Lave Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument, located in Siskiyou and Modoc Counties, California, is the site of the largest concentration of lava tube caves in the United States. It was established as a United States National Monument on November 21, 1925.

The monument lies on the northeast flank of the Medicine Lake Volcano, the largest volcano (total area covered) in the Cascade Range.

The region in and around the monument is unique because it lies on the junction of the Sierra-Klamath, Cascade, and Great Basin physiographic provinces.

In addition, the monument is geologically outstanding because of its great variety of "textbook" volcanic formations; i.e., lava tube caves, fumaroles, cinder cones, spatter cones, maar volcanos, and lava flows. Over 30 separate lava flows located in the park range in age from 2,000,000 years BP to 1,110 years BP.

Some of the major Lava Flows within Lava Beds National Monument include: Callahan Flow, Schonchin Flow, Mammoth Crater Flow, Modoc Crater Flow, and Devils Homestead Flow. Schonchin Butte is an example of a cinder cone.

The high elevation, semi-arid desert environment of Lava Beds receives an average of 15 inches (381 mm) of annual precipitation.

The climate is characterized by warm, dry summers and cold winters. The average annual high temperature is 60 °F (16 °C) and average annual low temperature is 35 °F (2 °C). Temperature extremes range from 18 °F (-28 °C) to 102 °F (39 °C). Average annual snowfall is 44 inches (112 cm).

The lava tube collapse systems and lava outcrops support a great diversity of plant life, from an impressive variety of lichens and mosses to plants such as desert sweet (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) and the aromatic desert (purple) sage (Salvia dorrii carnosa).
An impressive variety of fern species are present in cave entrances including the spreading wood fern (Dryopteris expansa) and the western swordfern (Polystichum munitum).


These Species are well outside of their normal range 90 - 125 miles away on the northern California coastline.
Volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have created an incredibly rugged landscape punctuated by cinder cones, lava flows, spatter cones, lava tube caves and pit craters.

During the Modoc War of 1872-1873, the Modoc Indians used these tortuous lava flows to their advantage. Under the leadership of Captain Jack, the Modocs took refuge in "Captain Jack's Stronghold," a natural lava fortress.

From this base a group of 53 fighting men and their families held off US Army forces numbering up to ten times their strength for five months.
General Canby was killed here by Captain Jack at a peace meeting on April 1, 1873

Lava Flows


Despite harsh, semi-arid conditions, native wildlife has adapted to the environmental constraints present in the region. There are no terrestrial water resources in Lava Beds National Monument.

Some animals obtain water from caves, while others fly about twenty miles (12 km) north to Tule Lake. Federal and state animal species of special concern in the monument include: Cooper's Hawk (Accepter cooperii), Fringed Myotis (Myotis thysanodes), Long-eared Myotis (Myotis evotic), Long-legged Myotis (Myotis volans), Pallid Bat (Antrozous pallidus), Silver-haired Bat (Lasionycteris noctivigans), Townsends Big-eared Bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), Western Small-footed Myotis (Myotis ciliolabrum), and American Badger (Taxidea taxus).

Because of a lack of surface water, amphibian presence in the monument is limited. The most common species found in the monument is the Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regilla). This species is also found in the biologically rich cave entrances in the monument.

Reptile species found in the monument include: northern sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus graciosus), Great Basin fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis biseriatus), western skink (Eumeces skiltonianus skiltonianus), Rocky Mountain rubber boa (Charina bottae utahensis), gopher snake (Pituophis melanoleucus), desert night snake (Hypsiglena torquata deserticola), western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis).

Key animal species by habitat:
  Bunchgrass-sagebrush grasslans: Mule Deer, coyote gopher snake, Prairie Falcon, Western Meadowlark, Kangaroo Rat 
Porcupine juniper-brushlands:
Pronghorn Antelope, Bobcat, Scrub Jay, Jackrabbit, Mountain Bluebird, 
Pine forest: Mountain Lion, Bald Eagle (winter resident), Golden-mantled Ground Squirrll
Rocky Lava Flows: western fence lizard, western rattlesnake

Cave mouths & interior passages:
Violet-green Swallow, Brazilian Free-tail Bat
, Townsend's Big-eared Bat, Pacific tree frog, Pika, Bushy-tailed Rat
Lake shore areas: Skunk, Raccoon, Great Horned Owl, Short-eared Owl.

