Hiking the Big Nasty (Lava Beds NM) 04-May-2018

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California

While the primary attractions at Lava Beds National Monument are its numerous lava tube caves, there are some above-ground sites worth visiting too. Having hiked to Whitney Butte in the past, today we aimed for Mammoth Crater, the Big Nasty Trail (despite whatever purient thoughts you may be harboring, this trail was named after a brush-covered formation of rough lava rock), and the lookout atop Schonchin Butte.

The Big Nasty Trail, which is neither “big” (it’s only a two mile loop) or “nasty” (it’s mostly a sandy tread) starts at the end of the paved path to the Mammoth Crater overlook. Between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, Mammoth Crater contained a massive lake of lava that overflowed rather than erupted, leaving behind an enormous, now empty, crater. This highly fluid, basaltic lava created lava tubes that extended largely unbroken for up to 10 miles from the crater and were stopped only by the waters of Tule Lake. Flows from Mammoth and Modoc Craters cover about 70% of the Monument and formed most of its lava tube caves.

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Mammoth Crater
Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Mammoth Crater (the height of the trees are an indication of its depth)

We followed the Big Nasty Trail around the south and west rim of the crater, past a pica living in a rock pile on the rim,

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Pica on the rim

and then forked right to do the loop counter-clockwise. Here the trail climbed just high enough to give us a view of Mount Dome and Mount McLoughlin (almost lost in the overcast) to the north. Unfortunately, the early parts of this hike were plagued by a milky white overcast that depressed the views; fortunately, this overcast would start to dissipate about half-way through the hike.

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Eagle Nest Butte (foreground) with Mount Dome in the distance
Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Mount McLoughlin was barely visible just to the right of Mount Dome

After this brief obscured view, we followed the trail down a bit past a grove of healthy looking Ponderosa pines; we’d be going in and out of pine groves until we got back to the rim. The presence of these trees is what sets this trail apart from others in the Monument – like the one out to Whitney Butte – that are largely treeless.

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
A grove of Ponderosas along the trail

Off to the west, we could see Cinder Butte and the huge, 1,100 year-old Callahan Flow extending downhill to the north.

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Cinder Butte and the Callahan Flow

Then past another Ponderosa grove,

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
More Ponderosas

to a collapsed lava tube that points toward Cinder Butte but was actually created by flows from Mammoth Crater.

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
A collapsed lava tube; Cinder Butte on the horizon

Then more Ponderosas as we started to loop back to the rim,

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Yet more Ponderosas

up a lava rock staircase (the trail is almost all a level sand tread except for a few rocky spots and two sets of these rock stairs),

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Stairway to the rim

and through another bought of pines.

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Pines before our return to the rim

By the time we got back to the rim, the morning’s photo-killing overcast was breaking-up and the views were rapidly improving.

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Approaching the rim
Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Clouds over the rim

The loss of the overcast gave us a chance for a better view of Cinder Butte and the Callahan Flow to the west from the rim of Mammoth Crater,

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Cinder Butte and the Callahan Flow

of water vapor in the clouds refracting the sunlight,

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
A rainbow in the clouds

and of the trail in sunshine.

Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
The overcast abates!
Big Nasty Trail Schonchin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California
Finishing the Big Nasty with sunshine

A nice little trail and definitely one for those who like Ponderosa pines!

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2 thoughts on “Hiking the Big Nasty (Lava Beds NM) 04-May-2018

  1. Hi! It appears that we have crossed paths, or perhaps shared paths. This post of yours sparked a memory in me. If you search my blog for “Big Nasty” or “Whtiney Butte” or “April 13, 2015” you will see why. (I could post a link but I’m not sure if it’s good etiquette.)

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    1. Yes, your post (and several others) came up when I was researching the Big Nasty. Seems that this little trail attracts more interest than you’d think (or maybe it’s the crater and, once there, why not do the trail…). I notice you did the trail in summer – that would be too hot for us. By then we’re back in the lava tubes! 🙂

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