Up The Road: Lava Beds And Captain Jack

Jun 12, 2019

A ray of sunshine in Sentimental Cave at Lava Beds National Monument.
Credit Davey Nin

Native people called the high Modoc Plateau in northeastern California “the smiles of God,” still a strangely fitting name for this lonely remnant of the Old West. There is great beauty in Modoc County. On a clear day, from the flat-topped, blue, and brooding Warner Mountains, majestic Mt. Shasta to the west seems so close you can imagine reaching out for a handful of snow.

Lassen is right there too. And the view east to the alkaline lakes of Surprise Valley and across the Great Basin is nothing short of spectacular.

There is also great sadness here. One reason to visit remote Modoc is to deepen your understanding of now-obscure California history. The lava caves and outcroppings at Lava Beds National Monument enabled charismatic “Captain Jack” and his Modoc band to hold out against hundreds of 19th-century U.S. Army troops for more than three months before they were starved into defeat.

One of the last major U.S. Indian wars, the Modoc War cost taxpayers $40,000 (in 1873 dollars) for every Native American man, woman, and child killed. Other costs cannot be counted.

It's a haul to reach Lava Beds and Modoc County, so bring everything you'll need and keep the gas tank full.
Credit Mitch Lorens

God probably didn’t smile either about the Tule Lake Segregation Camp, a high-security Japanese internment camp and later established nearby during World War II. Mostly gone now, the camp was originally an outpost of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, and, after Japanese internment, housed German prisoners of war.

It’s now a national monument too, with ranger-guided tours offered on Saturdays in summer.

Back at Lava Beds, still considered volcanically active, evidence of that activity is everywhere. Cinder cones, spatter cones, stratovolcanoes, shield volcanoes, chimneys, lava tubes, and flows of both smooth and rough, chunky lava abound.

Lava tubes aren’t unusual in volcanic areas. They form when the outer “skin” on streams of superheated magma cools and hardens, But the sheer quantity found at Lava Beds is. In fact, there are more lava tube caves here than anywhere else in North America.

Another surprise: the underground beauty of these lava caves. Most of the developed, family-friendly caves are on the park’s two-mile Cave Loop. You’ll at least need hard hats and flashlights, available at park headquarters. For more serious spelunking, bring serious gear.

But if you’ve been caving anywhere bats suffer from white-nose syndrome, that fatal fungal infection now decimating North American bats, you, your clothes, and your equipment need to be screened first by rangers, to protect the healthy bat population here.

Yellow-headed blackbird near Lava Beds at the Tulelake National Wildfire Area.
Credit Becky Matsubara

Hiking and general sightseeing are rewarding at Lava Beds. Unusual petroglyphs carved in sandstone cliffs near Tule Lake feature characters never painted or carved by any other western people.

Deep, crystal-blue Medicine Lake is another worthy destination—truly a “lunar landscape.” In 1965, astronauts from the Manned Spacecraft Center in Texas came here to prepare for the first moon landing.

Don’t miss Glass Mountain, a 1,400-year-old flow of black obsidian, ending suddenly in the stark contrast of white pumice, stone so light an average person could toss huge boulders with ease. But don't: All of the area's natural features and any artifacts or archaeological sites are protected.

Even today, just getting to Modoc takes gumption. Because the area is so remote, no matter where you’re coming from, it’s a haul, so bring everything you’ll need, keep the gas tank full, and plan to stay awhile. There’s a campground near part headquarters that almost always has space.