Detour: Lava Beds National Monument, Part One

Lava Beds National Monument. A place containing the wonders and the terrors of both nature and human nature all within its boundaries.

– Sean M. Santos

Sean wrote the above on Instagram after we concluded our visit to Lava Beds National Monument and nearby Tule Lake National Monument on Wednesday, September 18. As we were headed back to our night’s lodging, he also observed, “Everyone who finds themselves in this part of the country should come and visit this place.”

Lava Beds National Monument was established in 1925 to protect over 46,000 acres of the north flank of Medicine Lake Volcano, a massive and low shield volcano in the southern Cascades, not far northeast of Mount Shasta. Although relatively small, the Monument boasts three lava flows, multiple cinder cones and other volcanic features, and almost 700 lava tube caves, the highest concentration in North America. At around 4,000 feet in the eastern foothills of the Cascades in northern California, the vast sagebrush sea washes right up to the Monument’s tortured volcanic landscape. The Monument is bounded on the north by Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and on the west, south, and east by Modoc National Forest with some private property to the northeast toward the town of Tule Lake, California. It contains over 28,000 acres of federally protected wilderness.

Sean and I had always planned that our second full day at Crater Lake would be dedicated to a day trip back down into California to visit Lava Beds. When putting the trip together, we chose Lava Beds over Oregon Caves because of general proximity and also, frankly, it sounded cooler. Oregon Caves had, well, caves, but Lava Beds had caves and a whole lot more. This day trip would be like others we’d done on our longer trips to Parks, like detours to Jewel Cave and Devils Tower during the Dakotas trip and Cedar Breaks when we descended the Grand Staircase. Even had we been camping at Crater Lake as we’d planned, we’d still have been heading down to Lava Beds for the day.

I woke up fairly early in our comfortable room at the Sleep Inn in Chiloquin, Oregon and worked on photos and caught up on notes until Sean awoke. Sean had wanted to exercise in the hotel’s fitness center, but the afternoon was supposed to be rainy, so we decided it was best to get going so that we might have at least a little time in the Monument before the rains came.

We showered and grabbed a few things for the day, but went very light. Given the forecast, we thought maybe we’d have a couple of hours really at the Monument. Then we went down to the lobby for the breakfast buffet. Full of biscuit sandwiches and yogurt, we walked out to the car and headed south toward Klamath Falls, listening to the Greatest Discovery podcast as we went.

It was rainy as we drove south/southeast from Klamath Falls and reentered California.

We drove along the western side of Tule Lake, which once filled a large section of this flat, flat valley, but in the nineteen-teens was largely drained for cropland. The remaining lake remnant, wetlands, and irrigation canals are hugely important for migrating waterfowl in the Pacific flyway. Perhaps we’d return someday for some spectacular birding, but for now the rain kept us from stopping and little more than nodding at the pelicans, herons, and grebes we were driving past.

Image: Sean M. Santos

It was not quite 10:30 when we arrived after about an hour and a half drive.

Sean braved the rain to hop out and take his photo of the Monument’s entrance sign.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The boundary between the Monument and the Refuge, while now all dry land due to the destroyed hydrology, was historically just about the edge of Tule Lake’s southern shore.

At the entrance station, the Ranger apologized for the rain but hoped we’d enjoy our visit anyway. “Maybe you can explore a cave,” she suggested.

Devils Homestead Flow

We drove south through the rain across a wide, flat landscape beneath a long ridge, Gillem Bluff, to the west. The road angled and crossed Devils Homestead Flow, a miles long bed of cooled lava.

Lava Beds lies on the northern flank of the Medicine Lake volcano and covers only about 10 percent of its surface area. At approximately 150 mi (241 km) around the base, 7900 ft (2408 m) in height, and covering over 700 square mi (1125 km2), Medicine Lake is by far the largest volcano by volume in the Cascade Range. It is believed to have many small underground magma chambers rather then one large chamber. Eruptions from nearly 200 surface vents have created a volcano with a low, broad, gently sloping profile—like a shield. This profile built up over time by relatively mild eruptions of fluid lava flowing over large areas.

