Lava Beds at Craters of the Moon
photo by pfly

Lava Beds National Monument

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Lava Beds National Monument is a United States National Monument in the Shasta Cascades region of California.



The Medicine Lake volcano has erupted intermittently for approximately half a million years. The most recent flows of pumice and obsidian at Glass Mountain (south of Lava Beds in the Modoc National Forest) occurred less than 900 years ago. Since there have been no eruptions within historical times, and there are no signs that the volcano is getting ready to erupt soon, geologists consider Medicine Lake dormant.


The park displays the hardened results of over thirty separate lava flows exposed at Lava Beds. Rocks visible within the Monument range from two million year old volcanic tuff at Gillem Bluff in the northwest corner, to basalt about 1100 years old at the Callahan Flow in the southwest corner. Multiple eruptions of liquid basalt that flowed from Mammoth and Modoc Craters (on the Monument's southern boundary) between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago formed most of the lava tube caves here. This flow covers about 70 percent of the Monument. A different flow in the southeast corner of the park that emerged around 11,000 years ago was lower in viscosity and created smoother textured caves, including Valentine Cave. Cinder cones, spatter cones, and other surface lava flows also appeared periodically between every few hundred and every few tens of thousands of years.

The park's lave tube caves were formed as fluid lava at up to 2000° F (1093° C) flowed down gentle slopes, cooling and solidifying upon contact with the ground and air. Lava touching the ground solidified first, followed by the sides and then the top of the flow. This hard shell of cooled lava insulated the liquid rock inside, allowing it to flow long distances before it cooled and came to a stop. The lava continues to flow until it either drains out or seals the end of the tube. In the millenia since, weather and gravity have punched holes in the ceilings of these extensive tube systems every few hundred feet, leaving behind almost 700 individual caves. These caves now provide not only outstanding opportunities for exploration, but habitat for a host of species ranging from threatened bats and bacteria, to tree frogs and sword ferns that cannot survive in the dry surface environment. The perennial ice formations found in some caves also give scientists an opportunity to study the effects of climate change.

The rounded mounds of many cinder cones dot the Lava Beds landscape. A cinder cone forms when high pressure and dissolved gases in magma cause an eruption that blows a fountain of lava into the air. The cooling lava then falls as cinders around the vent. Many cinder cones also ooze liquid lava from their bases if the eruption's underground magma source changes character, such as the Schonchin Lava Flow emanating from Schonchin Butte. This is the only cinder cone with a trail to the top; please help preserve others by not climbing on them.

Spatter cones are formed by thick blobs of lava resembling lumpy oatmeal that are thrown out of a vent. Thicker than cinders and thrown less high into the air, they form a cone where they land. Black Crater is an example of an impressive spatter cone. A hollow chimney may also form where the lava emerged — those found at Fleener Chimneys are 150 ft (46 m) deep.

Other formations in the park include craters such as Mammoth Crater, which once contained a massive lake of lava that overflowed rather than erupted, and left behind an enormous empty crater. The highly fluid, basaltic lava was transported many miles to the northern part of the Monument, creating networks of lava tube caves all along the way. Gillem Bluff is an example of a fault scarp, a place where large blocks of crust move relative to each other, sometimes during violent earthquakes. Many long cliffs or ridges in this area are found along faults. Gillem Bluff has moved up relative to the basin below, exposing layers of ancient basalt believed to be two million years old.

Flora and fauna

Lava Beds National Monument has over 50 species of mammals, fourteen of which are bats. The most frequently seen are coyotes, ground squirrels, jack rabbits, cottontail rabbits, and groups of mule deer. Kangaroo rats are commonly seen on summer evenings as they run across the roads.

The park spans three very different habitats and is adjacent to the wetlands of Tulelake Wildlife Refuge, and as a result a good variety of birds can be found here. The southern most area of the park is the highest, receives the most precipitation, and supports a ponderosa pine forest. Farther downhill to the north, the middle elevations are a juniper and shrub woodland. Extending to the northern boundary are lower grasslands and sagebrush. These three areas provide habitat to some birds that specialize in living in them, and some birds at are generalists, able to live in some or all of these habitats. A selected few are listed below according to where they are most often found.

The park is also home to 14 species of reptiles and amphibians. Eight of these are snakes, including the Western rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes may be seen on the surface or under a rock outcrop. They may be found near a cave entrance but seldom go inside. Rocky mountain rubber boas are small, gentle, nonpoisonous snakes that live inside caves. Rattlesnakes are poisonous, but no one has reported being bitten by one at Lava Beds since the area became a monument in 1925.

