Ecology, Travel Blog

Lava Beds National Monument

5/4/18 – 5/6/18

After spending a ton of time in the office due to a very slow start in the season’s work, I was definitely ready to get out of town for the weekend. Friday afternoon Josh and I drove down to Lava Beds National Monument in Tulelake, CA. Instead of the smooth, black, melted chocolate surface that I expected to see, we found that the landscape was full of gravelly pumice, juniper trees, sagebrush, and hills shaping the area.

We later found out that these hills were actually cinder cones, which were created from lava erupting from the ground, cooling in the air, and creating the cinders. Because the cones are so fragile and easily eroded, there is only one hill that has a trail to the top, which is on the Schonchin Butte Trail, which also has the fire lookout.

We stayed at the Indian Well Campground inside the park across from the Visitor Center. The quaint campground offered us a little oasis under some juniper trees. We took a walk along some of the routes to the caves and along the way we saw some new plants and learned about some Native American uses for them.

camp site
Weekend Getaway

I was particularly interested in the ethnobotanical uses of the following 3 plants because we frequently encounter them at work.


My friend told me that his ancestors used to burn sage for hygienic reasons, as the smoke from it would help improve how you smelled. I work in sagebrush all the time and can report back that I’m still very stinky. Maybe there’s something to burning it…


Trifolium macrocephalum, Bighead clover
Trifolium macrocephalum, Bighead clover
Arabis, Brassicaceae (2)
Unknown ID, Brassicaceae, Arabis spp.
Arabis, Brassicaceae (1)
Unknown ID, Brassicaceae, Arabis spp., clasping leaves

The next day I struggled through a10k on the Wildland Firefighter Remembrance Run. This organization helps support families who have lost a wildland firefighter. I thought it was a great cause and a lot of the crowd that showed up were other agency employees who made sure to create a supportive network for each other and enjoyed going to the run year after year. After the run, I inhaled a veggie burger, waited around for the raffle to finish, and succumbed to an afternoon nap.

Pano from the Visitor Center

I eventually emerged from the tent and we took to the Three Sisters Trail that started from our campground. This trail took us through a designated wilderness area and was a good opportunity to see a handful of the hundreds of collapsed lava tube cave trenches found at Lava Beds. The smell of juniper and sagebrush, the soft pumice underfoot, and the cooling of the day made for a very relaxing hike and peaceful landscape.

The caves that created above-ground dwellings looked like fantastic critter habitat. We saw a handful of lizards with black ash-colored stripes darting about and mammal prints, possibly coyote. About halfway through the trail we were able to get a fantastic view of the Three Sisters hills (not to be confused with the famous Three Sisters mountains). We finished the 10 mile trek just as the sun was setting and rewarded ourselves with a lovely pasta dinner paired with some white wine.

Lava Beds offers many caving opportunities for both novice and experienced cavers, so we decided to check out some of the easy caves on the last day.

Big Painted Cave (28)

We stopped by the Visitor Center to get “screened” for a caving permit. Park staff just wants to make sure that you’re not wearing clothes, shoes, or gear that have entered other caves. They want to minimize the risk of spreading Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has devastated our precious bat populations. The spores can be transferred from cave to cave and they want to keep it from spreading to Lava Beds. It’s also important to check in with the staff to find out which caves are closed. Several of them were closed during our visit to protect the maternal bat colonies that were nesting in them.

Of the 20 caves listed on the park map, the Cave Loop Trail next to the Visitor Center has entrances to 16 of them. Since we’re both inexperienced with caving and my legs were pretty sore from the day before, we opted for the paved, lit-up, Mushpot Cave first. After that, we hiked about a mile to the entrance of the Big Painted Cave and scrambled over some rocks to get into it.

Big Painted Cave (2)
Big Painted Cave Trail with cinder cones in the background
Big Painted Cave (1)
Interpretive sign
Big Painted Cave (4)
Above Big Painted Cave
Big Painted Cave (8)
Rippling formation on path to cave entrance
Big Painted Cave (9)
Cave entrance

Big Painted Cave (15)

Big Painted Cave (16)
I had a hard time distinguishing the paintings from regular rock degradation
Big Painted Cave (19)
Ice Floor inside Big Painted Cave

We had to crawl a bit further down into the cave past the back wall to get to the ice floor. We turned off our headlamps for a few minutes and enjoyed the sensory deprivation in the cold, dark chamber.

Big Painted Cave (22)
Beautiful cave ceiling

Big Painted Cave (23)

Big Painted Cave (17)
Formations on cave wall
Big Painted Cave (21)
Cave dwellers
Balsamorhiza sagitta, Arrowleaf balsamroot (1)
Balsamorhiza sagittata, Arrowleaf Balsamroot
Shooting Star, Dodecatheon spp.

In the 1850’s, the Modoc people were forced from the area that is now Lava Beds to a reservation with the Klamath and Yahooskin of the Paiutes. Due to poor living conditions and conflict with the Klamath, a group of Modocs attempted to return to their land in Lava Beds. The Modoc War occurred from 1872 to 1873 when the U.S. Government attacked them to try to force them back to the reservation. The Modocs were able to fend the U.S. Army off for a while because of their knowledge of the land and using the cave system to their advantage. Eventually, they had to surrender, resulting in the execution of their leaders and the rest of their group was forced to Oklahoma.

It always gives me an eerie feeling to explore national monuments and partway through admiring a geological feature or landscape, remember that there was blood shed in war there. The joy of running past corners of cinder cones, crouching into cave tunnels, and peering at the sides of collapsed caves was at times shadowed by thinking about Captain Jack’s Stronghold and the Native Americans that died trying to return to and defend their land. The contrasting experiences were difficult to reconcile in my mind. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to visit our national lands, but the historical cost echoes a deep imbalance.

The molten lava that flowed there 32,000 years ago is solidified into the memories of the land in the form of lava tubes. Remembering and honoring the Native American warriors who fought for this land and the wildland firefighters we’ve lost is solidified in my mind as a mark to continue the battle for a better future for the land and mankind.

Although in many ways Lava Beds National Monument was founded with violence; the violence of volcanic eruptions and human warfare, it is a surprisingly serene place to spend a weekend. For me, the monument was an opportunity for reflection and a reminder that the shadows of a dark past should be acknowledged, but can make way for a bright future.

Big Painted Cave (25)

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