In June, we decided to do an impromptu road trip through Oregon and Northern California. We kept the plans loose, only having general destinations along the route. We knew we wanted to see Crater Lake, but wanted to stay somewhere between there and home for the first drive. This is how our stop at Lava Beds National Monument came to be, just a convenient campground along the way. Little did I know, it would become one of my most memorable stops of our two week trip.
From the name alone, you wouldn’t know that Lava Beds has caves. And lots of them too, more than 700 in fact, home to the largest concentration of lava tube caves in the contiguous United States! The more I started reading, the more I realized how much fun our visit was going to be.
To get to Lava Beds from the south, we took Highway 139 out of Susanville, northbound towards Klamath Falls. The entrance to Lava Beds is well signed on the highway, as are the intersections along the park road that takes you to the campground and Visitor Center 16 miles off the highway. Keep your eyes open for potholes as you drive the narrow road through the park!
There is no fee station at the south entrance to Lava Beds, but it is asked that you visit the visitor center before exploring any caves. A very reasonable $10 seven day entrance fee per vehicle can be paid here. There is also a staffed fee station on the park’s north side. The Visitor Center also has a book store, snack food, ice, flashlights both for loan and purchase, caving helmets, film, batteries, books, and an assortment of souvenirs.
Another reason they wanted us to visit the Visitor Center is because they were conducting a screening procedure to help prevent the spread of white-nose syndrome to the Lava Bed caves. White-nose syndrome is a fatal condition in bats associated with exposure to the fungus Geomyces destructans. Although people aren’t susceptible to the fungus, they can potentially spread the fungus between caves and other bat habitats by way of contaminated shoes, clothing, etc. Staff was screening for people that had been in caves or mines east of the Rocky Mountains, so we were not as risk.
The campground is just across the road from the Visitor Center. Campsites are fairly close together, but nice with trees that add wind block, shade, and a little privacy. Water and nice bathrooms are available, but no showers. Campsites are only $10, the cheapest we encountered on our road trip ($35 being the most expensive at Humboldt Redwoods State Park!). After setting up camp and getting checked in at the Visitor Center, the boy and I were ready to explore some caves.
Kristy stayed back at camp with the dogs. Not only are dogs not allowed in the caves, but she wasn’t too excited about going underground anyhow. I’m not without fear of caves, but I think that’s what makes them exciting. Climbing down into the deep dark unknown takes some courage. It’s a foreign environment unlike anything we’re comfortable with up here on the surface. In film and literature, nothing good lurks or happens in caves, and the main goal is always to make it out alive. But as long as I don’t have to crawl, squeeze, have to go too far, or get lost, I can maintain my composure underground. It also helps to know that these natural caves have been intact for thousands of years, and it’s unlikely they will pick the day I’m there to collapse!
We picked the Mush Pot Cave for our first adventure. Not only is it right next to the Visitor Center, it’s illuminated with a red strip of lights, and there is a paved path to the very end. It’s the cave that most anyone can do and not feel like they’re going to get lost. There are also interpretive signs along the way. Make sure to read them, because you’ll see many of the same features in the rest of the caves.
For lighting, my son and I carried a headlamp, a powerful LED light borrowed from my cycling gear, and a wind-up flashlight as a backup. This combination seemed to be adequate for the tight passages of the lava tubes. Next time I’ll probably see what the Visitor Center has to offer as well.
Our orientation in the Mush Pot cave went well. We were ready to tackle another cave without help from signs and lighted paths. Just across the road was the Indian Well Cave. It was much different than the Mush Pot, with many large rocks to scramble over. It wasn’t as narrow either, with a much more open feel. Near the end, we found a small opening that we were able to squeeze through. It was at this moment that I realized a backpack isn’t the best thing to bring into a cave. It seemed to always be in the way when I had to duck under something. The small opening took us to a section of the cave that was collapsed, and it was a simple climb back to the surface and back to the road.
We checked out a couple more caves near the Visitor Center before returning to camp for dinner. The Labyrinth cave was marked as “most challenging”. This means crawling on your hands and knees is required. Not only did we not have knee pads and helmets, I knew this was probably more than I could handle with our level of experience. Still, with a name like Labyrinth, my son just had to have a peak. He climbed down the nearly vertical ladder that descended into a small dark hole. I was content to stay on the surface and have him report back up what he was seeing. He only looked around the entrance a bit before climbing back up.