Getting there

By car is the only way, basically. The nearest major town is Klamath Falls, so you could fly or train and rent a car from there. Unfortunately, there's no public transportation into the park. The more adventurous can bicycle or hike into the park and save half off the entrance fee!

The main entrance is from the north end of the park, either from Hill Road or from Newell on the main park road. There is also a southern entrance starting from 139 at Perez then passing Tionesta, but the road is rough and might be closed due to snow in the winter.

Another way to the park is from Highway 89 near McCloud up past the scenic Medicine Lake. Turn north off 89 at Bartle and follow the easy-to-miss signs. A good map or GPS is quite useful. If you pass Jot Dean Ice Cave, you're on the right track. This route will close due to snow in the winter. The last stretch of road to the park is about 15 km of graded dirt. Make an easy stop at Mammoth Crater on the way in.

Hikers entering the park from the Newell/Tulelake area can cut diagonally though to the campground and Visitor Center on Lyons Trail (a non-trivial desert hike with no water--be prepared.)

Things to do

Lava Tube Caves

These caves have relatively high ceilings and smooth floors or trails. A good choice for groups with young children, or anyone who wants a less strenuous experience.

  • Mushpot Cave (770 ft/235 m). Recommended as an introductory cave. This cave has lights and interpretive signs explaining the formations.

  • Indian Well Cave (300ft/91 m). This cave has easy access on a wooden walkway, a high ceiling, and unusual ice formations in winter.

  • Sentinel Cave (3,280 ft/1,000 m). This cave's easy main trail requires no stooping or ducking, and has lots of interesting features. This is one of the only developed caves with two entrances.

  • Valentine Cave (1,635 ft/498 m). This cave was discovered on Valentine's Day in 1933, and has large main passages with very smooth floors and walls. It had a different lava source than the caves on Cave Loop.

  • Skull Cave (580 ft/177 m). Named for the bones of antelope and mountain goats, bighorn sheep skulls, and two human skeletons discovered inside. It is a remnant of two very large lava tubes, one on top of the other. This allows cold winter air to be trapped inside and create a year-round ice floor on the lower level, accessible via a smooth trail and down a metal stairway to a platform.

  • Merrill Cave (650 ft/198 m). Visitors once ice skated by the lantern light on an enormous ice floor at the bottom of this cave. Changing air flow patterns are the suspected cause of melting, and today you can see small ice remnants from a viewing platform at the bottom of a stairway.

  • Heppe Cave (170 ft/52 m). Walk a short trail to this short twilight-lit cave with a small pool that is frozen most of the year. A spatter cone, huge collapse pit, and several other short cave passages can also be explored nearby.

  • Big Painted Cave ( 266 ft/81 m) and Symbol Bridge (148 ft/45 m). Historic Native American pictographs adorn the entrance areas of these two shallow caves, and many are visible without lights. An easy 0.75 mi (1.21 km) hike is required to reach them.

  • Ovis Cave (216 ft/66 m). This large cave contained 36 bighorn skulls when it was discovered in the 1890's. Ceiling heights exceed 25 ft (7.6 m), and some outside light is visible throughout. Ovis and Paradise Alleys are adjacent caves; you can enter in one and return via the other.

  • Paradise Alleys (1,033 ft/315 m). Upstream section of the Catacombs tube system, separated into individual caves by a series of collapse trenches. Smooth floors and ceiling heights exceeding 7 ft (2 m) are found throughout this cave.

These caves may involve some stooping through low sections, and/or have areas of rough floor to negotiate. Additional protective gear is recommended for the more difficult spots.

  • Golden Dome Cave (2,229 ft/679 m). Beware of "headache rock" when entering and exiting the cave via the ladder. The downstream portion of this cave (heading north) requires some stooping. The back section where the "Golden Dome" is located is a figure-8; take note of your location so you don't go around in circles. The golden ceiling in this and many other Lava Beds caves is the result of light reflecting off water droplets that bead up on a coating of hydrophobic bacteria. The bacteria are not harmful to humans but are protected, so please do not touch. The upstream portions of this cave require more stooping and some crawling.

  • Sunshine Cave (466 ft/142 m). Two collapses allow sunlight to enter the cave and abundant vegetation grows. Stooping is required in the main passage, and the back section has floors that are steep and sometimes wet, or very rough. There is beautiful hydrophobic bacteria coating the ceiling at the back of this cave, and icicles adorn cracks in the ceiling in winter.

  • Balcony Cave (2,903 ft/885 m) and Boulevard Cave (759 ft/231 m). Short trails lead to these caves from the parking lot. They have sections of low ceilings, and an optional crawl up onto a balcony created by changing lava flow levels. The "boulevard" was named for the smooth floor created by a lava cascade.

