I’m going to let you in on a secret. It comes in two parts. The first is this: Lava Beds National Monument. The second part is this: Easter Weekend.
Lava Beds sits just south of the California/Oregon border. The nearest town big enough for a Walmart is Klamath Falls, Oregon, about 40 miles to the north. Getting to the park from the major population centers of California involves a long, long drive, made even longer in winter by closure of the southern route due to snow. It is surrounded by horseradish farms, the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and the flanks of the enormous Medicine Lake Shield Volcano and related lava flows.
Lava Beds offers a unique experience. The main attractions are the hundreds of lava tube caves formed by the different flows off of the Medicine Lake Volcano. The labelled caves on the Lava Beds park map are generally developed. This means that they have ladders, cleared sections through the jumbles of rock, or walkways. They do not have lights – bring your own! The backcountry caves, however, are not developed and usually require a bit more scrambling or technical skills. Lava tubes in general are fairly easy to navigate, so advanced caving skills are not usually needed. Good lighting, head protection, and a lack of fear of the dark and tight spaces are the most important things to have in a lava tube.
In addition to the caves, Lava Beds is the site of the Modoc War and there is a lot of interesting history to learn about on the various nature walks and visitor’s center. Due to the natural protection of the lava jumbles and caves, in 1873 a small group of Modoc indians were able to hold off Army forces that were much larger in number and firepower for nearly half a year.
Lava Beds also offers some nice hiking, plenty of wildlife, petroglyphs, bird watching, and high desert flora. But the most amazing thing is the lack of crowds. It is such an interesting place with so much to do, but its distance from the dense California population (most heading to Tahoe and Yosemite on holiday weekends) keeps the crowds away and it’s not unusual to have the place to yourself. Easter weekend has become our favorite time to visit. We can roll into the campground at 3 pm on Good Friday and have 80% of the sites to choose from. We can explore the caves all day and not see another soul. Even on 4th of July weekend, their busiest time of year, one can usually get a campsite in the small campground near the visitor’s center.
So, even if it means I may see a few extra people up there next year, I’d highly recommend a springtime visit to the park. It’s worth the drive.