National Park Service Brochure
Devils Homestead Flow

Medicine Lake Volcano started erupting about 500,000 years ago and only stopped about nine hundred years ago. Devils Homestead Flow was created about 12,000 years ago. The volcano’s half-million years of eruption has created a huge disparity in age in the Monument’s volcanic features. What struck me was how little vegetation in this high, arid country had taken hold in the lava field in 12,000 years.

Gillem Bluff

Above the flow, the southern edge of Gillem Bluff loomed. It was created by an earthquake, and its long ridge separates the lower end of the the Klamath Lake System from Tule Lake.

Fern Bush

Rubber Rabbitbrush

Juniper

Our plan was to head to the visitor center and see about exploring the caves, but when the rain stopped briefly as we approached a pullout, we decided to take advantage of the respite to check out the landscape.

The first thing that struck us was the sage. Immediately after the rain, the air was fragrant with sage. It was glorious!

Mount Dome

To the west, Mount Dome commanded the horizon just at the edge of Modoc National Forest.

Juniper

Schonchin Butte

Nearer at hand, just to our south, was Schonchin Butte, a cinder cone formed by “frothy chunks” of lava thrown into the air.

Schonchin Butte

Since we had a sunny moment to enjoy, we delayed the visitor center and turned onto the dirt road to the parking area for Schonchin Butte.

Sagebrush

From the parking area on the north side of the cone, we were a bit higher than we had been and could see out into the lower landscapes of the Monument.

Schonchin Butte

We didn’t relish hiking up to the fire lookout tower with impending rain, so we stayed just briefly before continuing on.

Schonchin Butte

The visitor center was nestled on the lower edge of a ridge with commanding views beyond the explosion of sage near at hand. God the sage. I wanted to bathe in it.

The visitor center, while small, was full of rich and thoughtful displays, particularly those depicting the traditional life of the Modoc people whose homeland this was. We were a little disappointed because I’d misinterpreted the mention on the Monument’s website of snacks at the visitor center as a small cafe, when really it was a wall of jerky and power bars. No lunch for us yet.

Ranger Eduardo, disarmingly enthusiastic, oriented us for exploring caves on our own. We had to disinfect our boots to protect the Monument’s bats from white nose syndrome.

Cave Loop Road started behind the visitor center. Sixteen of the twenty-five lava tube caves with developed entrances were in the immediate vicinity. They were rated by difficulty with the similar system that ski slopes use: blue circles were easiest, green squares were moderate, and black diamond were most difficult. Ranger Eduardo had recommended Sentinel Cave, an easy cave with two entrances so that cavers didn’t have to enter and exit in the same spot.

We parked at the pullout for the upper entrance to Sentinel Cave and walked the short path to the entrance.

Juniper

The cave’s entrance was a huge hole where at some point the cave ceiling had collapsed. It was much bigger than we had expected.

Hoary-Aster

A short path led down into the cave proper.

With no ranger-led tour nor any lighting installed, the cave would be completely dark save for the illumination we brought with us. We were each wearing a headlamp, and I was carrying my light, but very high-powered flashlight.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The cave had a narrow developed path along its floor and, at several points, scaffolding walkways and staircases.

A gentle slope and very fluid lava are required for the formation of lava tubes. Lava up to 2000° F (1093° C) flows downhill and immediately begins to cool and solidify upon contact with the ground and air. Lava touching the ground solidifies first, followed by the sides and then the top of the flow. This hard shell of cooled lava insulates the liquid rock inside, allowing it to flow long distances before it cools and comes to a stop. The lava continues to flow until it either drains out or seals the end of the tube.

National Park Service Brochure

We have been in a fair number of caves in the National Parks, but we’d never been alone in a cave with no provided lighting. We did for ourselves the classic turn-the-lights-off moment to see the pitch darkness. It was so fun to be exploring alone.

