Lava Beds NM (August 28)

Posted on September 20, 2016 by Chris Lumens in hiking, Lassen.

On our last full day in California, we took the long drive from Reading up north to Lava Beds NM to see yet more volcanic stuff. It was a lot of driving, but we were both interested in seeing a lot more lava tubes after walking through Subway Cave and we got to see Shasta a lot more up close. I also had plans for doing one more SOTA activation.

As a reminder, all posts related to this trip can be read on the Lassen tag page.

We got up pretty early, loaded up the rental car, and headed north on I-5. In Dunsmuir, we stopped for breakfast and gas. On the way, we passed by the impressive Castle Crags which were just west of the road. More impressive was Shasta looming before us. The sides we could see were pretty bare of snow, but it was still more than two miles above us so it was quite a sight.

In the town of Weed, we got off the interstate and turned northeast on CA-97 which we basically followed to the Oregon border. To the west was Mt. Eddy (an ultra-prominent peak I’d hoped to climb) and on the right continued to be Shasta. As we headed more north, we drove around it and got to see the much snowier north side. Shasta pretty much dominated the skyline for most of the day. We then followed the state line for a while and finally turned south towards Lava Beds. The closer we got, the more volcanic everything got.

Right at the border of the national monument, we had to stop at the ranger station to pay (well, I have an interagency pass so we didn’t have to pay) and get questioned about if we had been to any caves in the past year. They are trying to avoid white nose syndrome with their bats so if you’ve been to caves, you ahve to get your boots and gear cleaned first.

I typically like to go to the visitor’s center first when going to a park, and this one was quite a drive in. We saw all the lava flows and cinder cones on the drive but we didn’t stop at anything on the way in. I did decide I wouldn’t be doing any SOTA activations today after seeing that the outside temperatues was in the 90s.

At the ranger station, we got our gear cleaned and figured out which caves would be good ones for us to explore. The main attraction at Lava Beds is their extensive system of lava tubes, lots of which are open for people to walk through. They were rated like ski trails and we don’t have any experience with caving so I was really only looking to do the easy ones. We got a couple extra flashlights (no lights installed in the caves) and headed out to the first one that looked good - Valentine Cave.

This first lava tube was just like the Subway Cave, but bigger and without anyone else around. Since we didn’t really have any caving experience, we decided our limit was only going in as far as we could go without having to crawl. A little crouching was okay, though. Not having anyone around made this much more exciting and once we’d walked a short ways into the cave it was completely dark except for our lights.

We followed the main tube a ways in, passing a couple branches, and came to a large room way in the back with a couple different forks. We took turns exploring down one direction while the other person stayed put. Eventually I decided that I wasn’t comfortable doing this without a map (which they sold at the visitor’s center) so we walked back.

After a quick stop back at the visitor’s center to buy a book with maps, we set back out to see the caves on the main cave loop. We went in several caves along this loop. Some of them were pretty simple and some were very complex but we stopped before it got too difficult. They really all kind of blend together. The longest cave we went in was the Sentinel Cave which required walking a couple tenths of a mile outside to the far entrance and then back to the car through the cave. Sentinel was big enough inside that it included staircases to pass between levels.

Instead of explaining each cave in detail (a lot of which blended together), here’s several interesting pictures:

That pile of caves took us a couple hours and we didn’t have anything with us for lunch, so we started to think about leaving. First, we wanted to hit the Skull Cave which was supposed to have ice at the bottom. Skull Cave was off by itself at the end of a dirt road that ended at a big open trench with the entrance on one side. The cave was made up of three lava tubes that had collapsed into one. It was massive.

We followed the trail along the side of the cave which was convenient because there was a ton of fallen rocks in the middle. The trail went in quite a ways before it hit a couple stories of metal stairs going down to the ice. It got a lot colder here and the railing on the staircase was increasingly tough to hold on to. Bringing jackets would have been a good idea, but it was still in the 90s outside.

Down at the bottom, the ice was gated off so we couldn’t walk out there. It was pretty hard to see the ice, really. It was supposed to be extremely clear ice which would make it hard to see even if it was deep. There was also the gate which didn’t let us get a very good angle on it. It was kind of disappointing to see, but the cold temperature was nice. Looking away from the ice really demonstrated the multiple layers of tubes that had collapsed. I tried to get pictures down here but it was too tough to do with the fixed lens.

After that, we decided we’d had enough of caves for one trip and were getting really hungry. So we went back to the visitor’s center to drop off our borrowed flashlights and headed out. On the way out, we decided to go visit the tiny separate corner of the park that had all the petroglyphs. The drive over took us all the way across the park and then through some private land and to a cliff. The bottom of the cliff was fenced off and there was a sign saying the Petroglyph Trail was a little farther down the road, so we went over there.

The trail up was actually pretty steep and we were both sore and hungry. When we got to the top, we ran into a sign saying this was a sacred place and this was the end of the trail. There were no petroglyphs in sight and we didn’t want to wander around looking when it said not to, so we just headed down.

When we got down we were pretty frustrated. We drove back to the front of the cliff but got a lot closer to the fence. We could see the petroglyphs were probably on the cliff behind the fence. At this point, it was the middle of the afternoon and we were tired and hungry and just didn’t care anymore. So we drove away without seeing anything. It was a frustrating way to end what was otherwise a really interesting trip.