A surreal landscape sculpted by molten earth, Lava Beds National Monument contains volcanic tablelands punctuated by cinder cones, pit craters, and spatter cones, plus more than 700 caves. These strange features were formed 10,500–65,000 years ago, when the outer edges of flowing lava began to cool, forming tubes. When molten lava stopped flowing, hardened tubes were left behind.
Though the scene can seem barren and desolate, look closer. The scrabbly earth and dark rocks of the rugged lava flows are dotted with sagebrush, mountain mahogany, and Western junipers, creating habitat for mule deer, pronghorn antelope, rabbits, and bird species, including bald eagles. Bring binoculars and see what you can spy, especially early mornings and evenings.
You’ll also want to bring a good headlamp or flashlight—and a jacket—for exploring the lava tubes. In summer, Siskiyou County can get pretty toasty, with daytime temperatures of 100°F or more. But inside the lava tubes, it’s remarkably cool; you may even find year-round ice.
You can explore the tubes on your own (no spelunking experience is needed, and kids flip out at the thrill of entering these mysterious formations). And although you won’t cover much ground, the trek can be a workout as you duck, twist, and even crawl through natural tight squeezes. It’s easy to see how these caves were used as hideouts during the Modoc War in 1872–73, the only fight against Native Americans in California, in which Native Americans fought U.S. Army troops in defense of their homelands.
Some two dozen tubes are open for exploring along Cave Loop Road, a two-mile road near the visitor center. Also near the visitor center is Mushpot Cave, which houses exhibits and is the only lighted cave at Lava Beds. Most of the park’s caves are rated for difficulty, and first-time explorers should start with the Hopkins Chocolate Cave (1,405 feet) or Blue Grotto Cave (1,541 feet). For the ultimate challenge, consider entering the remarkable Catacombs Cave, one of the park’s longest and most complex, with a total length of 6,903 feet.