  • Blue Grotto Cave (1,541 ft/470 m). Named for the pale blue-gray portions of the ceiling inside the "Blue Grotto". The ceilings are high throughout this cave but the floors are rough.

These caves have some portions that require duck-walking or crawling. Helmets, kneepads, and gloves are a must in these areas to protect yourself from sharp lava. Other sections may be easier. These caves are also more complicated in some places— purchase maps in the Visitor Center to find your way if you intend to explore them completely.

  • Labyrinth Cave (1,239 ft/378 m) and Lava Brook Cave (859 ft/262 m). These caves near the Visitor Center are connected by way of a segment requiring crawling and twisting. Ceiling heights vary but tend to be low throughout. Pay attention to your route, as the name Labyrinth suggests! The "Lava Brook" is an interesting pattern left on the floor of one passage by the last lava flow.

  • Hopkins Chocolate Cave (1,405 ft/428 m). Named for the rich brown color of lava coating the ceiling and walls. Stooping is required in a couple places, and there is one passage with a ceiling height of 3 ft (0.9 m) that requires duck-walking.

  • Hercules Leg Cave (1,948 ft/594 m) and Juniper Cave (2,362 ft/720 m). These two caves were connected by the removal of debris in a collapse pit, and together make one long excursion with an entrance and exit. The Hercules Leg portion has generally high ceilings and smooth floors. The connection to the Juniper branch involves crossing a breakdown with a passage height of 2.5 ft (0.8 m), and several low sections thereafter.

  • Catacombs Cave (6,903 ft/2,104 m). This very long cave is easily entered but gradually increases in difficulty. It is possible to walk upright for approximately 800 ft (244 m) to the stairway, after which the ceiling rarely exceeds 3 ft (0.9 m). A few places exist where the ceiling height is less then 12 in (30 cm). A cave map is highly recommended for any group planning to explore the entire length, as multiple levels and numerous side passages can be confusing. This cave is not recommended for inexperienced cavers.

  • Thunderbolt Cave (2,561 ft/781 m). Crawling is required in the downstream portions of this cave where it connects to Labyrinth and Lava Brook Caves. Upstream (right) from the entrance are a few tight areas, one of which is 6 in (15 cm) wide at knee level. There is some stooping before the ceiling height allows walking upright.


  • Bunchgrass Trail (1 mile / 1.6 km). Start across from Site B-7 in the campground. Follow along the northeast side of Crescent Butte to the park road.

  • Missing Link Trail. This trail links the Three Sisters Trail to the Bunchgrass Trail, creating a 10-mile (16km) loop. Missing Link begins on the Bunchgrass Trail about 0.5 miles (0.8 km) from B-Loop in the campground. Hike on the Missing Link Trail for 0.7 mile (1.1 km) to reach the Skull Cave road. The trail ends across from the trailhead for Symbol Bridge. Hike another 0.1 mile (0.16km) on the road to Skull Cave to reach the trailhead for Lyons/Three Sisters Trail.

  • Heppe Cave Trail (0.4 miles / 0.6 km). Heppe Cave Trail can be found on the road to Mammoth Crater. This trail begins under tall Ponderosa pines. As you reach the end of the trail, you will view an enormous collapse. Follow the trail into Heppe Ice Cave that has a large opening at both ends.

  • Big Nasty Trail (2 miles / 3.2 km). A loop trail. Named after a brush-covered rough lava area just to the north— "it is big and it is nasty!" From the Mammoth Crater/Hidden Valley pullout, the trail starts along the crater rim. Turn left from the Mammoth Crater Trail.

  • Schonchin Butte Trail (0.7 miles / 1.4 km). This trail climbs to the fire lookout and a panoramic view. Trail has a 500 -foot elevation gain. You can be a guest of the lookout on duty in summer. Please stay on the designated trail and do not shortcut switchbacks.

  • Symbol Bridge Trail (0.8 miles / 1.3 km). Winding past interesting lava tube collapses and other features, this trail leads to many fine pictographs at the bridge and cave. Take the Skull Cave road to the first parking area and trailhead. Across the road from the Symbol Bridge Trail, you will find the Missing Link Trail.

  • Thomas-Wright Battlefield Trail. Volcanism and history are featured here. The hike onto Black Crater is less than 0.3 miles (0.5 km) by bearing right. The battlefield is 1.1 miles (1.8km) one way. View fine wildflower displays in season.

  • Gillem Bluff Trail (0.7 miles / 1.1 km). This trail climbs 550 feet in elevation to the top of Gillem Bluff (Sheepy Ridge), for a view of Gillems Camp and the surrounding landscape.

  • Captain Jacks Stronghold Trail. Two self-guiding interpretive trails wind through the heart of the Modoc's wartime defenses. The inner loop is 0.5 miles (0.8 km), and the outer loop 1.5 miles (2.4 km). Be prepared for rough terrain.

