South on the Volcanic Legacy Byway


After Crater Lake, I spent the night in Klamath Falls, home of cheap hotel rooms. I figured out what should have been obvious to me, that it’s a much better idea to call ahead to hotels rather than ask for a price on arrival. I was initially quoted $70 but after saying I’d call around, that was immediately reduced to $52.

While I was hiking Crater Lake, I’d run into two guys who were interning with the National Park Service. I had been the only car in the parking lot when they started out, and they were both from the East Coast (Massachusetts and Pennsylvania), so they asked if I was from NY and what I was doing. We talked briefly and they suggested visiting the park where they worked, but I’d already been planning on it!


The park was Lava Beds National Monument; an inconspicuous name, but once I read in my guidebook that you were allowed to explore caves yourself, I felt it was a must-see. And my intuition was correct; this was my favorite park of the trip so far. It many activities without being overwhelming, was mostly empty (kids are finally headed back to school), and had a totally unique thing to do. Spelunking!

The campground was wonderful

This was also my first time in California. In the northeast corner of the state it looks quite a bit like neighboring Nevada: lots of sagebrush, juniper trees, and other scrub. In truth, it would be pretty desolate, except that farmers converted some local lakes into a network of dikes and ditches for irrigation. This area was filled with small white butterflies, which flitted around as I drove through. Their tiny feathery bodies littered the road.

I first took a cave tour (of Sentinel, named because one column of rock looks like a face standing guard). Turns out, the guide was one of the guys I’d met at Crater Lake, so I got to ride in a US Government van to the cave (only 2 miles, but still what luxury!). There was also another intern at the park who was kibitzing the tour, which turned out to be informative. All the caves in the park are lava tubes, which form as lava rivers progressively overflow and harden on the upper edges, eventually completely filling up. The source of this lava is a nearby shield volcano, Mammoth Peak. Unlike other volcanoes (like that at Crater Lake, for instance), shield volcanoes don’t explode; they act more like a lava geyser, just throwing out bits of lava for a long period of time. This is what causes the flows that eventually become caves. Once the flow stops, the tube is left empty. At Lava Beds, there are 778 known caves; about 20 are open for exploration. The most recent lave flow was just 900 years ago.

The guide gave myself and the other intern a special tour on the way back, showing where it would be cool to do independent explorations. When I looked in one of the side-tubes, I saw a surprise: a bushy-tailed packrat. I’d never seen wildlife in caves before, but during my explorations I saw the packrat, a sleeping bat, cave crickets, and tiny millipedes. Maybe not the most exciting animals, but they’re an unusual sight underground. Aboveground, at night in my campsite, I caught site of a Kangaroo Rat, a funny hopping little rodent.

Cave gear: improvised helmet, heavy boots, kneepads

After the tour I explored a few caves myself. These caves and their features have evocative names: Hercules Leg, Cleopatra’s Grave, Catacombs, The Pool Room, Elephant’s Rump, Blue Grotto. By this point I’d invested in the necessary gear: a helmet, kneepads, and a guidebook. With the helmet – just a very simple construction helmet – I improvised a headlamp with duct tape. I explored several caves like this in the evening, parking outside the paved loop, which would be locked at 6:30: Hercules Leg/Juniper, Sunshine, Hopkins’ Chocolate, Devil’s Homestead.

In one cave, I met a squirrel – the squirrels here all look dusty – right at the edge of total darkness. The light of day was like a match held 100 feet away, and the squirrel appeared bewildered by my light. I stood quietly and it moved back and forth, then padded silently towards me. I’ve never seen such a docile squirrel; I even wondered if it had rabies (but it wasn’t aggressive). It walked silently past me, not a foot away, and then headed back to the entrance.

Lavacicles: tiny daggers hanging from the ceiling.

It’s a totally new feeling, being in these caves alone. At first it’s nerve-wracking: you’re not used to the total silence, and the sunlight means your eyes need time to adjust. When you enter the cave your headlamp seems impossibly dim after the brightness of day. Then there’s the double- and triple-checking to make sure you have everything: compass, map, backup flashlight, backup batteries. You don’t want to end up like Tom Sawyer, stranded in the darkness. I didn’t carry my backpack or camera most of the time; the space was too tight.

A good representation of the view.

After your eyes adjust, you can begin to press forward, carefully. The headlamp illuminates just a small sliver of the darkness; the helmet is useful for a reason (“oh, I’ll just watch my head in low spots,” I thought naively at first). You can look at your feet – and you must, because in many places the floor is extremely rough “cauliflower aa” rock, a 3-inch deep mess of solid stone, very sharp. But while you watch your feet, the ceiling can descend outside your light. It’s no smooth ceiling. As the lava receded it left a thin coating, which dripped down before cooling to create ‘lavacicles,’ like little daggers that cover the entire ceiling. When crawling these can cause painful cuts in your back.

A 2 foot gap, with helmet for scale. The floor is smooth here.

Most of the caves are cool – 50 degrees or so (some even contain ice), and very humid, but between crawling, taking meticulous care to follow the map, inching along on your belly, and duckwalking, you can work up quite a sweat. This drips all over you, saturates the headband of the helmet, and your breath clouds the air in front of you with fog, further obscuring your vision.

The funny thing is that these caves probably dip no deeper than 40 feet below the surface, but the isolation is total. Turn out the headlamp and you’re in complete darkness and silence. Sometimes you hear sudden water drips, which can be startling and unexpected.

Where the sidewalk ends

The following morning I did an early 7 mile hike to see one of the lava flows. This looks very much like the lava that flows into the ocean in Hawaii, but it’s peculiar: the desert just ends and a single jagged monolith of burned rock begins. I climbed on it a little, and slipped, and it’s very, very sharp.

Jail in Tule Lake relocation center

After that I visited a neighboring park. This was very confusing to me, but apparently in this small town of Tule Lake, there are two parks: Lava Beds, and a unit of “WWII: Valor in the Pacific,” a 12-unit park scattered across the Pacific dedicated to World War II. In this case, the park was based around a Japanese relocation camp in the area, which housed up to 18 thousand people. The park itself was a curiosity: a tiny little phone-booth sized visitor center (sharing a building with a museum dedicated to the county fair!), and then a few distant sites surrounded by fence. The park was apparently only open by appointment and for a single tour each week, which is what I took. It was led by the other guy I’d met at Crater Lake, and I got to ride in a government van again.

It was quite interesting: you could see the foundations of one remaining bathhouse in this vast unit, and a jail with contemporary pencil graffiti scrawled on it (touching: “show me the way to go home”). The work camp was originally CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), then was used by Japanese-Americans, and finally by German and Italian POWs. The POWS were treated better than the Japanese-Americans. In the jail they had a silk-screen with a rare photo of prisoners in the bunks. Apparently on one tour, a woman started crying – she had realized that a man standing in the photo was her father!

I got the sense that the park was slowly growing and had received some small grants for repairs, but it was still the most primitive I’d seen. I didn’t mind, though, I learned something new.

Bustling downtown Tule Lake

The visitor center was in Tule Lake, perhaps the most depressing small town I’ve seen. The main street broad as a football field, with no cars. Nothing moved, most buildings were shuttered. The sun overhead was oppressive. This town had been settled by veterans, but now had dwindled to 1,000 people. Where were these people… who knows?

Map of Catacombs cave, with the rough route I followed marked.

Back at Lava Beds, I went on my longest cave exploration: Catacomb, a network of two interconnected lava tubes that extended over 2000 feet (but with 6900 feet of passages!). To cover the bulk of the cave requires 3-4 hours. I only saw a part of it, but it was still impressive. There were sections where I had to inch forward, in a sort of undulating pushup manner, through passages 1.5 feet high. When I had gotten most of the way through, I was finally confronted with a 1 foot high passage. This wouldn’t have been bad, except for the lavacicles on the ceiling, and that the floor was covered in this sharp rock. I turned around.

On my last day I went for a quick tour of Sentinel, exploring some of the side passages I hadn’t seen on the guided tour, and then headed to Lassen Volcanic National Park. In total I estimate that I spent about 4-5 hours exploring underground, alone. It was an amazing experience, a true novelty. I’d highly recommend checking out Lava Beds National Monument.

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