The Thunderbolt Cave was also rated most challenging, but doesn’t get too technical until a ways in. There were some semi-narrow passages to negotiate that gave us a new challenge, but we turned around before any crawling was involved. We also began to notice that each cave had a unique personality, even though they were so close together. Size, color, and walking surfaces were different in each cave we explored.
We had worked up a good appetite, and were ready to return to camp. Were were also eager to tell Kristy about all the cool stuff we had seen. Shortly after going to bed that night, it began to rain. It wasn’t a hard rain, but enough to make me wonder how dry we’d stay after a few hours of it. Thankfully the next morning, only the rain fly above the tent was soaked. This was good to know going into the rest of our road trip, knowing that we’d be ready for any weather we’d be likely to encounter.
The next morning my son and I set out for more cave exploration. First on the list was the Golden Dome, named for the golden roof of the cave. This cave was listed as moderately challenging, and the longest one we had done yet with 2,229 ft of passages. It had a few low ceilings to duck under, and the footing was pretty secure the whole way. The golden ceiling was also amazing to look at.
Near the end of the Golden Dome cave, there is a figure 8 of sorts, and the guide even warns about it. We were about to turn around and retrace our steps, but decided to see if the cave off to the right looped back. We explored a bit further and seemed to loop back to the main cave. Just a short ways ahead though, and we were at a dead end. It’s an awful feeling to think you’re sure of where you’re at, and then suddenly discover you’re not where you thought you were! Being nearly a half mile underground, it was hard not to feel a little panic set in. The feeling to get the heck out of the cave was pretty strong!
Logic in the back of my mind told me that it wouldn’t be hard to just retrace our steps and we’d be fine. We tried an additional route instead though, and then things started to look more familiar. I wasn’t completely sure we were on the right track though until we found an arrow made of rocks that my son had laid on the ground on the way in. An instant wave of relief was felt, knowing that we were for sure on the right track. It was such a good sight to see the daylight pouring through the cave entrance at the end! When we come back and explore more advanced caves, we will be sure to purchase the cave maps at the Visitor Center.
After the Golden Dome trek, we were ready for something lighter! Sunshine cave was nearby, and it had collapsed sections with plants growing in the areas where the sunlight reached. Again, the diversity of the caves was amazing.
We left the cave loop by the Visitor Center and headed for the Skull Cave, just a short drive to the north. This cave was named for the bones of antelope and mountain goats, bighorn sheep skulls, and two human skeletons discovered inside. But what really set it apart from the other caves was the size of the cave, and the fact that it had year round ice in the bottom chamber. Leading up to the cave looked like an above ground river of lava. As the river descended, it entered an underground cave the size of a small airplane hangar. Apparently this was two very large lava tubes that collapsed into one big one. There was not claustrophobic feeling in this cave. Near the end, a metal staircase takes you down to a lower chamber. Without the staircase, you’d need ropes as it’s a straight drop. At the bottom, the ice pool was behind a locked gate, and was hard to see at first due to the light covering of dust. One of the drawbacks to heavy visitation. The brochure says that the cave is perfectly shaped for venting out warm air, and drawing in cool air. This is how the ice is able to remain year round.
Once again we returned to camp to tell my wife of our adventures. We also picked a couple caves for her to try before we left the area. My son led her down into the Mush Pot, but I was surprised when they returned so quickly. She got down into a section where the cave ceiling dips way down, creating a crushing feeling. That was all she could take! With its wide cavernous feel, my son and I decided the Skull Cave would be more suitable for her. You can also see daylight a lot further back thanks to the huge opening.
The Skull Cave experience turned out well for Kristy, and we were glad that we all had some good cave time. We were all packed up and ready to head to the next destination. We made our way to the north entrance and saw many more points of interest that we didn’t have time to stop and look at. The hike up to the Schonchin Butte fire look-out tower looked fun, and there were above ground lava flows and trails to explore. We also saw many historical sites that I didn’t have time to research until after getting home. This was the site of the The Modoc War in the late 1800s, and visitors are able to explore many of the old campsites and battlegrounds.
Lava Beds has much to offer for family adventure. There seems to be something for everyone, and has so much to do that you probably need a few visits to see it all. We’ll definitely be back!