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Caves of lava

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — Some places are single-visit stops, places where you admire the view or see a famous sight, then maybe buy a postcard or snack and drive on to the next peek-a-boo attraction.

Not at Lava Beds National Monument, a place with hundreds of lava caves to visit, and where seldom-hiked trails lead to a variety of surprises, some featuring incredible awe-inspiring geology or insights into the region’s complex human history.

No. 1 on the human history list is Captain Jack’s Stronghold. Seeing it allows visitors to understand how a small band of Modoc Indians thwarted an attack by far larger numbers of U.S. Army troops during the Modoc War of 1872-73. But on a sunny summer day it’s easy to overlook the fears the soldiers surely experienced while attempting to overrun the lava fortress on a foggy winter day, or what the Modocs and their families endured during the many miserably chilling days and nights they huddled in their natural fortification.

Drop into Captain Jack’s Cave and imagine spending weeks and months huddled in rocky discomfort. An inner loop trail is a half-mile long, while the outer loop is 1.5 miles. A brochure helps explain the Stronghold’s history, and regularly scheduled, ranger-guided tours provide context to the war.

Near the Stronghold is another historic war site, Gillems Camp. Until the early 1900s, Gillems Camp was located on the shores of old Tule Lake, which was reduced in size when its waters were allocated for irrigation. Along with Gillems Camp history as the main U.S. Army camp in 1873, it had earlier been used by early Native Americans and, much later, the site of a pre-World War II era Civilian Conservation Corps camp.

An easy, self-guided trail with interpretive panels provides context on the camp’s history. And, if you’re literally up for a challenge, hike the uphill trail to Gillems Bluff for birds’-eye views of Lava Beds’ dramatic volcanic landscape. The trail climbs 550 feet in elevation in three-quarters of a mile.

Summer is also a time to visit some, or several, of the park’s more than 770 lava tube caves. They range in difficulty from easy to wildly challenging for only serious spelunkers. Some of the easiest, best developed and easiest-to-access caves are a short drive from the park’s visitor center along aptly named Cave Loop Road. Among the least difficult along the 2-mile long loop are Blue Grotto, Ovis, Paradise Alley, Lower and Upper Sentinel and, not far from Mushpot, Indian Well. Except for Mushpot, none are lighted or developed. Flashlights can be borrowed at the visitor center.

Along with the easy-to-access Cave Loop caves, other relatively easy caves within a short driving distance include Valentine, Merrill and Skull. Cave entrances at Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave feature pictographs on boulders and walls. Ranger-guided hikes to various caves are offered during summer months. Stop at the visitor center for information and going-it-alone suggestions.

Before visiting any park caves, stops at the visitor center are required to learn about threats posed by white-nose syndrome, a disease that has spread west and has been devastating to bat populations. And, if necessary, visitors are required to take precautionary measures aimed at preventing spreading it further.

Among Lava Beds’ many notable geologic features is Fleener Chimneys, a spatter cone and the source of the Devils Homestead lava flow. As interpretative signs along the short trail explain, Fleener Chimneys was created as “erupting globs of molten lava piled atop each other like sticky oatmeal,” leaving a 50-foot-deep chimney in its center.

There’s human history, too. The picnic tables were built by Civilian Conservation Corps crews, while the massive logs were carted more than 100 miles from what is now Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.

For visitors with enough time, other possibilities include Petroglyph Point, where there are more examples of Native American rock art than any other place in California; the Thomas-Wright Battlefield and the adjacent Black Crater; and Schonchin Butte, where .75-mile uphill hike leads to a seasonally occupied fire lookout built by CCC crews.

Angela Sutton, Lava Beds acting chief interpreter, said ranger-led outings that began earlier this month will be offered daily until Labor Day. Evening programs are held at the Indian Well Campground.

Special summer events include a Junior Ranger Day July 20, and an Astronomy Star Party Aug. 3. The Junior Ranger Day will feature 10 to 15 hands-on activities designed for young visitors.

For updated information, see the Lava Beds website at www.nps.gov/labe or call 530-667-8113.

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

Heppe Ice Cave is one of Lava Beds National Monument's few accessible ice caves. Photo by Lee Juillerat
Catacombs Cave is one of the caves accessible along the Cave Loop Road. Photo by Lee Juillerat