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Cave Crawling at Lava Beds

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Photo by Lee JuilleratLight at an opening along a branch of the Labyrinth Cave system.
Photo by Lee JuilleratFlow lines show areas where flowing lava hardened.
Photo by Lee JuilleratLights are required along the trail through Thunderbolt Cave.

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — It sounded like a good idea.

While checking in at the Lava Beds National Monument visitor center to get a caving permit and a loaner flashlight, I asked the on-duty ranger about Mitertite Hall Cave. In my decades of exploring the park’s lava tube caves, Mitertite was one I’d never heard about.

Although it’s accessed from the park’s loop road, it’s not included on park maps or in the caving brochure. My curiosity was aroused because it is listed as one of the caves seasonally open for exploration.

After explaining its absence from usual park information outlets, the ranger said it’s part of what she calls a “Winter Loop,” an underground journey that can begin and end at the entrance to Thunderbolt Cave. Showing me pages from the booklet “Lava Beds Caves,” an excellent book by Charlie and Jo Larson, she instructed me to go uphill from the Thunderbolt entrance, go left at a junction and, bingo, I would be on my way to Mitertite Hall Cave.

So, that’s what I did.

It’s wasn’t until later that I read that Thunderbolt, which connects with a series of caves that includes Mitertite, is listed in the park brochure’s “most challenging caves” section.

The challenges became quickly evident after descending the ladder into the cave. Thunderbolt is part of Labyrinth Cave, a system that weaves two underground miles and includes eight major caves, including Balcony Chamber, Blue Grotto, Golden Dome, Hopkins Chocolate, Labyrinth, Mushpot, South Labyrinth and, of course, the previously unknown to me Mitertite.

The kneepads I couldn’t find at home that morning were sorely missed, especially by my knees, while duck walking and briefly crawling through narrow passages just uphill from the entrance. One of the tightest squeezes is 6-inches wide.

Whether crawling, stooping or standing tall, appreciating and admiring the never-look-alike cave interiors is part of the intrigue in exploring the park’s many lava tubes. There’s no reason to hurry — and in many places hurrying is impossible. Using the park flashlight and my own headlamp, I scanned the walls and floors, fascinated by the googolplex varieties of textures and tones. Likewise, it’s also impossible not to marvel and wonder how-in-heck the paths were created through the complex chain of natural obstacles.

There are no signs or arrows pointing the way — that’s part of the sense of exploration at the Lava Beds. I duck-walked left at a junction and eventually worked my way into semi-large room — Mitertite?

“Lava Beds Caves” describes Mitertite Hall as “a relatively short but wide and airy segment of the Labyrinth Branch” that’s most accessible by a short trail from the lower Sentinel parking area. At an opening, I climbed out of the cave and followed a lightly used trail and, sure enough, there was the Lower Sentinel parking area.

Mitertite Cave, like many other Lava Beds caves, was named by J.D. Howard, “the Father of Lava Beds.” According to “Lava Beds Caves,” “Mitertite, or mitertyte, is a word believed to have originated at Mammoth Cave in Kentucky to describe a column created by the joining of a stalactite and a stalagmite, the two being ‘mitered’ together.”

Back in Mitertite I took new passages, meandering through portions of what the map shows as Balcony Chamber, Blue Grotto and South Labyrinth caves before, amazingly, the ladder exiting the Labyrinth appeared. The downhill section from the entrance is gated and closed to protect nesting bat habitat. It’s been years since I’ve followed that route, which eventually connects with the Lava Bridge and Labyrinth entrances near the visitor center.

Thunderbold was so named, again by Howard, from an eye-level bridge he named “Jupiter’s Thunderbolt” in 1920. It’s described as about a two-foot-high passage that a spelunker “may crawl over or under.” Another feature is “Fat Person’s Misery,” described as “six inches wide at knee level.”

Those are challenging caves. Many are easier, some with relatively smooth paths that don’t requiring ducking or crawling. Examples of least challenging without bat restrictions along the Cave Loop Road include Ovis and Paradise Alleys, while Sunshine and Golden Dome are moderately challenging.

Rangers at the visitor center, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., have information on cave openings and closures and can offer recommendations on other lava tube caves throughout the park. For more information, visit the park’s website at www.nps.gov.labe or call 530-667-8113.

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