Lava Beds National Monument lies in a remote area of Northern California most people never visit. This high-desert park covers 46,560 acres, and 60 percent of that is designated wilderness. It offers a rugged landscape punctuated by cinder cones, lava flows, spatter cones, lava tube caves and pit craters. The lava beds appear to be inhospitable, but for centuries semi-nomadic Modoc people made this land of scrawny grasses, sage and juniper their home.
What appeals to kids (and adults) most about Lava Beds is what’s underground: lava tube caves. These hollow passages can be found beneath the surface of a solidified lava flow. The monument contains 778 known caves, the largest concentration of grottos and caverns in the contiguous United States. More than two dozen caves — varying greatly in difficulty, length and complexity — are open to visitors throughout the year for self-guided exploration.
These tubes are eerie, wonderful places, providing a reprieve from the intense glare and summer heat. (Temperatures in the caves average 55 degrees.) Many of these lava-tube caves lie off Cave Loop Road, a 2-mile road less than one-half mile from the park campground, providing easy access to these underground wonders.
Mushpot Cave is the only lava tube with electric lights. Dependable flashlights are required to visit others. A few of the deeper lava tubes, accessible via iron ladders and stairways, are cloaked in ice year-round. Two special guided cave explorations are available on a seasonal basis, one of which is a strenuous excursion requiring participants to ascend a sheer 50-foot-long sloped ice floor on a rope and crawl through tight holes.
ABOVE-GROUND EXPLORING: There are 12 hiking trails in the park. The most popular trails are short, while the longer routes are primarily in designated wilderness areas. Some footpaths climb to the top of perfectly concentric cinder cones with sweeping vistas. Other trails lead to Captain Jack’s Stronghold and historic battlefield sites. Here you can learn the story of the Modoc War of 1872 to 1873, the only major American Indian war fought in California.
OF INTEREST: With more than 5,000 individual rock carvings, the northeast corner of the monument at Petroglyph Point contains one of the most extensive representations of Native American rock art in California.
SLEEPING UNDER THE STARS: Indian Well Campground, with 43 campsites suitable for tents, is situated on a partly shaded knoll in the south end of the park. One group site is available by reservation up to three months in advance for groups of 15 to 40. The view of the rolling, brush-covered lava fields from the campground is stunning. Check at the Visitor Center to learn more about free backcountry camping.
WHEN TO GO: Any season is a good time to visit the monument, which remains open year-round. With elevations ranging from 4,000 to 5,700 feet, expect intense sunlight and warm temperatures in summer. Winter daytime highs average 40 degrees; lows average in the 20s. Morning fog is frequent from autumn through spring.
DID YOU KNOW? Lava Beds is a dream for amateur astronomers. High altitude; clean, dry air; and a remote location far from urban light pollution are key to the great view.
LOCAL WISDOM: If time permits, check out 40,000-acre Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge to the north of Lava Beds. A 10-mile route allows for wildlife observation from your car throughout the year. The refuge also maintains a 2-mile canoe trail through a marsh with excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.
GETTING THERE: Visitors traveling south on Highway 139 (from Oregon) will see signs 4 miles south of Tulelake, Calif., directing them into Lava Beds. Visitors traveling north on Highway 139 (in California) will see signs 27 miles north of Canby directing them into the park.
Resources: Lava Beds National Monument, 530-667-8113;