Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Grant
Northern California’s Lava Beds National Monument is a vast volcanic landscape covered in, well, lava. It is also home to a variety of volcanic formations including fumaroles, cinder cones, spatter cones, pit craters and quite a few lava tubes.
Most of Lava Beds National Monument is covered in basaltic lava flows, vast expanses of smooth lava. But under the flows are the largest concentration of lava tubes in North America. Out of the more than 700 lava tubes and caves in the park, 27 have marked entrances and are developed for public access.
The best part of the lava tubes? You get to explore them on your own! In most caves in the Park Service, the only way to experience the underground environment is on a guided tour. Here, you can grab a flashlight and good shoes and explore the lava tubes on your own.
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Visiting Lava Beds National Monument
Your first stop when visiting Lava Beds National Monument should be the Visitor Center. Aside from the excellent exhibits and film on the park, the rangers are your best resource for exploring the lava tubes.
We made a point to ask for recommendations based upon our experience in caves and the level of difficulty we wanted to experience. We were also able to get some recommendations on other sites to see in the park.
In terms of gear for exploring the lava tubes, at the very least, you need a flashlight (or better yet, a headlamp) and closed-toe shoes. Since the temperatures in the caves are about 55 degrees, you might want a long-sleeve layer and, perhaps, pants. If you are planning on doing any of the more challenging caves, a helmet, gloves and kneepads are necessary.
In terms of lights, make sure every person in your group carries some sort of backup light and some extra batteries, especially if you are doing a longer cave. You can borrow lights from the Visitor Center if you need them.
One thing you need from either the Visitor Center or the entrance station is a caving permit. The permits are free and designed to make sure that you are not potentially bringing White-Nose Syndrome to the bats of the park.
White-Nose Syndrome is a fungus that can easily be spread on clothing, boots and gear. The disease kills bats and is responsible for bat deaths all over the country. The best advice is don’t wear anything that has been in another cave at all. For us, this meant buying new shoes to wear in both Oregon Caves National Monument and Lava Beds National Monument since we wore the other shoes we had with us in Timpanogos Cave National Monument and the Subway Cave outside Lassen Volcanic National Park on this trip.
Read more about White-Nose Syndrome here.
Exploring the Lava Tubes
Mushpot and Golden Dome
The rangers recommended we start with the Mushpot. This cave is listed as least challenging and you don’t even need a light. There is an illuminated, paved walkway and exhibits within the cave, making it the most accessible in the park. While you don’t need a flashlight, we did use ours in a few places.
This lava tube has a bunch of great exhibits on the various formations of the lava within the tubes. This is the perfect first cave to explore and if you only do one lava tube, do this one.
From there, we headed along the Cave Loop Road to Golden Dome, a moderately challenging cave. You will definitely need solid shoes for this cave as the floor is littered with jagged volcanic rock and there are definitely some spots where you will need to stoop. While we did not need a helmet, we were glad to have on hats to offer basic protection for our heads.
In this cave, you can explore in both directions but be sure to look up! The cave gets its name from the golden ceilings, which are quite striking.
Sentinel and Skull Caves
From there, we drove to Lower Sentinel Cave. Lower Sentinel Cave connects with Upper Sentinel Cave, so we hiked through exploring the inside of this rugged lava tube. Being able to walk all the way through the cave and then just loop back to the truck made this our favorite cave to explore. For us, it was just challenging enough without being uncomfortable.
The last cave we explored was the Skull Cave, which is located off the main road a ways from the Visitor Center. One of the most popular lava tubes in the park, Skull Cave has a massive entrance and is completely awe-inspiring as you walk in.
The other attraction of Skull Cave is the ice floor. As you descend into the cave, the temperature drops and the metal staircases start getting more and more uncomfortable with bare hands. Soon, you will reach the ice floor, a large flat section of cave that collects enough moisture to form ice and stay frozen year-round.
There are several other ice caves in the park and they serve as a vital supply of water during the summer months for wildlife.
Exploring Above Ground at Lava Beds National Monument
Much like Craters of the Moon National Monument, Lava Beds is a rugged landscape. Still there are several hikes you can do if you don’t mind the lack of shade. If you do decide to go for a hike, be sure to check in with the Visitor Center to see what is open. Unfortunately, the park has been affected by wildfires in recent years and we found several closures while we were there.
Still, we made a point to get out to the Mammoth Crater, which is aptly named. This massive crater at the south end of the park is responsible for most of the lava flows in the park.
We also stopped at Black Crater, a spatter cone volcano. We hiked the short but rugged trail up to the cone itself, which had great views of nearby Schonchin Butte, a cinder cone volcano.
There is also a small unit, called Petroglyph Point, to the northeast that contains petroglyphs along a cliff wall. It is an interesting but brief stop.
Modoc War Sites
Lava Beds National Monument is also home to several sites from the Modoc War, one of the Indian Wars, including Captain Jack’s Stronghold.
During the war, the Modoc, under their leader Kintpuash (known as Captain Jack), used the rugged lava fields as a defensive stronghold and held off the US Army for months. The Modoc were pushing for their own reservation, one where they did not have to share land with other tribes they regarded as rivals.
We hiked through the stronghold on a great loop trail which highlights how difficult the terrain is and makes it easy to understand how the much smaller Modoc forces held off the Army for so long.
It is also home to the Canby Cross, commemorating the loss of General Edward Canby, the only general officer to die in the Indian Wars. He was part of a peace commission with the Modoc. When talks broke down, Kintpuash killed him and another peace commissioner, hoping the deaths of the leaders would force the Army to withdraw. Instead, the Army sent even more troops.
Getting to Lava Beds National Monument
Lava Beds National Monument is a bit off the beaten path. It is about an hour south of Klamath Falls, OR. It is about two hours from both Lassen Volcanic and Crater Lake national parks, making it a good halfway point between the two.
That said, there is not much to the nearby town of Tulelake. There are no hotels, only a handful of restaurants and there is some RV camping at the fairgrounds.
So, we decided to do our visit as a day trip from Crater Lake National Park. Since it was two hours each way, it did make for a long day but it worked reasonably well.
That said, we will be returning to the area to visit the Tule Lake National Monument, which was closed the day we visited. Tule Lake NM honors those who were held at Japanese internment camp here. When we do return, we will likely stay in nearby Klamath Falls, OR, which has a lot more in the way of hotels, campgrounds and restaurants.
Final Thoughts on Lava Beds National Monument
We had a lot of fun at Lava Beds National Monument exploring the lava tubes. We really enjoyed being able to explore the caves on our own rather than as part of a tour.
The above-ground part of the park is stark and dramatic. The damage from the recent wildfires was noticeable and it did close off parts of the park.
In all, we had a great visit and are looking forward to returning to tour more of the lava tubes.
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