Lava Beds National Monument

Two days exploring lava beds, lava tube caves, cinder cones, and petrogylphs.

Landscape of Lava Beds National Monument

When we arrived at Eagles Nest RV Park in Tionesta, CA, we were excited to explore Lava Beds National Monument. It was the 5th day of our trip, and we were getting into the swing of things.

Sketch of Our View at Eagles Nest RV Park
Oscar, Lava Beds National Monument

We took some time at the RV park to settle in, eat a meal. Kyle got some work done while I tried my hand at charcoal pencils. As the sun was beginning to set, we decided to drive into Lava Beds National Monument to find somewhere to watch. It was enchanting to see the colors of the sky change over the landscape, the terrain so vastly different from where we'd just been, at Burney Falls and before that, at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

As the sun was going, we drove up in elevation to the Bunchgrass Trailhead and sat in our camp chairs, watching dusk settle across the landscape. We noticed several storms in the distance, listened to bugs chirp in cover of darkness, and watched the lightning string clouds together.

The following day I headed to the park Visitor Center, passing signs pointing to various caves.

At the Visitor Center, I got a park map, cave map, and a cave permit. The ranger notified me of cave closures, made sure I had a flashlight (they had flashlights for those who don't come prepared), and asked if I'd ever worn my clothes and shoes in any other caves before (due to the rapidly spreading White Nose Syndrome which has been decimating bat populations all across North America) and sent me on my way.

Lava Tube Caves
Entrance to Indian Well Cave, Lava Beds National Monument

I set off for a few of the caves behind the Visitor Center. Along the path were examples of different types of lava rocks, like basalt and pahoehoe ("pa-hoy-hoy", originally a Hawaiian term), and plaques highlighting the history of volcanic activity that shaped the landscape.

Tours of the caves are all self-guided, and each entrance is very different. Some have ladders and wide entrances, or ladders through a hole you might have to squeeze through, and some have accessible entrances with trails leading directly in.

Lava Rock
Textures of Lava Rocks, No. 1
Textures of Lava Rock, No. 2

I went in an out of caves solo for around 3 hours before deciding I'd make one last underground stop—Skull Cave. It was a short drive away, a quick cave to see, but with an unusual unique feature: an ice floor. The outdoor temperature was at least 80º F, but apparently because of the shape of the cave, there is ice at the bottom all year round. 

Inside the cave, as the entrance light dissipated, the dirt path gave way to a set of steep steel stairways and the temperature dropped rapidly. It only took about 15 minutes to get all the way down to the bottom. The steps end at a gate through which you can see the ice floor and icicles on the back wall. In historical records, the ice floor used to be so pristine and clear that visitors could see several feet into the floor.

In every single one of the caves I went in, I was always able to turn off my flashlights and experience total darkness. No light at all. No way to see even an inch from my eyes. And most of the time, I was the only person in the caves for at least a good portion of the time. I could hear my own hurried, frightened breaths, see nothing, hear no other sounds. There's something about that that makes me feel almost dead, and also so happy to be alive, and so grateful to step out of those caves.

After perhaps too much time underground, I decided I'd hike up to the fire lookout up on Schonchin Butte.

View from Schonchin Butte
Schonchin Butte Fire Lookout

The hike up was tiresome because of the heat and steady incline, and maybe moreso because I'd been underground almost all day and was now hiking in direct sunlight. Stationed at the top of Schonchin Butte, at the lookout tower, was a volunteer whose name it pains me to say I cannot remember.

She was a darling woman to chat with, and I learned that she and her husband, a firefighter, travel up every summer from Utah to volunteer for the season. She was friends with the owners of the RV Park where we were staying, and the park ranger I'd spoken to in the morning. She happily listened to me talk about our adventure, hitting the road full time.

She walked with me along the wrap-around balcony of the lookout tower, pointing out the different features of the area, naming the mountains, cinder cones, shield volcanoes, the different patches of black rock made from ancient lava flows.

I stayed up there a while, soaking in the view, relishing the shade and the wind, and enjoying her company. On my way out, she wished me safe travels, and I headed off for a drive across the park to find the petroglyphs near Tule Lake.

Tule Lake, Lava Beds National Monument

At Tule Lake, I was surprised to find that I simply could not find anywhere to sit near the water to bird watch. I walked down what seemed like a trail, but it led me to a bug-infested area of boulders. I scrambled onto some rocks and stayed a few minutes looking for birds I hadn't seen before, and then drove off to find the petroglyphs.

Petroglyphs near Tule Lake

When I parked near Petroglyph Point, I'd been worried I wouldn't be able to find the petroglyphs, but there were so many it was impossible to not find them. 

There was a pamphlet to review as you walked on the path, explaining that the Modocs, the  people native to this area, etched their art into the rock from canoes when the water of  Tule Lake used to reach all around it over 4,500 - 2,500 years ago.

Petroglyphs near Tule Lake, Lava Beds National Monument

I spent a while here looking at it all, thinking of how long people have lived here, how this land has changed over time, and what these petroglyphs have seen over the ages. With my head spinning, I headed home.

I spent a while here looking at it all, thinking of how long people have lived here, how this land has changed over time, and what these petroglyphs have seen over the ages. With my head spinning, I headed home.

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