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. 😦
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 😎 and a cooling breeze on an easy trail. Too bad The LovedOne missed it. 😦 But the book sale went real well, so I suppose literacy is a fair trade for a hike. 🙂
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”→
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’s 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.
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.
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,
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 miles round-trip; little elevation gain) but a nice balance for a day otherwise spent underground.