Northern California's Lava Beds National Monument
Lava Beds is part of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, a chain of volcanoes stretching from British Columbia to northern California. As a seasonal park guide with the National Park Service, I spent the past summer leading visitors down into the depths of the most abundant lava tube system in North America.
Lava tube caves form when a large volume of molten lava flows downhill, hardening into a crust as the 2,000 degree lava contacts the air. The hardened crust acts as an insulator as the river of lava continues to flow downhill, eventually draining out, leaving a tube with a roof and walls.
People come from all over the United States and the world to see Lava Beds National Monument. I led a guided cave tour through one of these unique and fascinating lava tubes.
“Did you know you are standing on a volcano? “ I asked the group of visitors strung out on the trail before me at the beginning of each tour. As I went on to describe the boundaries of the Medicine Lake Volcano and the lava tube I was about to lead them through, I marveled at the diversity of ages represented for just one cave tour.
One group in particular included a rambunctious five-year old who soon held onto my pinky finger as we descended into massive Sentinel Cave. Close behind trailed his 84-year old grandparents who carefully, but surely, stepped down each rocky step, and all the way on the half-mile of rough trail, occasionally admonishing the child to “listen to the Ranger.”
The Medicine Lake shield volcano erupted periodically for 500,000 years, creating a vast, rugged landscape with over 700 lava tubes. While visiting Lava Beds, you can explore one or two of these daily on a guided tour, such as the one I led, or venture into over twenty others all on your own. Flashlights are provided for you, and wear sturdy, toe-covered shoes. Bring a bike helmet or buy an inexpensive hardhat at the park visitor center. Difficulty levels range from narrow passages, requiring you to crawl, to those where you walk upright; the choice will be up to you.
From the numerous fiery eruptions, volcanic features are prominent in the park. You can hike up the huge cinder cone to Schonchin Butte Lookout for a birdseye view of Northern California, with snow-capped Mt. Shasta in the distance. Picnic among the splatter cones of Fleener Chimneys, and stop at the overlook of the Devils Homestead Flow, a river of hardened lava.
For history buffs, Lava Beds is the location of the Modoc Indian War of the 1870's, where Captain Jack and his small band held off the American Army for many months, hidden among the lava fields and caves. More ancient human history is represented by petroglyphs and pictographs in several of the caves and at Petroglyph Point, a small cliff jutting up from the former lakebed below it.
Plant and animal lovers will revel in the beauty of the Great Basin Desert, with bunchgrasses, sagebrush, bitter cherry, and Wyoming paintbrush, to name a few of the plants and flowering species that abound here. Lizards, jackrabbits, cottontails, Mule deer, Belding ground squirrels, and yes, the Western diamondback rattlesnake thrive in this high desert environment, where nights are cool and days warm during the summer months.
Best of all, this park is not crowded, with around 100,000 people a year. The most frequent comments I heard from visitors were, “I wish I had planned more time here”. “There is so much to see here.” I had no idea it would be so beautiful.”
For more information:
Lava Beds National Monument: https://www.nps.labe/index.htm
Senior Park Passes, for those 62 and older, are available at all National Park Service sites. See the website for other park passes available.
Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex: https://www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges/
Tulelake, CA Chamber of Commerce: https://www.visittulelake.com/
Klamath County, OR Chamber of Commerce: https://www.klamath.org/
Diane Pierce has lived and worked for public land agencies in the Western U.S. for over 20 years. She and husband Roy Dailey currently divide their time between Oregon, California and Nevada.
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