"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hot Rocks: Lava Beds National Monument

Our week's stay at Eagles' Nest RV Park in Tionesta, CA started with a surprise. As we pulled in, our hosts met us at the entrance and confided that they were expected "The Burners" to be showing up that evening.  It turns out that Burning Man was starting the next day, and although Tionesta is about as far off the beaten track as any RV park we've ever been to, it's close enough to the main route from Portland, Seattle, Bend, (and other hip alternative-culture PNW communities) to the Black Desert. It seems the Burners (participants in Burning Man) know all about Eagles' Nest RV Park and hundreds were expected to be camping all around us by nightfall. Barbara, our host, made it sound like it would be a major inundation, but after a moment's thought we decided it all sounded interesting, so we stayed.

About 15 miles from the campground is the entrance to Lava Beds National Monument, which covers only about 10 percent of the 700 square mile Medicine Lake shield volcano.  A shield volcano, in contrast to more mountainous others, like nearby Mt. Shasta, is a slowly erupting and widely spreading volcano. Within the National Monument there are volcanic buttes (below), cinder and splatter cones, massive lava flows and almost 700 lava tube caves!   They are all the remains of some very hot rocks.

Rick is not so into caves, so this was a park for Lenore the explorer. With my Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), two headlamps, lots of water and my walking stick I headed to the caves.  The rangers at the Visitors' Center suggested starting with the Mushpot cave, as it is the only lighted one in the park and a good place to figure out if you even want to go further.  

In addition to lights, Mushpots has stairs at the cave entrance, hand rails...

and paved walkways... 

These caves are also much cooler and more humid than the hot sun and parched desert air above. 
 So I guess in this case the rocks were pretty cool (rather than hot). 

The walk to the end of the lava tube and back took just a few minutes and was easy going all the way.

Lava tubes are made by the fast passage of very hot liquid lava flowing gently downhill. The floor and walls of the tube harden first as the outside contacts earth and air, cooling while the inside still flows, eventually flowing right out at the bottom of the hill, leaving the hollow tube behind. Many have collapsed, or partially collapsed, and their openings can be seen all over the park.  About 20 are maintained and open to the public.  The park provides an excellent brochure describing each one and their level of difficulty.  It also offers ranger led tours of some of the caves.

For my next lava tube encounter I chose the Sentinel Cave (above), also at the ranger's suggestion. It's rated as easy, with wide and tall passages, so no crawling is necessary. Below is what it looked like from the mouth of the cave.

Oh, did I mention that it has no lights? But I had my trusty headlamps so I thought I'd be OK.  Well, here is a picture of how far I got, looking back out to the entrance of the cave.  It was just too creepy for me, by myself. With a group I'd be fine, but as I tippy-toed into the darkness with my suddenly very inadequate headlamp, it was easy to decide that this adventure was not for me. 

OK. Not to be defeated, I drove on to two more caves, at the entrances of which there were reportedly pictographs to be found. If I didn't have to go deep inside the cave that sounded good to me. A 1.5 mile hike was required to get to their entrances.  At the first one I couldn't even see the trail down, let alone walk it, so I passed that one by. 

At the second one, Symbol Bridge Cave, I had better luck. The way down was evident, looked manageable, and wasn't dark.  In fact it was lighted by a collapsed section just a short way in, creating what I assume must have been the bridge referred to in its name.

And right at the entrance were the clearly visible pictographs, if you took the time to look. 

Pictographs are not carved, scratched or chipped into rock, but rather are created using liquid or powdered minerals, usually applied with fingers or other parts of the hand, or in some cases blown on. 

So, cave adventures complete enough, I headed to the northern sections of the Monument, passing some Giant Blazing Stars along the roadside. 

Of interest to history buffs is Captain Jack's Stronghold, another one of the Monument's easy access popular roadside attractions. 

Along the trail through the Stronghold there were many places where Mt. Shasta was visible in the distance.  There were actually two trails - a short and a long loop. (I opted for the short trial because of the heat and midday sun.)

Captain Jack was the war leader of the local Modoc people in the mid-late 1800's. The Stronghold is a complex of lava formations with caves and fissures used by as many as 150 members of the Modoc tribe in the defense of their land against US troops in 1872-3 for 5-6 months.  In the photo below you can see Tule Lake in the distance. It used to come right up to the Stronghold before it was drained for farm land. It was the source of water for the Modoc during the siege.

The Modoc Wars are described in detail here, for those interested. (Like most conflicts between Native Americans and the US government - it's complicated - so I won't attempt it here.) 

It seems the Stronghold was an especially effective location to defend because of its complexity, and the dangers of unexpected holes and sharp lava rock for those unfamiliar with it.  The brochure and trail markers throughout the area explain how parts of it were used by the Modoc, for living, storage, defense, gatherings, even ceremonial dancing during the siege. 

Walking through, it's easy to imagine their temporary life here during the siege and the related battles.  The location and the significance of the historic Modoc medicine flag is noted in the brochure, and there is also what seems to be a contemporary medicine flag mounted on a nearby highpoint within the Stronghold. (No explanation provided.)

After the Stronghold I pushed northward to the edge of the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge, and saw lots of white pelicans, Canada geese, white egrets, coots and black necked stilts.  My final stop was in the small town of Tulelake for some chicken tacos at a local burger stand before heading back to Tionesta.

BTW, we were not inundated with Burners, there was no late night pre-Burning Man celebration, 
we all got along, and we all slept well.


  1. We'll be staying at that same park in a few weeks and will visit Lava Beds...thanks for the preview!

    1. You're very welcome. I hope you enjoy it. The folks at Eagle's Nest are really nice.

  2. Oh how cool! We stayed in that general area during the government shut down and weren't able to visit the lava caves. I really want to go back and see them. Although I am not sure I would be brave enough to go in on my own :)

    1. You and me both. I think it's always good to know one's limitations. : )


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