Geologic formations

Roughly ninety percent of the lava in the monument is basaltic. There are primarily two kinds of basaltic lava flows: pahoehe and 'A'a. Pahoehoe is smooth and ropy and is the type most common in Lava Beds. Aa is formed when pahoehoe cools and loses some of its gases. Aa is rough, sharp, and jagged; an excellent example is the Devils Homestead lava flow, which originated at Fleener Chimneys.

Most of the rest of the lava in the monument is andesitic. Pumice, a type of rhyolitic lava, also is found covering the monument; this rained down around 900 years ago during the eruption of Glass Mountain.
The flows from Mammoth and Modoc Craters comprise about 2/3 of the lava in the monument.

These flows have been dated to about 30,000-40,000 years ago; most of the caves in the monument were formed from these flows. As the hot basaltic lava flowed downhill, the top cooled and crusted over, insulating the rest of the lava and forming lava tubes.

Lavacicles on the ceiling of a lava tube were left as the level of lava in the tube retreated and the viscous lava on the ceiling dripped as it cooled. Dripstone was created when lava splashed on the inside walls of the tubes

Schonchin Butte cinder cone at dawn, viewed from Park Headquarters.
Cinder cones are formed when magma is under great pressure. It is released in a fountain of lava, blown into the air from a central vent.

The lava cools as it falls, forming cinders that pile up around the vent. When the pressure has been relieved, the rest of the lava flows from the base of the cone. Cinder cones typically only erupt once.

The cinder cones of Hippo Butte, Three Sisters, Juniper Butte, and Crescent Butte are all older than the Mammoth and Modoc Crater flows (that is, more than 30,000-40,000 years old). Eagle Nest Butte and Bearpaw Butte are 114,000 years old. Schonchin Butte and the andesitic flow from its base were formed around 62,000 years ago.

The flow that formed Valentine Cave erupted 10,850 years ago. An eruption that formed The Castles is younger than the Mammoth Crater flows.

Even younger were eruptions from Fleener Chimneys (the Devils Homestead flow, 10,500 years ago) and Black Crater (3,025 years ago). About 1,110 years ago, plus or minus 60 years, the Callahan flow was produced by an eruption from Cinder Butte.

Though Cinder Butte is just outside the boundary of the monument, the Callahan flow is in Lava Beds and is the youngest flow in the monument.

Spatter cones are built out of thicker lava. The lava is thrown out of the vent and builds, layer by layer, a chimney surrounding the vent.

Fleener Chimneys and Black Crater are examples of spatter cones.
Gillem Bluff, a fault scarp, was created as the region stretched and a block of earth dropped down along this fault (see Basin and Range Province).

The tuff layer on top of Gillem Bluff is 2,000,000 years old, inferring the rock layers beneath are even older. The oldest lava flow from the Medicine Lake Volcano within the monument is the Basalt of Hovey Point, near Captain Jacks Stronghold, which is 450,000 years old.
Petroglyph Point was created about 275,000 years ago when cinders erupted through the shallow water of Tule Lake; violent explosions of ash and steam formed layers upon layers of tuff.

Schonchin Butte

Recent activity

A series of small earthquakes in late 1988 has been attributed to subsidence in the caldera.
N-NE trending ground cracks, as well as N-NE trending vent series show relationships between tectonism and volcanism.

One very prevalent ground crack exists along the northeastern boundary of the monument- "The Big Crack."
The leaching of minerals from pumice gravel, soils, and overlying rock provides for deposition of secondary speleothems in lava tubes

For more information:

Lava Beds National Monument
P.O. Box 867
Tulelake, CA 96134

Acreage: 46,559.87 all federal wilderness area:

28,460 acres.(U.S. National Park Service)

Prisoner Rock
Captain Jacks Stronghold
Devil's Homestead Lava Flow

Lava Beds Attractions

The Visitor Center
This is a really great place to start you visit because you can get gobs of good information concerning just about anything in the park. There's a great museum filled with historical and natural items that will help clue you in as to what exactly has been happening in the park all these years. This is also where you pick up helmets, maps, and flashlights.

Mushpot Cave
This is a cave for supra-beginners. Lighted, with information along the path about various lava formations. A good cave for first timers. The entrance is in the middle of the visitor center parking lot.

Indian Well Cave
This is another great starter cave. If you've never been in any before, this one has a minimum amount of stooping and a path straight inside. It is a very short cave, but is enough to get you used to the experience. It is located across the main road from the visitor center.

