A Turbulent Past ~ Lava Beds National Monument

Our last stop in California, Lava Beds National Monument, lies at the remote northern end of the massive Medicine Lake Volcano. During the past half-million years this shield volcano has erupted many times, spewing gas and lava, creating an otherworldly landscape. It is still considered tectonically active, having last erupted ~ 950 years ago. Today you can explore the resulting geologic features – lava tubes, spatter cones, and surface lava flows. The caves were created by lava flowing 10,500 to 65,000 years ago.

Lava Bed’s historic turbulent past mimics its geologic turmoil. Early Euro-American settlers uprooted the peaceful Modoc tribe who lived on this land, forcing their move to the Klamath Indian Reservation, yet another sad time in the history of our nation. Modoc leader Kientpoos, better known as Caption Jack, came back to the reservation with a band of 150 men, women, and children, determined to take back their sacred homeland.   The resulting tension between the Modocs and the settlers brought about the Modoc War of 1872-1873.

The natural fortress where the Modocs retreated, known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold, remains today, a tribute to the fortitude of 60 warriors who held off a much larger army force for five months.

There are over 500 lava tube caves in Lava Beds National Monument, the highest concentration in the U.S. These tubes formed when the outer edges of lava flows began to cool, eventually creating a roof, much like surface ice on a flowing river. If multiple flows followed one channel, lava tubes were created atop one another, like stacked pipes. When the ceiling collapsed from its own weight, access was opened to the caves below. Twenty of the 500 lava tube caves are considered developed, with forged paths through them, ready to explore, rated from least challenging to most challenging.

Entrance to Skull Cave, where many animal and human remains have been found
Entrance to Skull Cave, where many animal and human remains have been found

We have been in many caves during our travels, Kartchner and Carlsbad, to name a couple. I have enjoyed them immensely but they had a few items that were missing in the Lava Bed’s caves, namely large-domed chambers, smooth walking surfaces, lighting and a ranger to show me the way.   For someone who is claustrophobic, this was going to be a challenge.

The lava caves are important habitats for 14 different species of insect-eating bats. In the summer female bats raise their pups in maternity colonies and in winter the caves become refuges for hibernating bats. Other critters slithering through the caves, which I tried not to think about when we were inside, are cave crickets, millipedes, and rubber boas, yet another reason for me not to explore the most challenging caves on my hands and knees.

Many of the caves, no matter the temperature above ground, remain at a cool 55°F. Some exhale frosty breaths that stay below freezing, with year-round skating rinks on their floors.

Entrance to Mushpot Cave
Entrance to Mushpot Cave

The Visitor Center recommendation for number of light sources in the caves is three flashlights per person. Perhaps this is more for those phobic-souls who would have a complete meltdown should they have a light malfunction. We carried three total, two that we rented from the Visitor Center and one of our own.

Fleener Chimneys, spatter cones that built up as hot gases threw globs of lava into the air
Fleener Chimneys, spatter cones that built up as hot gases threw globs of lava into the air

Closed-toed shoes, long pants and a hard hat were also suggested. We passed on the purchase of the hard hats and opted for ball caps instead since I didn’t see the need for hard hats in our future. But, if you bang your head on a low-hanging ceiling, as I did, you might begin to think that a hard hat would be a nice prop to have when you have a yearning to belt out ‘YMCA’. 😉

We explored six caves in the least to moderately challenging categories and poked our head into another in the most challenging. Sentinel Cave, 3280′ in length, was the longest 30-minutes of my life and deathly quiet, with only my occasional outbursts of “I don’t know if I can do this” spoken into the black void.

Golden Dome was the most interesting, with beautiful colors reflecting off water droplets that beaded up on a coating of hydrophobic bacteria. This cave can also be a bit disconcerting as you encounter a figure-8 that could keep you walking in circles if you didn’t pay close attention.

So, would I venture into these caves again?  Surprisingly, yes I would, if you didn’t ask me to do it on my hands and knees. 😉  If you like cold, damp, dark places where the only sounds are the occasional dripping water and your own raspy breaths, this might be something you too would enjoy. It it really pretty awesome when you think about how these unusual caves were formed.

