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Whitney Butte Trail

You don't have to be a masochist to enjoy the desert in February.

Sunny days in late winter feel positively springish in the high desert country around Lava Beds National Monument. Anyone who enjoys rocks, caves or wide-open country will find something to savor in this little corner of Northern California.

The monument, about 20 miles south of Klamath Falls, is the largest concentration in the United States. Hundreds of lava-tube caves lie within the monument's 72 square miles, and there are numerous cinder cones, lava flows and other textbook examples of volcanic rock forms.

There's history at the monument, too. It was the scene of a bitter standoff between the Modoc people and soldiers from the U.S. Army in 1872-73. Lava tubes form when molten rock hardens on the surface but keeps flowing beneath the hardened skin. The crust insulates the liquid rock beneath, allowing it to continue to flow.

Sometimes hot lava continues to flow in small tubes as the rock gradually hardens around the channels. Eventually the eruption stops, and the molten rock drains away, leaving a hollow tube within the hard rock. Some of the lava is brand new as rocks go, dating back barely 1,000 years.

Other formations have been dated to 2 million years. The arid climate makes vegetation sparse enough for hikers to walk almost anywhere, but a number of trails wander through the sage and juniper that has managed to set their roots among the rocks.

One of the trails leads to the top of Whitney Butte near the monument's west boundary. The trail begins near the Merrill Ice Cave, a lava tube that shelters a lake of ice through most of the year.

The trail wanders 3.6 miles through sage, bitterbrush and rabbitbrush. Keen-eyed hikers may note some of the native bunchgrasses, which survive in knee-high clumps along part of the trail. Trees are there, too, but only ones that can survive long, hot, dry summers. Look for mountain mahogany, a low-growing tree with rock-hard wood and slender willow-like leaves, as well as western junipers and occasional ponderosa pines.

The trail forks 2.2 miles out from the ice cave. Bear to the left and continue along the flank of Whitney Butte. The trail ends at the Callahan Lava Flow, a sheet of rock that spread across this part of the monument just 1,000 years ago.

To reach the summit of Whitney Butte (5,004 feet), you'll have to scramble up the rocks and make your own way. To reach the monument from Medford, take Highway 140 east to Klamath Falls and turn south where it joins Highway 39. The road becomes Highway 139 when you cross into California. About four miles south of Tulelake, look for signs directing you into the monument on Modoc County Road 111.

Allow about 2.5 hours to get there from Medford.