Come the fuck on, shit humans.

Although named Sentinel Cave, the underground path led through a couple of layers of lava tubes. Over the millennia that they were forming, subsequent eruptions led to layer upon layer of tubes filling the landscape in the ten miles between Medicine Lake Volcano’s crater and the shores of Tule Lake.

Image: Sean M. Santos

All too soon, we came to the lower entrance of the cave.

Image: Sean M. Santos

It took us about twenty-five minutes to walk through the cave.

Wyoming Paintbrush and Yellow Rabbitbrush

Castle Rock (left), Petroglyph Point (center), and Double Head Mountain (right)

The views from the lower entrance area were pretty grand.

Wyoming Paintbrush

Yellow Rabbitbrush

Sagebrush

Gillem Bluff and Tule Lake

We walked back up the road to the upper entrance pullout and climbed back into the car.

Juniper

Also on Ranger Eduardo’s recommendation, we decided to explore Skull Cave, which was below the visitor center back toward Schonchin Butte. Before we drove over there and left the visitor center area, we decided to take a spin around the campground to have a look. Although we’d only been in the Monument for a couple hours, we both agreed that we would unquestionably return for a longer visit and to camp. We were already so smitten that we scoped out campsites that we might like for our inevitable return trip.

We’d had Sentinel Cave to ourselves on this midday Wednesday, and although there was another vehicle parked at Skull Cave, the owners were just emerging from the cave trail when we pulled up. We’d have this one to ourselves too.

This cave entrance was much bigger than Sentinel’s, with a longer path and staircase down to the mouth.

Rubber Rabbitbrush

Fern Bush

Skull Cave is comprised of three large lava tubes one on top of the other. Cool air is pulled into the cave and flows to the lower level where there is a permanent ice floor. The area’s ice caves provided a vital source of water for animals and native peoples.

Image: Sean M. Santos

For the safety of visitors and to protect the ice, scaffolding walkways keep people off the ice at the lowest part of the cave.

Protective shielding keeps visitors from messing with the astonishing skull of a Bighorn Sheep, which gives the cave its name. Pronghorn skeletons were also found in the cave along with two human skeletons.

Good job, Bob.

We headed back up.

Goddammit, shit humans.

California Figwort

Back on the surface, it was turning into an unexpectedly lovely afternoon, sixty-five degrees with a lot of blue sky.

Gillem Bluff

The rain-cleaned air and the dappling of clouds just made the landscape more breathtaking. This was a beautiful place.

Although a small Monument, there was easily a week’s worth of things to see and do for relaxed campers. Vowing to return, we decided to check out one more cool geological feature before visiting Petroglyph Point outside of the Monument’s main unit.

Fleener Chimneys

We drove over to Fleener Chimneys, the volcanic source of Devils Homestead Flow.

From the parking area, a staircase led up to the vents from which the lava exploded some 12,000 years ago. It also led to some pretty stellar views.

Nettle-Leaf Giant Hyssop

Rubber Rabbitbrush

Image: Sean M. Santos

The upper reaches of the chimneys were a jumble of hardened lava. While the flows on the gentle slopes beneath the chimneys were comparatively slow, at the chimneys themselves the lava would have been explosively ejected, piling up on itself in jagged masses.

The chimney vents themselves, gated off for safety, were once filled with rocks and trash as past visitors threw thing into them to see how deep they were.

Lichen

I caught Sean dancing with his shadow in the volcanic gravel.

Sagebrush

Sagebrush

Devils Homestead Flow

Beneath us was the dark scar of Devils Homestead Flow. In the middle distance, Schonchin Butte, and in the outer distance, the seemingly low line of foothills that was actually the great volcano itself, low and massive.

Devils Homestead Flow

Devils Homestead Flow

Out beyond the lava flow, Petroglyph Point, our next stop, beckoned and invited us to think about the human legacy of this place.

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