Three Sisters Loop (Lava Beds Wilderness) 31-May-2019

These are not the Three Sisters in Oregon you are seeking. Rather they are three small cinder cones a few miles north of the visitor center in Lava Beds National Monument. The loop past these Three Sisters got added to our hikes list after it appeared in the November 2018 issue of Backpacker magazine (yes, how quaint, printed material). The trick was to find a time that was optimal re: the weather – not too hot, not too cold. Now seemed like that time, what with snow still blocking trails in the high country and thunderstorms keeping the desert cool. With The LovedOne mired in running the library’s quarterly book sale, I made the two hour drive to the monument alone. ūüė¶

Because of concerns about White-Nose Syndrome (a disease fatal to bats), you’ll need a cave permit even if you are just hiking and don’t plan on entering any of the monument’s caves. Obtain this permit (free) at the entrance station or the visitor center.

This 10-mile loop – mostly through the Lava Beds Wilderness – winds its way along all or parts of the Lyons, Three Sisters, Bunchgrass, and Missing Link Trails. There is a trailhead in Loop A of the campground but I couldn’t find anywhere to park there that didn’t look like it wasn’t part of a campsite. Instead, I parked at at Skull Cave and started the loop on the Lyons Trail from there. So, north to an unsigned junction with the Three Sisters Trail, then a big “U” out and back on that trail to the campground. A short paved walk through the campground was required to reach the Bunchgrass Trail, which starts from the group campsite on the west side of Loop B. A short stroll down the Bunchgrass brought me to the Missing Link Trail and that one took me back to Skull Cave – just in time for a school bus parked nearby to disgorge 40 kids on a field trip to the cave.

Unlike the caves, which are the main attraction at this monument, this loop hike is all about big views in all directions. I passed some inaccessible lava tubes but mostly just gazed out over sagebrush and through junipers to watch Schonchin Butte first recede and then gain on the horizon. Watching the thunderheads build steadily all around me added a certain electrifying frisson to the hike. But no rain was shed or bolts flung until after I’d made it back to the parking lot. Otherwise the hiking weather was perfect, with sunshine ūüėé and a cooling breeze on an easy trail. Too bad The LovedOne missed it. ūüė¶ But the book sale went real well, so I suppose literacy is a fair trade for a hike. ūüôā

Schonchin Butte from the Lyons Trail
Looking west along the Lyons Trail
Threadleaf Phacelia
Looking west from the Three Sisters Trail
The Three Sisters
The Three Sisters
Clouds over Schonchin Butte
Looking west from the Three Sisters Trail
The Three Sisters Trail turns to the south
Then it turns to the west, toward the campground
Schoncin Butte (again) from the west-bound Three Sisters Trail
Schoncin Butte (yet again) from nearer the campground
One of the caves (collapsed lava tubes) along the Three Sisters Trail
Along the Missing Link Trail
A last look at Schonchin Butte from the Missing Link Trail
The Three Sisters Loop

Schonchin Butte (Lava Beds NM) 04-May-2018

Schoncin Butte Lava Beds National Monument California

After looping the Big Nasty, we drove over to Schonchin Butte for the brief (1.4 miles round-trip; 500 feet of elevation) hike to the lookout on its summit. Today the lookout was closed, but is usually staffed from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM daily from June to late September. The lookout and the trail leading up to it were built from 1939 to 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It’s perched on the rim of the small crater in the center of the butte and commands an amazing view in all directions. Even with today’s lingering overcast, the view was pretty amazing. Well worth the short hike! Continue reading “Schonchin Butte (Lava Beds NM) 04-May-2018”

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. Continue reading “Hiking the Big Nasty (Lava Beds NM) 04-May-2018”

Pluto’s Cave & Haystack (Northern California) 12-Dec-2016

Pluto's Cave Northren California

Northern California’s Shasta Valley, a wide valley extending north from the foot of Mount Shasta, is a pocket of high desert resulting from¬†Mount Shasta‚Äôs orographic seizure of moisture from east-bound Pacific storm systems. This wringing-out of the waters¬†creates a sagebrush/juniper biome¬†strikingly at odds with the moist, green¬†forests found just a few miles to the south or north. This orographic lift also raises the odds for sunny, snow-free hikes during the winter months¬†– a possibility we were alerted to by the excellent Hike Mt. Shasta website. ¬†So, when the forecast for the Shasta Valley was for clear and sunny (but colder than squat), and our local forecast offered¬†only more rain and gloom, we¬†went south to explore¬†Pluto’s Cave¬†(Pluto Cave on the USGS map) and hike up near-by Haystack.

Continue reading “Pluto’s Cave & Haystack (Northern California) 12-Dec-2016”

Lava Beds National Monument 01-Apr-2016


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.

Continue reading “Lava Beds National Monument 01-Apr-2016”

Whitney Butte (Lava Beds National Monument) 27-Aug-2015

Whitney Butte Black Lava Flow Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument has a lot of caves but it also has some above-ground hiking trails that make a nice counter-point to time spent crawling around in the dark. Starting from the Merrill Ice Cave parking lot, the trail to Whitney Butte is basically an easy hike through open country,

Lava Beds National Monument Whitney Butte
Start of the trail to Whitney Butte and the Black Lava Flow Wilderness

with good views of Mount Shasta to the west,

Lava Beds National Monument Whitney Butte
Mount Shasta

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) –

Lava Beds National Monument Whitney Butte
Whitney Butte

to the face of the Black Lava flow.

Lava Beds National Monument Whitney Butte
Face of the Black Lava Flow, with Mount Shasta on the horizon

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 Рnot AT ALL forgiving if you miss a foot or hand-hold and slip. A short hike (6 miles round-trip; little elevation gain) but a nice balance for a day otherwise spent underground.

Lava Beds National Monument Whitney Butte
Our track to and from Whitney Butte and the Black Lava Flow