Lava Beds: A Rocky Past

By Taggart, Lisa | Sunset, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Lava Beds: A Rocky Past


Taggart, Lisa, Sunset


After centuries of upheaval, the national monument still has tales to tell

The views are long across the high-desert Modoc Plateau at Lava Beds National Monument, halfway across California and just south of the Oregon line. Ancient boulders of lava seem to tumble toward the shore of Tule Lake, where thousands of Canada geese will raise families this summer. An entrance sign reads, "You are entering a natural and cultural preserve. All within are protected." Given the region's history, the irony of the statement is painful.

The monument celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, commemorating some of the area's most peaceful years. Magma burst out of the earth 270,000 years ago, leaving mounds of tuff at Petroglyph Point. About 30,000 years ago, another volcano left cooling magma to form otherworldly, mogul-studded lava fields and hundreds of tube caves.

Long after the earth had cooled, ancestors of today's Modoc Indians carved images into various volcanic caves and cliffs. But in 1872, violence struck again as the Modocs waged a desperate, doomed battle against the U.S. Army which had squeezed the tribe's land holdings to an unlivable size. After a fivemonth standoff in trenches that were carved by lava, the Modocs were captured when a tribe member betrayed them. The tribe's leader, Captain Jack, was hanged along with three others.

Today only 120,000 visitors come to this 46,000-acre monument each year, so you're likely to find solitude and wildlife on its trails and in its caves. Look closely for glimpses into the area's past: Descend into one of the 400-plus caves to study the work of Medicine Lake Volcano, the largest in the Cascades, though its gently sloped shoulders are only a hump on the landscape. Climb into the trenches of Captain Jacks Stronghold and imagine battling the cold winter and the U.S. Army here, parched from thirst within sight of Tule Lake. Try to fathom the monument's bloody history along its 25 miles of trails, surrounded by mountain mahogany sage, mule deer, and hawks.

You could spend an entire summer caving at Lava Beds. Start at the visitor center; pick up a map and borrow flashlights if necessary. Mushpot Cave, in the visitor center parking lot, offers a good cave introduction, with lighted displays identifying dripstones (stalagmites and stalactites), flowstones, and mineral deposits. The 2-mile Cave Loop Road circles 13 additional caves, all well marked; throughout the monument are hundreds of other, unmarked ones.

Be sure to save time for Skull Cave, about 2 miles north of the visitor center. The entrance drops an incredible 80 feet down a 71-step stairway to a year-round ice floor. The first explorer to visit this cave in the early 1900s found two human skeletons and bones of antelope, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. …

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