Valentine Cave
Once you've overcome your fear of caves, you can tackle this one . It is well known for its smooth floors and high ceilings. A very easy and enjoyable cave. It is located along the road to the southeast entrance to the park, just north of Caldwell Butte

Cave Loop Road
This road heads up the hill from the visitor center and will take you past no fewer than 12 caves. Among these is the 6000 foot long Catacombs which, for a long time, was the longest known single entrance cave in California. This is probably where you'll get most of your cave exploring done.

The Catacombs
This cave is on the cave loop and is our absolute favorite. It's really great. I mean great. I just can't stress it enough. This cave has pits, balconies, multiple levels, twisty passages, narrow crawl-ways, and everything!
Fleener Chimneys
These are two large spatter cones which spewed a vast amount of lava a long time ago.
This is a great place for a picnic lunch, after hiking the short distance to the cones.

Black Crater
A short hike from the main road lies Black Crater. It's another large spatter cone that offers good views of the surrounding lava flows.

Mammoth Crater
If you take a dirt road up into the hills for a considerable distance, you'll come to Mammoth Crater. This crater is not misnamed. It is huge. This is the source of the lava flow that contains the caves along cave loop road. This is worth seeing for its sheer size alone.

Hidden Valley
This is just across the road from Mammoth Crater. It's a very pretty valley inside a collapse that you pretty much can't see until you're there. Some broad leaf trees are here that can be found no where else in the park.

Heppe Caves
These small caves can be found along the road near Mammoth Crater. Named after one of the cave's past residents, these small caves are fun to hike around.

Merril Ice Cave, Skull Ice Cave
These two ice caves are actually part of the same tube system. Both have ice floors, but you cannot touch the floor in Merril. Skull Ice Cave sometimes has very nice ice formations deep within the cave. Both caves are cold, so be prepared. Please do no disturb or touch any of the ice formations in the caves.

Big Painted Cave, Symbol Bridge
These caves are found a short walk down a trail that leads off the road to Skull Ice Cave. Both have ancient indian markings along the rocks, although it is difficult to tell which have been left by vandals. Again, it is a federal crime to deface the markings
Schonchin Butte
A dirt road leads to the base of this mountain, identifiable by the lookout station at its top. From there, a 1.1 km hike will take you to the top of this 1601 m high cinder cone where you will be treated with splendid views of nearly the entire park, Tule Lake, giant Mount Shasta, and other mountains. A worthwhile hike.

Gillem's Camp
At the time of the Modoc War, US soldiers camped here at what used to be the edge of Tule Lake before it was drained. Some remnants of the camp still exist here.

Captain Jack's Stronghold
This is where the notorious Modoc known as Captain Jack and members of his tribe held off US soldiers for several months after the soldiers had tried to drive them off their land. There are two easy trail loops through the stronghold, one of .8 km and one of 2.4 km. Trail guides, picnic tables and bathrooms can also be found here.

Canby Cross, Hospital Rock
More Modoc War related historical sites.

Tule Lake Wildlife Overlooks
There are 2 of these within the park that look over Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge. For more views of birds along the lake, take Hill Road just east of Gillem's Camp and travel north along the lake's shore.

The Petroglyph Section
This is a small section of the park that is actually outside the main park boundaries. If you travel out the northeast park entrance, hang a left at the stop sign, and then a right onto the dirt road just past the railroad tracks, you'll end up by Petroglyph Cliff. It's a large rock covered with weathered ancient markings
Three Sisters Trail
This trail leads into the Lava Beds Wilderness area from Indian Well Campground. It is a 14 km hike out Three Sisters Trail, meeting up with Lyons Trail, and heading back to the Skull Ice Cave parking area. There are some really neat collapses and cave entrances along the first bit of the trail that are easily reachable on a short hike from the campground.  It goes right past the Three Sisters, a collection of cinder cones out in the valley.

Lyons Trail
A 15.1 km trail which goes from Skull Ice Cave, past Juniper Butte, all the way to Hospital Rock. 

Whitney Butte Trail
A 5.5 km path leads from Merril Ice Cave around the base of 1525 m high Whitney Butte.

Benchgrass Trail
This is a good morning hike from the campground. It is a short 1.6 km trail that leads east from the B-loop and heads out toward Schonchin Butte. Work up an appetite before you tear into breakfast and get great views of Schonchin and the valley at the same time...
Lava Beds National Monument Headquarters and Visitors Center
Balcony Cave Trailhead
Indianwell Lava Tube
Gillem Bluff
Schonchin Butte
Lava Beds Cave
Lava Rock Chimneys
Lava Beds View
Lava Beds National Monument
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