Painted Dunes – Old Station, California - Atlas Obscura

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Painted Dunes

Old Station, California

Sunset-colored dunes of volcanic ash make taking a poor photo impossible. 


The Painted Dunes at Lassen Volcanic National Park look like a landscape pulled straight from a watercolor painting. Red and orange blotches cover the rolling terrain, with verdant trees speckled throughout their range. The inky blackness of the surrounding volcanic earth highlights their fiery hues. 

Though the colorful whirls and streaks seem as though they’re the work of some imaginative landscape artist, they’re one of nature’s masterpieces. The artists responsible for the dunes’ unusual appearance are none other than the area’s volcanoes. The Painted Dunes are pumice fields that formed from layers of oxidized volcanic ash. The ash became so vividly oxidized (and colorful) because it fell atop a bed of lava flows while still hot.

Hiking up Cinder Cone, the almost perfectly symmetrical cinder cone that looms nearby, offers the best views of the strange landscape. Those who make the steep trek to the summit are rewarded with a sublime vista of the splashes of red and orange within their dark surroundings.

In addition to the Painted Dunes, Lassen Volcanic National Park offers a plethora of other geological wonders. It’s one of the few places in the world that contains all four types of volcanoes. Visiting the park offers one an in-person encounter with the volatile volcanic forces that shaped the region’s natural environment.

Know Before You Go

Plan for a full day. Unless you are camping at the remote Butte Lake campground near the trailhead, you have a one to two hour drive from the nearest accommodations. Bring LOTS of water. You will become a piece of human toast if you do not (quoting Jurassic Park). Bring extra batteries as you will take hundreds of photos. For trailhead and access details see the NPS website.

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