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.
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,
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.
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.
Off to the west, we could see Cinder Butte and the huge, 1,100 year-old Callahan Flow extending downhill to the north.
Then past another Ponderosa grove,
to a collapsed lava tube that points toward Cinder Butte but was actually created by flows from Mammoth Crater.
Then more Ponderosas as we started to loop back to the rim,
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),
and through another bought of pines.
By the time we got back to the rim, the morning’s photo-killing overcast was breaking-up and the views were rapidly improving.
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,
of water vapor in the clouds refracting the sunlight,
and of the trail in sunshine.
A nice little trail and definitely one for those who like Ponderosa pines!