White pelicans at Tule Lake
White pelicans at Tule Lake

47 thoughts on “A Turbulent Past ~ Lava Beds National Monument

  • Wow, what a brave person you are ! Tom is claustrophobic also, so there’s no way we will ever explore those caves. Long time ago we went to the silver mine in Park City, UT, which was an excellent tour, except for Tom. Fortunately he can do the guided caves, but no more mines for him.

    • I can do the bigger guided caves with no problem but these caves, pitch-black and not knowing what was ahead, were a bit unnerving for me.

  • I am not sure I would want to visit a place called Skull Cave. Sounds too spooky to me.

    Pelicans have always cracked me up. They look so stoic.

    • Skull Cave was a bit challenging for me, as we kept going down and down into what felt like the bowels of the earth. I love white pelicans!

  • Oh, I love that you could go into the caves by yourself!! Ever since we did that cave in Coronado NM, I’ve wanted to do another (that someone has checked out to be safe). Isn’t it just way cool to be alone with that total silence and absolute darkness except for the flashights!! I can understand having three flashlights. I truly would hate to be without light. That would send me off the deep end. I was surprised that my claustrophobis didn’t bother me. I just could let myself think about getting confused or losing my light. Sounds like a great adventure!! No hands and knees for me either:)

    • After going through Sentinel Cave, which was fairly long, I found the others to be much easier. Golden Dome, with the colors on the ceiling, was great.

  • Impressive you had the nerve to go in all those caves! We did the Lava River Cave in Oregon and it was tough walking on the rocks and sand on the bottom without being able to see that well. Don’t think we would do another. You guys are hard core!!

    • Terry has a way of pushing me without saying a word. Each time I said “I don’t know if I can do this”, his response was “Ok”, then I would turn around and trudge forward.

  • Oh, you brave woman! Crawling through cold, damp, and dark low-ceilinged caves — I might just have to content myself with your tales. The tubes are fascinating, though, and I love that they provide refuge for bats. Don’t think I’d enjoy encountering slithery critters in the dark, though.

    • No crawling for me Laurel. Duck walking was the best I could do and then I whacked myself in the head. That could explain a few things. 😉

  • That is some pretty amazing caves you visited! Loved reading about how they came to form. Lovely pictures from the caves. I would love to check them out if I get the chance some time. As you, I would have to do my best not to think about the critters while exploring the caves:) Nice post!

  • Oh my! You brave soul, you! There is no way you’d get me into those things. We totally passed when we went through there. Not even the least bit tempted to go anywhere near the caves.

    • I wasn’t sure I could do it either Gunta. I decided to test my fear and tried not to think about what would happen if my light malfunctioned.

  • You only need another 480 developed then to bag all the caves LuAnn 😉
    Really pitch black of underground places is very unnerving .. so three torches = good idea !
    Super post .

  • I was all for a visit to the caves, until I read the words ” critters slithering.” I’m been in many caves, but always with a guide, and I’ve have never seen anything other than a few bats way up high.You’re very brave, LuAnn. Love the pelicans though. 🙂

  • I feel your claustrophobia my friend, I am impressed that you tackled it though and enjoyed yourself, if you have a hard hat on in the caves then don’t be surprised if I poll up in my leathers lol.

    The glorious gifts that nature gives us really are amazing, I love that something formed thousands of years ago can be enjoyed in the here and now and especially by those as eloquent with their as you are.

  • Go for the hard hats, Lu. If you need one to give, I have a constructionman’s hard hat. 😀 The caving that you do sounds so much fun than the “touristy” caves that I’ve explored.

    • I asked the rangers how they accounted for everyone who came into the Visitor Center saying they were going into the caves. They really can’t do much until someone comes up missing. There would be many caves that would need to be searched if something like that happened. That is why the rangers recommend going with someone else and bringing several light sources.

  • Always an adventure with you!

    I recently stepped foot into my first cave.
    I will have to share some photos about that trip on my blog. Hopefully – soon. I’m so far behind on my posts & visits on the WP. Life…

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