  • Petroglyph Point Trail. This very short trail begins on the east side of Petroglyph Point just beyond the bulletin board on the dirt road. The trailhead parking lot is on top of a short rise across from the trail entrance. Hike to the top to enjoy an impressive view of the basin and the Medicine Lake volcano. Please do not hike to the edge of the cliff to avoid disturbing nesting birds such as prairie falcons, redtailed hawks, and owls. Please do not attempt to hike to the top from the west side of Petroglph Point. A social trail there has caused severe erosion and passes too close to nesting sites.

  • Three Sisters Trail (8.7 miles / 14.0 km). Entered at the campground from A-Loop, this trail loops out into the wilderness and returns to the Skull Cave Road.

  • Lyons Trail (9.4 miles / 15.2 km). A former monument road, this trail crosses park wilderness from south to north between the Skull Cave parking area and Hospital Rock.

  • Whitney Butte Trail (3.3 miles / 5.3 km one way). From Merrill Cave parking area to the west boundary of the monument, this trail crosses the wilderness in an east-west direction, curving around Whitney Butte. Enjoy an impressive view of Mount Shasta and the Callahan Lava Flow.


The Visitor Center only has a small selection of snack food, so there's no real way to get food in the park.

The neighboring towns of Newell, Stronghold, Tulelake, Tionesta, and Merrill have restaurants or general stores, and Tulelake has a supermarket.



One main campground serves the park: Indian Well Campground. Sites are $10 per night and no reservations are required, generally. A group site sits on the north side of the campground for $3 per person per night, with a max of $60 per night.

There are two loops: A and B. A-loop tends to be quieter, and the two A-loop sites on the "shoulder" of the loop facing the valley offer commanding views.

Water from the faucets around the campground is drinkable and tasty.

If the campground is full or you're visiting on the cheap, you can camp for free in Modoc National Forest just south of the park. (Campfires will require a permit, if they are allowed at all; check with the Forest Service.) Look for places to camp off Tichnor Rd ("Tickner", "Ticknor") which runs east/west about 1-2 km south of the park. The road can be rough, but a passenger car can drive it in the summer--watch for mud and snow in other seasons.


Two wilderness areas are present at Lava Beds: Schonchin and Callahan. You can access Schonchin via Three Sisters Trail and Lyons Trail, and Callahan by Whitney Butte Trail. Overnight camping is allowed, but must be 400 m from any trail. No fires are permitted; gas stoves are allowed. No surface water exists in the park, so all water must be packed in.

There are few or no bears in the park, but there are mountain lions. Rattlesnakes are common, but they just want to be left alone.


The Visitor Center has some minimal supplies, including some snack food, lip balm, batteries, flashlights, and ice. Of course, they also have plenty of tourist items, and will sell you postcard stamps. For caving, they will sell you bumpcaps (highly recommended, as even a brush with the ceiling can leave you bloody) and will let you borrow flashlights for free. They also have books with maps of the caves and other information.

Straight north of the park where Hill Rd meets Highway 161 at Ainsworth Corner, there is a small general store with food and supplies.

In Newell, northeast of the park, there is a small general store with groceries, video games, and expensive gas.

The town of Tulelake is northwest of Newell a short distance, and has a grocery store.

South of the park, Tionesta has a small store and will sell a limited amount of expensive gas.

North in Oregon, the town of Merrill has plenty of gas and stores. (It's Oregon, so don't try to pump your own gas!)


Mountain lions have been spotted; beware walking alone near dusk especially if you're of small stature.

Bears are not a problem near the campground and are rarely sighted, if ever.

Deer can be pesky, so keep your food deer-proof.

Ground squirrels can sometimes be present en masse; they'll chew into your tent to get your food if you put it in there.

Rattlesnakes like to rest near cave entrances. Don't put your hands and feet where you can't see!

Bubonic plague is present in the park; it is a once-quite-popular disease that spreads through the bite of fleas which have fed on infected rodents. Don't sleep near rodent holes, and steer clear of rodent nests which are commonly found in caves.

Hantavirus has also been detected in the park.


$10.00 entrance fee, good for 7 days. $5 for bicycles, motorcycles, and on-foot. $20 gets you in for a year.

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The photos displayed on this page are the property of one of the following authors:

pfly, Michael (a.k.a. moik) McCullough, jill, jellidonut... whatever, Orin Zebest

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This travel guide also includes text from Wikitravel articles, all available at WikitravelView full credits

Ryan Holliday, Beej Jorgensen and Nick Roux

This travel guide also includes text from Wikipedia articles, all available at WikipediaView full credits

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