One of my favorite places to visit in mid-spring is Lava Beds National Monument, a remote pocket of land at the California-Oregon border. It is covered with the remains of significant volcanic activity which means lots of interesting terrain to explore. At last count they had over 700 known lava tube caves in the park boundary and growing (on my first visit the number was closer to 300). Much of the surrounding national forest is still snowed in and inaccessible at this time of year so the area is quiet and lacking in people – a perfect place to get away for a holiday weekend, as long as you don’t mind a long drive.
We headed up early Friday morning and stopped in Dunsmuir for breakfast at the Cornerstone Bakery (don’t miss their cinnamon roles) before stretching our legs on the short trail to Hedge Creek Falls. I’ve always wanted to see these falls, supposedly saved by locals when the original plan for Highway 5 would have plowed right over it. It’s a quick stop off of Highway 5 – a short walk (5 mins) down a switchbacking trail to the bottom of the falls.
From Dunsmuir we continued on to Klamath Falls (Oregon) for gas and supplies before heading south into Lava Beds. We pulled into the quiet and deserted (save a couple sites) campground around 5pm and got our favorite site with a view across the Monument. There aren’t many places you can do this in California on a holiday weekend! Paige and Greg joined us shortly thereafter and we took a short walk to a nearby backcountry ice cave.
A quick word about the caves in Lava Beds: There are several ‘developed’ caves in the park – i.e. caves that are labeled on maps, have parking areas, and have ladders/steps built into them and sometimes even paths built through them. But for each developed cave there are 50 (known) ‘wild’ backcountry caves. Part of the fun of visiting lava beds is studying the maps and lava flow diagrams to figure out where to find these wild caves. While the developed caves are fun and interesting, there is something much more rewarding about finding them on your own. So this is how we spent Saturday – wandering off-trail to follow several tubes and collapses and exploring the caves along the way.
I’m not including a GPS track of our route – sorry. If you want to find them, the information is out there. You just have to know where to look. And it will likely involve paper maps and books – the web is pretty silent on this topic.
Our first stop was a cave and arch not far off the Lyons trail – this is the easiest one to find.
We followed the collapse trenches for a while and peeked into all the caves we found. Many were basic short lava tubes, but we found one in particular that delighted us. It had a steep descent through lava talus into a deep dark hole where the headlamps couldn’t see. Inside we found bones and a cave register that had only been signed three times (and only by rangers) since 2007.
After our ~11 mile wandering and caving we were back at camp to enjoy a night around the campfire. On Sunday morning it began raining so we packed up and headed out. As we pulled into Valentine Cave, a developed cave on the way out of the park, it turned to snow. After a quick visit to the comparatively warm and dry environment of the lava tube we headed south towards home, making the obligatory visit to McArthur-Burney state park to check out the falls.