Another National Monument, probably the last for this summer, is in the books. Lava Beds is one of the lesser known of the National Parks Service territories, but it comes in as Richard’s favorite from this trip. It boasts the impressive statistic of being home to over 700 volcanically created caves and lava tubes. We were able to find a place in the first come, first serve campground and explored a total of seven different caves, plus a couple of hikes.
We took the now very familiar Highway 97 down toward the border between CA and OR. From there, it’s a relatively short drive directly down south to get to the kiosk at the northern entrance. We were asked about “White Nose Syndrome,” which is a very deadly fungal disease to bats. Anyone who has been in a cave in the recent past is asked to go through a decontamination procedure before entering any of the caves. Really, this just means using a hydrogen peroxide wipe to clean off any items and walk across a treated pad to disinfect the bottoms of your shoes. You can then get a cave pass to say you’re clean.
Richard rode from the kiosk to the campground and we were able to see some of the large areas of ancient lava flow along the way. Our hope was to find a site that had some afternoon shade because temperature highs were in the low 90s that day. We were pleased with what we got and were not in danger of finding ourselves without a place to stay. There were people there, but still enough sites that we got to choose one we liked.
After getting set up, we went to the Visitor Center to check things out. There we got a map and some recommendations for good caves to see. Note that some caves get closed at times when there are baby bats present, and I think there were four we could not go inside. We started by driving the “Cave Loop” road and stopped at our first lava tube: Golden Dome. We found the directions and description in the park brochure to be inadequate and we were confused as to which way to go once we descended the steep ladder. But, since one way would require low squatting and/or crawling, while the other way did not, it was an obvious choice. That particular cave has a figure 8 pathway through the tubes, so you do have to be kind of careful about how you go. It was super cool, but maybe we should have built confidence doing an easier cave first.
Our next stop was Sunshine and that was easier to navigate. Plus, as its name suggests, there are rays of sun coming through occasional roof openings, so it’s not as pitch black as the others. Back at the Visitor Center is one called Mushpot. That one is lit, and has a paved path, plus informational kiosks along the way. This is a great intro and gives you context as you explore other caves.
Normally, lava tubes are very rough on the floor. You can really picture the lava flowing through and then hardening. Sometimes it presents with a smooth flow pattern, called “Pahoehoe” and sometimes it is far more rough and rocky, called “A’a.” No matter the type, it is imperative you carry a really bright light or you’re gonna get hurt. We borrowed a couple of big flashlights from the Visitor Center (they regularly lend these out for free). The brochure does do a good job of telling you which caves are more difficult and which are easy. We opted for all “easy” or “moderate” at the most.
The next day we began with a ranger led tour of something called the “Fleener Chimneys.” These are a group of three lava chimneys that sort of spit out the lava in splurts and gurgles. You can see way down deep into one of them, and apparently, these three little mounds were responsible for depositing flow material for a solid mile downhill.
After that, we climbed the one cinder cone that you’re allowed to walk on. There’s a ranger lookout station up there and it provides really cool views of Shasta and the surrounding landscape. It’s much easier to actually see the flow patterns from up there. It’s a climb, but worth it, and we did it before the heat took over.
And where do you want to be when it’s over 90 degrees? In a bunch of sweet, 50 degree caves of course. We spent the remainder of the day walking around in the Merrill Ice Cave, the Valentine Cave, and the Heppe Cave at sunset. In between, we signed up for another ranger led tour, this time going through the Sentinel Cave. I highly recommend taking ranger led tours. You just learn all kinds of cool stuff. Like, for example, there is this glistening stuff on the walls that is either silver or gold and looks like you’ve struck gemstones. It is actually a specific bacteria that is feeding off the minerals in the tiny water droplets. Valentine Cave had a ton of the stuff. They also explain things to you, sometimes over and over, about how the things actually formed. Simplistically stated, the lava flowed downhill, formed a crust at the top where it cooled, allowing the hot stuff to keep flowing underneath until it formed tubes. Eventually, everything cooled and hardened, often looking like drippy cake icing hanging from the ceiling. So cool!
At the end of the day, we took a drive out to the Heppe Cave, which is down a 3 mile gravel road. You also have to hike about .4 miles out to see it, but it’s worth it. That one has a pool at the bottom of a cavernous opening and the reflection makes it look like it continues down to the center of the earth. We were on a two-part mission there, the second being to hit the “Big Nasty Trail” just down the road a ways in order to see the sunset. To get to this trail, you have to follow signs for the Mammoth Crater parking area. Word had it that this was the place to be for sunsets, and I concur. I took pictures, like I do, and Richard earned beaucoup romance points for finding out about it.
Heading out the next day, Richard rode while I drove. We both came away with a very positive impression of this place. It was hot, sure, but not at all crowded. And it’s 4,000 feet up, so it’s not as hot as the valley below. It offers a concentration of super cool geologic features and an opportunity to go spelunking in a wide range of difficulty levels. The stars at night are just ridiculous. Several thumbs up for this place. There’s not a lot around and it’s a good idea to top up on gas on your way in. There’s pretty good cell service though, so it doesn’t feel cut off. It’s a really cool, high desert experience.
Total miles from La Pine: 165.7, 17.1 mpg, 4 hours 13 min. Site B24. First come, first serve. No hookups, no dump. Pretty good LTE for both from B loop, but not from A loop. Water spigots, nice bathrooms, walking distance to Visitor Center.