the ranch in 1900 who established the Drakesbad’s reputation for great hospitality.
Drakesbad was acquired by the National Park system in 1958 and there has been considerable effort to maintain the ranch’s historic integrity. Guests will find that the peaceful surroundings remain a large part of the charm of this unique getaway. Since the only electricity comes from a generator to run the power in the dining room and lodge, you won’t hear TVs blaring and cell phones ringing. You will hear the wind gently whistling along the roof, birds calling, and an old dinner bell calling you to meals five minutes before serving time.
In the next articles in this series, you’ll learn about trails from Drakesbad that will take you to volcanic wonders of Lassen National Park, the wide range of activities at the ranch, the accommodations, and still more about the history of this thoroughly enjoyable getaway.
Susan "backpack45" Alcorn