Up The Road: Volcanic California Tour: Lava Beds

Sep 2, 2020

Yellow-headed blackbird near Lava Beads at the Tule Lake National Wildfire Area.
Credit Becky Matsubara / Flickr Creative Commons

There are places—still—in California that are so remote, most people never get there, a fact I deeply appreciate. One of these places is the vast Modoc Plateau in northeastern California. Prominent here is Lava Beds National Monument, first famous as the site of Captain Jack’s last stand during the Modoc Indian War—a war that riveted the entire nation during the winter of 1872-1873.


Native people called the Modoc Plateau “the smiles of God,” a strangely fitting name, still, for this sagebrush outpost of the Old West. There is great beauty in Modoc County. On a clear day, from the blue and brooding Warner Mountains 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 spectacular, almost otherworldly.

There is also great sadness here. The lava caves and outcroppings at Lava Beds National Monument enabled charismatic “Captain Jack” and his Modoc band to hold out against hundreds of U.S. Army troops for months before they were starved into defeat. You can get the full story online; the park offers a brochure listing key events and sites, most still preserved. For more, dip into the free digital copy of the book Modoc War: Its Military History & Topography by historian Erwin N. Thompson.


Credit the region’s ancient volcanic history, and especially its networks of lava tubes, for the Modocs’ success in holding back the cavalry for so long.


Ice waterfall in Crystal Ice Cave, Lava Beds National Monument.
Credit Michael McCullough / Flickr Creative Commons

Every rock here was once part of a river of molten lava sometime within the past 30 million years—first an ocean, then a flat plateau, finally a faulted mountain range roped in on the west by a string of volcanoes. The Cascade Range and Modoc Plateau are the southernmost tip of landforms that dominate the entire Pacific Northwest, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire.


Evidence of all that volcanic activity is everywhere at Lava Beds. Cinder cones, spatter cones, stratovolcanoes, shield volcanoes, chimneys, lava tubes, and flows of both smooth and rough, chunky lava abound. Back to the lava tubes, not that unusual. They form whenever the outer “skin” on streams of superheated magma cools and hardens. But the sheer quantity found at Lava Beds is unusual. In fact, there are more lava tube caves here than anywhere else in North America.



A ray of sunshine in Sentinel Cave at Lava Beds National Monument.
Credit Davey Nin / Flickr Creative Commons


Another surprise: the underground beauty of these 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 more serious gear. But respect park sanitation protocols. Folks here are determined to protect against white-nose syndrome, that fatal fungal infection now decimating North American bats.


Just getting to Modoc takes gumption. It’s a haul, no matter where you’re coming from, so bring everything you’ll need—top off the gas tank on the way, too—and plan to stay awhile. There’s a campground near park headquarters that almost always has space, open again, along with most caves, after the lightning-sparked Caldwell Fire roared through in late summer 2020.



Partially collapsed lava tube, Hopkins Chocolate Cave, Lava Beds National Monument.
Credit James St. John / Flickr Creative Commons


Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel


Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread.