Lava Beds National Monument covers 46,692 acres in northeastern California. It was one of the earlier national monuments, established in 1925. The monument has over 700 known caves, the highest concentration in the United States. Typically the first cave to visit is the 770-foot-long illuminated Mushpot Cave shown above, the only lit cave in the monument. This cave was named after a mushpot hole in the ground through which lava bubbled up and filled the cave.
Lava Beds sits on the northern flank of the Medicine Lake Volcano, the largest volcano by area in the Cascades. For the past million years, Medicine Lake has spewed lava and gases, creating lava flows, lava tubes, and cinder cones. Medicine Lake is now considered dormant, but the last eruption was only 1100 years ago. The 1/3-mile long Valentine Cave was discovered on Valentine’s Day in 1933. Unlike most lava tubes, it has smooth walls and floors.
The short Indian Well Cave has an opening on both ends, though the exit requires a scramble up a rock wall and a climb out a hole in the ceiling. This cave has unusual ice formations in winter. In the past, there was a large pool of water on the floor, which is how this cave got its name.
Skull Cave is a good choice for people with claustrophobia. It’s a remnant of three large lava tubes, one on top of the other. The multiple levels allow cold air to be trapped in the bottom level, which has ice on it year-round. It was named for the bones of two human skeletons found in the cave. Notice how the ceiling in the bottom photo looks like it is adorned in gold. Can you spot Theresa in the photo?
Schonchin Butte is a 50-story high cinder cone. It is named for Old Schonchin, chief of the Modoc Indian tribe during the late nineteenth century. The cone erupted 30,000 years ago, forming a lava splatter at the very top, on which a fire lookout tower was built.
We climbed to the top of Schonchin Butte and enjoyed our lunch.
We had a great view of Mt. Shasta, which rises 14,179 feet above the southern end of the Cascade Range. It’s not connected to any nearby mountain, hence it rises dramatically over 10,000 feet above the surrounding plain and is visible for hundreds of miles on a clear day.
Lavacicles are round-tipped stalactites formed in lava tubes. They get their name from their resemblance to icicles. They can be formed by lava dripping slowly from a cooling roof, or from lava splashed on the ceiling and oozing back down.
Blue Grotto Cave was named for its blue-grey ceilings.
Ovis Cave contained the skulls of 36 bighorn sheep when it was discovered in the 1890s.
This area has human historical as well as geological significance. In the 1860s, white settlers asked a group of Modoc Indians led by Captain Jack to give up their homeland and move to a nearby reservation. They obliged for a while, but tensions between the Modoc and other tribes, as well as food shortages, forced the Modoc to return to this land. Eventually the U.S. Army was called in to forcibly remove the Modoc. For five months, Captain Jack and a small band of warriors successfully defended this area against an army that was ten times its size. The lava tubes and rough terrain worked to the Modoc’s advantage. But eventually Captain Jack was defeated and hanged.