I remember the trip well. It was one we took several times while I was growing up, and it was always a favorite. Now that I am an adult I can’t wait to take my own children and share a piece of history; my history and the history of the land and the proud people who once inhabited it.
We would get up well before dawn, blurry eyed and tired. My dad would help us get our pillows and blankets to the car so we could be comfortable for the long trip. My mom was always ready the night before with her special road trip snack, graham crackers with chocolate frosting. Since she made them ahead of time, by the time we got them they were soft and oh so good. We’d drive for hours with music playing, enjoying each other and the scenery. First through dense woods and over mountains, then through high desert country. Sometime late in the morning we arrived at the Lava Beds National Monument in Tule Lake, California.
Over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, volcanic activity in the area created a system of lava tubes. We tend to think of a volcanic eruption as explosive like the images of Mount St. Helens, but as in the case of the Medicine Lake Volcano slow moving lava can flow over land leaving tubes as it cools. The Medicine Lake Volcano has been active for over 500,000 years. There are a total of more than 700 caves, 20 of which are developed and open for exploration. When you go make sure to stop in at the Visitor Center to pick up a map of the caves and more information about the park.
The caves are rated according to how challenging the terrain is within the cave, with the most challenging having steep, uneven surfaces for walking and climbing, and areas you must crawl through where the ceiling of the cave can be as little as 12 inches high. Some of the most challenging caves can also be the most rewarding. If you are willing to crawl through some tight spaces, some tiny holes open up in to massive caverns. You will find underground gardens, cave paintings and even subterranean lakes.
Least Challenging Caves
Since we were young my parents took us mostly to the caves that are rated as least challenging. These caves have large openings and are relatively easy terrain. You won’t have to bend or stoop in these caves, but you should still be prepared. It is recommended that you wear long pants and long sleeve shirts, as well as a sturdy pair of boots. You should always have a flashlight. Head protection is also a good idea. There are additional equipment recommendations for the more challenging caves. Check out “Cave Safely, Cave Softly” from the National Parks Service.
One of the easiest caves, and one that we visited every time we went, Skull Cave offers tall ceilings and is a great option for those who prefer open spaces. The trail through this cave leads to a metal staircase to the lower of three lava tubes that make up this cave. Because of the three tube structure, cold winter air becomes trapped in the lower level creating a year round ice floor.
Valentine Cave, named for the day it was discovered in 1933, is also rated as one of the least challenging caves in the park. Its smooth walls and floors, and large main passages make it accessible for most ability levels.
Moderately Challenging Caves
Blue Grotto Cave is rated as moderately challenging. The blue-grey portions of the ceiling inside this cave make it easy to see where it got its name. While the ceilings are high throughout this cave, the floors are rough and uneven. If you’re up for a little more of a challenge, this cave is well worth the effort.
Also moderately challenging, Sunshine Cave has two collapsed areas of ceiling that allow sunlight into the cave. Because of this light, vegetation is able to flourish. Stooping is required in the main passage, and there are areas of the floor that are steep, wet and uneven. In the back of the cave, hydrophobic bacteria coats the ceiling and icicles hang from cracks in the rocks.
Most Challenging Caves
Three of the caves ranked as most difficult in the park, Labyrinth Cave, Catacomb Cave and Thunderbolt Cave have entrances that allow access to twisting segments of cave that often requiring crawling. Ceiling heights are low throughout, and there are narrow areas, one of which is only six inches wide at knee height. Catacomb Cave requires crawling and at places has ceiling heights of less than 12 inches. Upstream from the Thunderbolt Cave entrance there are areas that allow for upright walking, but only after passing through areas that require stooping. Because of the ease of directional confusion in these tunnel segments it is strongly recommended that you do not enter these caves without the benefit of a map that can be purchased at the Park Visitor Center.
Bats/White Nose Syndrome
In 2006, a fungal disease affecting bats in North America was discovered. Since that time bats have been dying in unprecedented numbers. Some outbreaks have killed entire colonies of bats. Although humans cannot be affected by White Nose Syndrome, we can carry the fungus with us. As there are many species of bats in the area it is essential that we are all conscious of our impact. Stop by the Visitor Center to be screened for the fungus and to have any gear decontaminated by a ranger.
Native American Rock Art
The area that would later become the Lava Beds National Monument as well as the territory to the north and south was home to the Modoc and Klamath tribes for thousands of years. Some of the history of the tribes is still preserved in rock art throughout the area, most estimated to be between 2,000 and 6,000 years old.
The Tule Lake area is somewhat unique in that it has examples of both rock carvings or petroglyphs and cave paintings or pictographs. Unlike many of the examples from other Native American tribes, the rock art of the Modoc tribe depicts geometric patterns rather than people or animals. Because of the tribal fracturing during the Modoc War much of the tribe moved to other areas and no ethnographic study has been done with the Modoc people to discover the possible meanings of the drawings and etchings.
While you will find numerous examples of cave paintings throughout the park, including on the rocks and boulders around Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave, there is one archeological site that stands out. Petroglyph Point is located on the cliff face of a former island in Tule Lake. Determining the age of the petroglyphs is especially hard for several reasons. The etchings were alternately covered in water and exposed as the water levels rose and receded over time, and the process of creating the etchings removed material, rather than adding it as with a cave painting. Because of these factors it’s difficult to know just how long these etchings have existed but some scientists believe they could be even more than 6,000 years old.
As with all things of value, it is so important that we care for these landmarks. Already, because of carelessness and vandalism, many examples of Native American rock art have been damaged or destroyed. There is now a chain link fence at the site of Petroglyph Point but many of the other petroglyphs and pictographs are and will always be vulnerable. Though eventually nature will reclaim all of it, we can do our part to ensure that it lasts as long as possible. Please do not touch the rock art and report any inappropriate activity to a ranger or other law enforcement official.