Lava Beds National Monument: underground cave exploration

LA Times | Travel

The sun beat down on the basin as I inhaled one last whiff of sage-filled air before vanishing through a hole in the ground. Palms sweating against the steel handrails of a sheer vertical ladder, I dropped deeper and deeper into the cool underworld until at last I hit the glossy ground, fumble...

By Vicki Haddock // 11.19.08

The sun beat down on the basin as I inhaled one last whiff of sage-filled air before vanishing through a hole in the ground.

Palms sweating against the steel handrails of a sheer vertical ladder, I dropped deeper and deeper into the cool underworld until at last I hit the glossy ground, fumbled for the flashlight strapped to my hard hat, and switched it on. Its beam penetrated the darkness, illuminating a small segment of a seemingly endless labyrinth of lava tubes.

I hollered up to my husband and two teenage daughters to follow: We had no company, save a forlorn millipede that skittered into a crevice.

Solitude may be the defining feature of a visit to the geological gyrations of Lava Beds National Monument, tucked into the far northeastern corner of California.

It's a wonderland few people see: The monument drew fewer than 103,000 people last year. Bump that up against the 3.5 million who visited Yosemite National Park, and you get an idea of the seclusion.

I began to suspect this soon after I decided on Lava Beds as our family's vacation destination. I queried native Californians, well-traveled friends, people who recently had sojourned to Iran or hiked through remote tribal Indonesia. Not one had visited Lava Beds.

Its obscurity enhanced its allure: no traffic, no congestion on its 150 miles of hiking trails, the chance to experience California much the way it appeared to frontier settlers.

By fall, fewer than 10,000 people a month visit Lava Beds. And in winter, rangers say that on some days, they never see a single human visitor.

Yet snow never closes the 72-square-mile monument, and most of its chief attractions -- the labyrinths of lava tube caves -- remain a consistent 55 degrees year-round.

Here, Medicine Lake Volcano, the largest in the Cascade Range, hemorrhaged enough molten material to create the greatest concentration of lava tubes in the continental United States.

Explorers have identified about 700 and counting, developing trails within two dozen.

They stretch like subterranean spinal cords, some just below the Earth's surface and others reaching 150 feet deep.

The largest tubes originally carried gushing rivers of lava more than 10 miles, although over time the roofs collapsed here and there, subdividing the tubes.

Today, Catacombs Cave offers more than a mile of basalt tunnels open to the public.

Some tubes tower as much as 85 feet, and the fattest master tube measures 100 feet in diameter. Elsewhere, the channels narrowed so tightly that only a child could wriggle through.

I was forced to duck-walk parts of Catacombs, occasionally gritting my teeth in pain as my back scraped the stalactites. I now understood why the visitor center sold inexpensive hard-hats: Without one, my scalp would have been sliced to ribbons.

But the payoff was enormous: We entered a world invisible from aboveground.

It was here that the Modoc Indians, with their intimate knowledge of each tributary, fended off U.S. troops for seven months in 1873 despite being outnumbered 10 to 1. To this day, the clammy environment invites the imagination to run wild.

For the thrill of it, we extinguished our flashlights and were instantly enveloped in impenetrable darkness. I tried to forget that these caves host 14 species of bats.

A few seconds passed -- just enough time for us to contemplate how easy it would be to lose our way and our minds -- before my 13-year-old clicked her flashlight on again.

"OK, OK," she said as she shivered. "Enough of that."

Little wonder that rangers check out free flashlights and recommend one and preferably two backup light sources per person.

They said if we got lost in a lava tube, we should remember to follow the glossy lava formations, known as pahoehoe rings. The Native Americans used to say the pahoehoe patterns were "smiles" that led to safety.

An easy initiation to this wonder world is compact Mushpot Cave, which is wired with electrical lights and informational signs. (A chain of the most visited caves lies along a loop road stretching from the visitor center near the park's southern boundary.)

There are also enough options here to keep an amateur spelunker busy for days, each cave sporting a name that suggests its distinctive personality.

Shark's Mouth has a passage that's spiked with lavacicles that shimmer like menacing shark's teeth.

Hopkins Chocolate Cave features swirling lava formations reminiscent of frosting.

And Valentine Cave has the distinction of having been discovered on a frozen Valentine's Day in 1933, when a local cave scout spotted a mysterious column of fog swirling from beneath a juniper tree and pulled away the tree, revealing a portal to a huge lava tube underfoot.

Winter offers a unique option: Each Saturday through March, six people can join a strenuous ranger-led tour through breathtaking formations of Crystal Ice Cave.

Because the mere presence of human body heat jeopardizes the status of these natural ice sculptures, access is restricted and pre-registration required.

The Lava Beds monument is coated with volcanic rock -- dotted with cinder cones, spatter cones and craters that once bore a bubbly testament to the roiling underground.

"Who has ever stood on top of a volcano?" Ranger Amy Poff asked as she ushered visitors through Sunshine Cave, one of the more popular choices along the loop road. A few people who had traveled to Hawaii raised their hands.

"Trick question," Poff said with a grin. "You are all standing on top of a volcano right now."

My geology was rusty. But the youngest on my ranger-led tour of Sunshine Cave knew more than the adults.

We were startled to learn that obscure Medicine Lake Volcano was much bigger than its more famous Cascade compatriots such as Mt. St. Helens, which blew its top on May 18, 1980, and Mt. Shasta, whose snowy peak was visible from Lava Beds' trails.

Returning to the Earth's surface, our family headed north on the park road and traveled miles without spotting another car. We pulled over to peer into Fleener Chimneys, where the Earth spat out gooey gobs of magma that built up steep-sided spatter cones.

The chimneys reach as deep as 50 feet, and signs implore guests not to drop anything into them: When workers cleaned them out in 1990, they toted away 35 tons of rocks and garbage.

As the sun set, we reached the northeastern corner of the monument and hiked out to Petroglyph Point, where thousands of years ago, Native Americans carved more than 5,000 symbols on the cliff face. Before Tule Lake was drained to a fraction of its original size, this was an island reachable only by boat.

Glancing in the rearview mirror at the retreating countryside, I was reminded of the mother and son we met running an ex-brothel-turned-general-store just outside Lava Beds in Tionesta.

"It's so nice sleeping here without any city noise," said Denise, the mom. "Until people come to this part of California, they cannot even imagine how quiet it is."

Haddock is a freelance writer.