Explore the mysteries of the underground world of Lava Beds National Monument on the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway in northern California. Of the national monument’s over 700 known caves or lava tubes, more than 20 are developed for visitors and within easy walking or driving distance of the visitor center. New visitors usually start with Mushpot Cave, the closest to the visitor center. Like most of the caves in the national monument, it was formed by channels of lava centuries ago. Its high ceilings, paved floors and well-lit interpretive path make it the perfect introduction to lava-tube caving for all ages. Another easy nearby cave is Valentine Cave, whose walls and floors are so smooth they appear almost man-made. Located on Cave Loop, Sentinel Cave's main trail is easily walked upright and includes several metal bridges with handrails stretching over deep crevasses, the bottom of which can be difficult to find with an average flashlight.
More adventurous cavers will want to check out the moderate and difficult caves. Golden Dome, Hopkins Chocolate, or Blue Grotto may have low ceilings, narrow passages, or rough floors, but as their names suggest, each offers colorful features to tempt you into the trek. The narrow, low, winding and crisscrossing tunnels of Catacombs Cave make it one of the most physically challenging in the national monument; not for beginners! Or reserve a spot on a Ranger-guided tour during the summer months for a more detailed look into the history and features of these ancient lava tubes.
Plan ahead! Bring your own hard hats, batteries, kneepads, and flashlights, or purchase them at the visitor's center. The center also offers flashlights on loan. Dress appropriately; the caves can be cold, even in the summer, and floors may be rough and rocky. The monument requires all visitors to stop by the visitor's center for a few minutes to be screened for white-nose syndrome, a disease that affects bats, before entering any caves (screening consists of a few brief questions.) Also, be aware that the monument closes several caves during the year to protect hibernating or nesting bat populations. For further details and to plan your trip, browse the monument website.
- Copyright © May 2008 Lance and Erin Willett.
- Copyright © January 2009 Michael McCullough.
- Public domain. National Park Service, 1964