An Underground Visit to Lava Beds National Monument

This past weekend, Kiva and I visited Lava Beds National Monument for an overnight trip. I’ve been a few times before. However, on my last visit I was unable to do any real caving after I twisted my ankle so I was eager to return.

The heat in Redding can be brutal, and the idea of being cool or even cold in a subterranean world was quite enticing. Although there are a few different ways to get there, we decided the quickest would be to shoot up I-5 and cut northeast around Weed. We stopped at our Mt. Shasta favorite – Seven Suns, and fueled up with breakfast burritos before leaving the relatively more populated areas. We followed Hwy 97 until we nearly touched the Oregon border, cutting straight east on 161 and passing the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) as well as the Tule Lake NWR. Birdwatchers know these areas as incredibly easy and beautiful locales for spying a variety of birds. Just passing by, we glimpsed geese, storks, and a variety of waterfowl that I don’t have the skill to identify. Later, on the drive that night I nearly hit two pheasants standing on the roadway (“Easiest hunting ever”I thought, and laughed at my own dark humor).

We watched as the landscape morphed around us, changing from low, reedy wetlands to dry, rocky, barren, and mostly flat landscape. Although I love the stark beauty of this area, it defies stereotypical beautiful nature. (Another example of the media’s skewed beauty standards – not all national parks have huge canyons or giant trees, you know!). The rocky black landscape was formed by numerous eruptions and lava flows of the Medicine Lake Shield Volcano over a period of 500,000 years. After parts of the lava dried, the land was pockmarked with caves and tubes, and the park sits on the most well-known ones.

We entered the park from the north, and after being screened for white-nose syndrome (a disease among bats that apparently can do serious damage to their populations), we entered the busy visitor center and got squared away. The Cave Loop is a small road that has a plethora of caves to explore, but the road is only open from 8 am – 5 pm so we wanted to visit these before the rest of the sites in the park.

The first cave we entered was forebodingly named Catacomb Cave. It seemed large and potentially labyrinthine, so we used a combination of flashlights. Just a note, for families, helmets are recommended and can be rented at the Visitor Center, along with large flashlights. Also, to get the most out of exploring, pants and even knee pads can be helpful in case you want to crawl through small passageways. So, wearing my clean khaki shorts and no headgear, bare head, we entered. At first, the tubes we walked through were spacious, perhaps 10 feet across and 8 feet high. The tube split and we made sure we knew exactly the route we had come from. Only at one point did we separate, Kiva waiting in one chamber while I crawled army style through a narrow opening to explore.

The roof and walls of Catacomb Cave look surreal, as the hard rock has the appearance of still being liquid in its state. It looks impossibly close to dripping on you, as if time has been stopped.

One of my favorite thrills of caving is the surreal silence. I know how boring I probably sound, but it’s true. I like to find a spot, turn off the lights, and just sit and listen. Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can see almost nothing. Deep in the wells of the earth there isn’t even enough light to make out the shape of your hand, there is no wind whistling through the chambers so the air feels stagnant, and if you sit perfectly still, you can hear the deafening silence. It’s a kind of sensory deprivation, and helps make you appreciate the senses you do have. It is also a departure from almost anywhere else we may be in the world, where we almost always are surrounding by something – car noises, music, voices talking, etc.

After a suitably long time in the cave, we decided to turn around. We hadn’t seen another human in the cave, but on the way out we spotted a flashlight and heard a friendly “Hello!” It was a woman traveling by herself, and she asked if she could join us. We agreed, and all walked out together. We learned she was traveling up to Portland from the Bay Area, and multiple friends had advised her not to miss out on the Lava Beds. She was friendly, and perhaps justifiably worried that if she got hurt in the cave, it would be hard for anyone to find her. We all made it out safe and sound, and the cool temperature of the cave was replaced by the harsh heat. We parted ways and wished her well.

There were so many caves to visit, and we only had time for the highlights. We especially wanted to see the ice caves, for the thought of being miserably cold was such a comforting thought when we drove under the blearing sun.

We found that both Skull Cave and Merrill Cave (two ice caves in the National Monument) were accessible to a point. These two ice caves allowed visitors to hike in, climb down steep ladders, and stand at the edge of the icy chamber, but thick metal poles stopped us from going further. The reason was to preserve the ice at this time. We marveled at the idea that at one point in history, people may have been seen ice skating deep inside Skull Cave.

Another location we didn’t want to miss was Petroglyph Point. After a small drive, we came to the base of a large, sheer cliff that was visible from any point of elevation in the Park. Perhaps due to the late time of day and heat, we had the whole place to ourselves. We walked along the wall, knowing that where we walked was once under water, and marveled at artwork that ranged from recent history (“Dave was here”) to carvings that were perhaps thousands of years old. Although this artwork is preserved by a tall fence from humans, it is interesting to note that the wall seems to be a wonderful place for swallows to make a home. Swallow nests lined the cracks, and we watched as tiny beaks protruded, squawking for mothers to bring back food. It was a very peaceful and strange juxtaposition, carvings of shapes whose exact meaning was unknown yet marveled at for generations directly underneath the simple and serene existence of birds who know this place only as home.

The sun was setting as we headed back, and we got to our campsite in the park to relax. We made some food as the sun set and the full, bright moon rose in its place. The bright yellow moon shone so clearly that as we walked around our park, we didn’t even need flashlights. That’s one thing I’ve heard about this Park – due to it’s remote location, the amount of stars visible is wondrous. I can attest to this. As we walked from the table to our tent, we heard a kind of scurrying behind us. I turned on my flashlight, and not 5 feet from me stood a tiny mouse with a huge tail, perhaps a kangaroo rat? It seemed stunned by the bright light, but only for a moment and then it ran down a hole I had not seen the previous day.

The next morning we made our coffee, took down our tent, and went to one (technically, two) last stops. Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave are both accessed from a roughly .8 mile hike. The hike was very exposed, and would have been much hotter if it was any other time of day. Still, we did see a jackrabbit sitting on the trail in the shade of one tree, and almost felt bad that we scared it from its relaxing spot.

If you look closely, you can see the artwork on the left side of the photo. We had to do this hike kind of quickly, as we had tickets for the matinee showing of Sweeney Todd at Shasta College in several hours. (My very professional review: some very talented vocals, and the addition of live music is a nice touch. It was a bit longer than I expected, clocking in around 3 hours, but I thought a good rendition of the dark comedy).

Aboveground, the lava beds could be hot. According to the Park Service website, the history of the area both geologically and from a human perspective has been tumultuous. From years of lava flows, to conflicts with indigenous populations, this is an area steeped in history.

We went to escape the heat and only partially succeeded. We were able to see incredibly old artwork, find our way through dark and narrow caves, and see a variety of wildlife. Plus, our little tent was a fine home for the night, and the coffee didn’t hurt our comfort levels. The caves should be explored with caution, and if done correctly it will feel like a different world. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water, and you will be rewarded with the sights of stark and beautiful land.

Ryan Loughrey

Ryan has been wandering the PNW since 1993. Follow his blog at
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