Lava Beds National Monument is located in northeastern California, in Siskiyou and Modoc counties. The Monument lies on the northeastern flank of the Medicine Lake Volcano and has the largest total area covered by a volcano in the Cascade Range. We’ve made several visits to the monument to both explore some of the caves (which are actually lava tubes) and to do a short hike to Whitney Butte in the adjacent Lava Beds Black Lava Flow Wilderness Area. It should be noted that those caves along the Loop Road can be closed to entry to protect hibernating bats, so it’s not necessarily possible to visit all of them during a single visit. Also the recent appearance of White-Nose Syndrome (a fatal condition in bats associated with exposure to a fungus) in Washington State might eventually further complicate visiting these caves.
We started our visits with some of the “outer” caves – those north of the Visitor Center and not on the Cave Loop Road. First up were Balcony and Boulevard Caves. These are part of the Bearpaw Butte Lava Tube System, with Boulevard at the far end of the system and separated from Balcony by about 200 feet of collapse trench and a bridge. The smooth floor of these caves is indicative of their lava origin (i.e., due to the lava cascade) and a joy to walk on compared to some of the jumbled rocks lining the floors of other caves.
The LovedOne found these caves to be perfectly “right-sized” for her and took no small amount of preverse pleasure in watching me crawl around trying to avoid a good brain-bash!
Here, as in several of the other caves, the overhead tube has collapsed allowing light to spill in via a “skylight” and, in some caves, for unfortunate animals to fall in and not be able to get out.
We then moved over to Merrill Cave, which spans two levels of a master tube and which has a large body of perennial ice in its lower level. Entrance to the lower level is via a steep staircase through a small opening between the levels.
This cave is very large – way too large for us to photograph meaningfully with just basic flash equipment. Back in the day, the ice in this lower level was used as a skating rink by local residents!
A recent visit took us to the Blue Grotto Cave, so named because the interior has a blueish color under certain lighting.
There are six natural and one excavated openings to this cave – we used the pit entrance with a stairway,
caught some of the blueish tint on the rocks in one of the skylights,
and wandered a ways down the cave across rock-strewn flooring which was harder to negotiate than the smooth floors produced by a lava cascade.
Then we had some fun with low light photography,
before heading back up the stairway and on to the Catacombs.
It is 2,000 feet, in roughly a straight line, from Catacomb’s only entrance to the far end of the cave – about half this length (~800 feet) can be visited with minimal stooping. This is another cave with a smooth floor, which makes exploring it (and the stooping) a lot easier.
More fun with timed exposures and headlamps,
lava stalactites (some of the finest examples of which are in this cave),
using the LovedOne for scale,
and then back to the entrance.
We then went on to Ovis Cave and Paradise Alleys Cave, which are intertwined with each other. Ovis is 200 feet long, 52 feet wide at its lower end, about 30 feet high, and wide open at either end – more of a tunnel than a cave.
Ovis Cave connects with Paradise Alleys Cave at their south ends, which provides a place in Paradise Alley where you look down some 15-25 feet into the main gallery of Ovis Cave.
Easy paths have been built in Paradise Alley so you don’t have to crawl over the jumble of rocks on the floor of the cave.
There are, however, places where the floor is a naturally smooth lava flow.
We even found some blue tint in this cave too.
After all this wandering around in the dark, it was time to rejoin the Eloi back on the surface and do a short hike out to Whitney Butte.
This is basically an easy hike through open country,
with good views of Mount Shasta to the west,
past Whitney Butte – we were dissuaded from climbing it due to an unfortunate juxtaposition of shorts, long grass, and rattlesnakes (a hike up it might have been easy and fun, given colder weather and longer pants) –
to the face of the Black Lava flow.
The face of the flow is around 30-50 feet high and speaks to the bulldozing power of large masses of molten rock in motion. We tried climbing up on it but that was like balancing on large razor blades – not AT ALL forgiving if you miss a foot or hand-hold and slip. A short hike (6 mi round-trip, little elevation gain) but a nice balance for a day otherwise spent underground.