Up The Road: Lava Beds National Monument

May 25, 2016

Native peoples called the high Modoc Plateau area "the smiles of God," a strangely fitting name for this lonely remnant of the Old West. One good reason to visit the remote Modoc Plateau is to study now obscure California history. The lava caves and craggy volcanic outcroppings at Lava Beds National Monument enabled charismatic “Captain Jack” and his Modoc band to hold out against hundreds of U.S. Army troops, with superior arms, for more than three months before being starved into defeat in 1873. The Modoc War was one of the last major U.S. Indian wars, and cost taxpayers $40,000 for every Native American man, woman, and child killed. Other costs cannot be counted. God also probably didn’t smile much about the Tule Lake Segregation Camp, a high-security Japanese internment camp, mostly gone now, established nearby during World War II.

At Lava Beds, still considered volcanically active, volcanic history is everywhere apparent. Cinder cones, spatter cones, stratovolcanoes, shield volcanoes, chimneys, lava tubes, and flows of both smooth and rough, chunky lava abound. Lava tubes, formed when the outer "skin" on streams of superheated magma cools and hardens, are not unusual in volcanic areas, but the sheer quantity found at Lava Beds is. In fact, there are more lava tube caves here than anywhere else in North America.

There are more lava tube caves here than anywhere else in North America.

Another surprise: the underground beauty of these caves. Most of the developed caves are on the two-mile Cave Loop; some are more “user-friendly” than others. You’ll at least need a hard hat 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, a fatal fungal infection now decimating North American bats, to protect those here, you, your clothes, and your equipment need to be screened first by rangers.

Exploring the Catacombs at Lava Beds National Monument.
Credit Photo used courtesy of National Park Service

Hiking and general sightseeing are rewarding too. 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 a 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 archeological sites are protected.

Because the area is so remote, no matter where you’re coming from just getting to Lava Beds is 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. For more information, see the website or call the park.

Kim Weir is founder and editor of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. Weir is also a long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers, and a former NSPR reporter.