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To beat the smoke, go underground

What do you do, and where can you go when it’s obnoxiously and dangerously smoky outside?

Cave in to those desires to get out and go by heading to Lava Beds National Monument, where it’s easy to escape that foul air by exploring some of the park’s evocatively fascinating lava tube caves.

Earlier this week, when it was smoky outside, inside the caves the air was clear and comfortably cool. And, as always, the tubes were magical, filled with unpredictable shapes and forms of weirdly displaced lava created by otherworldly outbursts of dripstone, ribbed walls, stalactites and remnants of flowing lava seemingly frozen in place.

Over several hours I walked, stooped and wriggled through caves, focusing on those along Cave Loop Road. With the exception of Mushpot Cave, none of the park’s lava tubes are lighted, so it’s necessary to go prepared. Necessities include good boots, long pants and, most of all, good lights, while helmets, knee pads and gloves make squeezing through areas with low ceilings easier.

It had been a few years since I had shimmied my way through the dozen-plus caves along the park’s Cave Loop Road, which is conveniently adjacent to park headquarters. A headquarters stop is necessary because it’s the place where visitors are required to check in to receive a free cave permit and, if not carrying your own, borrow flashlights. It is recommended that people carry two light sources. Many cavers prefer headlamps that fit snugly on helmets, plus take a small flashlight that fits inside pockets or a small pack.

Some caves along the loop road are closed until mid-October to protect bats. Park officials say the seasonal closures are necessary to protect maternal bat colonies where mothers raise thousands of tiny bat pups on cave ceilings. In addition, some caves are closed because of the lingering concerns from the Caldwell fire, which earlier this summer burned 70 percent of Lava Beds above-ground. Loop Road caves currently closed to protect bats are Ovis, Paradise Alley, Blue Grotto and a section of Thunderbolt, while Balcony and Boulevard are closed because of fire-related concerns.

Still, there’s no shortage of lava tubes to explore and enjoy, especially along Cave Loop Road. Rated as least challenging is Sentinel, which has upper and lower entrances. Rated as moderately challenging are Golden Dome and Sunshine, while listed as most challenging are Labyrinth, Lava Brook, Hopkins Chocolate, Hercules Leg, Catacombs and Juniper.

For first-timers, be aware that all the caves are challenging because of irregular floor surfaces, narrow paths, frequent low ceilings and, most of all, darkness that’s only slightly negated by even the brightest flashlight or head lamp. That’s part of the attraction.

A good starting cave is Sentinel. Like nearby Mushpot and such other park caves as Valentine, Skull, Merrill and Heppe, Sentinel generally has relatively high ceilings where it’s possible to walk upright and mostly smooth floors. The most challenging caves have low ceilings that require crawling over ragged surfaces of coarse lava and under potentially head poking lavacicles, which is why helmets, kneepads and gloves are recommended.

Although Hercules Leg is rated most challenging, it’s worth exploring because a large section has a comfortably high ceiling, smooth floors and areas where daylight lights its interior. That’s also among the attractions of Sunshine, which features two collapses that help light the trail.

Making cave visits fascinating are the various caves with amazingly diverse features.

Golden Dome, for example, is described by Charlie and Jo Larson, authors of the excellent book “Lava Beds Caves,” as being “characterized by cauliflower ... floors, cupolas, cutbanks, aprons, well-preserved lava flowstone, ribs and little collapse.” Golden Dome is also known for “headache rock,” a protrusion that’s rocked more than a few heads of people entering and exiting the cave by its steep steel ladder. In describing Hopkins Chocolate, the Larsons note it was named partly for its discoverer E.L. Hopkins and partly because of its “tan-colored coating of minerals and mud on the ceiling and walls.”

Catacombs, with a length of 6,903 feet, was named by J.D. “Judd” Howard, known as “The Father of Lava Beds,” who discovered the cave in March 1918. According to “Lava Beds Caves,” Howard was seeking shelter from a blizzard when he descended into a collapse. While seated on a wood rat’s nest he “felt air movement and tore away the nest to uncover a small opening through the rocks.” As he explored the cave, its many branches and alcoves “reminded him of burial chambers beneath the city of Rome that he had read about.” Nearly two dozen features are named, including Wine Cask, Igloo, Boxing Glove Chamber, Howards Hole and Devils Backbone.

Howard, who moved to the Klamath Basin to work in flour mills in 1916, spent 20 years exploring the caves. While he extolled the delights of Catacombs, he expressed less enthusiasm for Sunshine. Howard described Sunshine as “not much of a cave” because a skylight provides enough sunshine to explore more than 100 feet without a light. Along with discovering and naming caves, Howard’s legacy includes clearing entrances and making many of the caves accessible.

Other cave improvements were done by federal government work crews, including the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and ’40s, who cleared passes, built bridges and ladders, and enlarged cave entrances. In recent years, the park has installed a helpful network of steel bridges, such as in Sentinel, that connect the upper and lower sections.

The caves along the Cave Loop Road offer opportunities to meander through lava tubes that offer relatively easy access and travel, along with others where some limbo-training and high performance gymnastics are required.

To learn more, visit park headquarters for a caving brochure and information on what caves are open and closed. Before going, visit the Lava Beds National Monument website at www.nps.gov/labe, or call 530-667-8113.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

A skylight allows sunlight in a portion of Hercules Leg Cave. Photo by Lee Juillerat
A steel bridge provides passage over a section of Sentinel Cave. Photo by Lee Juillerat