I’ve been so excited to post about Lava Beds National Monument because this place was just amazing! It waaay exceeded our expectations and was a completely different park than we expected. Lava Beds is a good name, but I am convinced that this park should be named “Most Awesome Lava Tube Caves Ever National Monument” instead. We almost skipped this park because the thought of visiting a place called Lava Beds in the scorching heat seemed unbearable. I’m so glad we decided to check this place out! If you haven’t been here already, I highly recommend putting this place on your list, it’s located in Northern California about halfway between Crater Lake and Lassen National Park. It’s a great stopping point between the two national parks.
We visited this park towards the end of July and this place was HOT! Our priority was to get to the Indian Well campground and see if it would even be possible to camp in this heat. This campground is first come first serve, and I read that shade is scarce. We found that most sites had some shade in the campsite, but we didn’t find many sites that could provide total shade for our campervan. After a few times around the campground loop (there are 43 sites), we settled on a site with a couple of trees nearby that partially covered our van (site B8). Good enough! The awning came in very handy here, it saved us from roasting really. Despite the lack of shade, we had a very nice stay here (well worth the $10/night cost). The campground wasn’t very full, the bathrooms were clean and we had a great view from our campsite. The campground host even came by and let us know about storms in the area.
Hiking in that heat was not a priority, so we focused on exploring as many caves as we could. I knew that LBNM had caves, but I didn’t know how much fun it would be to explore them. I have a tendency to get a little claustrophobic in enclosed spaces, so I was a bit apprehensive. However, I didn’t feel that at all here (granted I didn’t crawl at any point whatsoever to get through tight cave openings).
There are several things you need before entering a cave:
1. A permit (to be displayed on your car dashboard) to verify that there’s no possibility of you bringing the fungus that causes White-Nose syndrome in bats into the caves. We got our permit at the entrance kiosk where the park ranger asked us a number of questions about possible previous exposure. If no one is at the kiosk, the Visitor Center provides permits as well. If there was a possibility that you were in a cave where the fungus was previously found, there is a way to disinfect your gear/shoes at the Visitor Center.
2. Each person in your party needs a flashlight. Between the three of us we had five light sources. It was very handy for each of us to have headlamps, and we shared two hand-held flashlights that had a super bright setting that you could switch to if needed. You can rent/borrow flashlights from the Visitor Center if you forgot.
3. You may need some kind of outerwear for the deeper caves, it can get chilly in there. In July we were fine with a light jacket, and for the short caves jackets weren’t even necessary, but it was good to have just in case. The NP website also has given each cave a difficulty designation from “least challenging” to “most challenging.” If you want to explore the “most challenging” caves then you will need more gear including a helmet, gloves and knee pads.
4. A map of the park to help you locate the caves because they are scattered throughout. The NP brochure provides a good map with the location of each cave.
5. Optional: A map of the caves themselves is very handy. We found a booklet at the Visitor Center called Lava Beds Caves (by Charlie and Jo Larson) with more information about each cave. It costs about $8 and I wish we had this before we started our cave exploration, it would have helped us decide which caves to explore. We are using it to help plan future visits though.
So what is it like? Initially, it’s exciting to go down the walkway to the cave entrance, turn your flashlight on and enter into a continually darkening tunnel. There’s a temperature shift, the sound of your footsteps actually seems to grow louder as there is no other noises to dilute the sound. You realize you’ve entered into another dimension (just kidding), another completely different space. You notice all the cool formations on the walls and ceilings and you point your flashlight every which way to look around. It’s all very exciting! At some point (if it’s a longer cave) you might freak out a little because you are in a cave and without your flashlights it’s pitch black, and you have no idea where you are in the cave. “Did you hear something? Are we the only ones here? What if we get lost? You swear you put new batteries in the flashlights? Why the heck am I walking first? For the love of God, don’t think of any scary movies!” But after a deep breath, you realize the trails are well-marked and it’s all very safe. There are even metal railings and stairs to remind you that people have worked hard to make this a great experience for you. It’s aaaaall good. Even though walking around the caves is amazing, a small tiny part of you can’t help feel a sense of relief from seeing the light from the cave exit. A little scary and exciting all at the same time, you leave the cave exhilarated and wanting to do it all over again!
Sentinel Cave (from the lower entrance)
Next to the Visitor Center there is a loop road called Cave Loop (map) where there is a concentration of caves of all levels. This seemed like the logical place to start, however, many of the least challenging caves were closed off. So, the first cave we explored was Sentinel Cave, one of the last caves on Cave Loop Road. Since there was no parking at the Upper Entrance we parked near the Lower Entrance and entered through there. By entering where there were the least amount of cars, we didn’t encounter anyone in this moderately long cave until almost the end. We left the cave in disbelief at how great this cave was, we were hooked!
The next three caves, Skull, Big Painted and Symbol Bridge are located close together southeast of Schonchin Butte and are a short drive from the Visitor Center/ Cave Loop Road.
Skull Cave was named after the discovery of a large number of animal bones (including two human) at the bottom of the pit. Not really what I want my overactive brain to be picturing when I’m going into the dark abyss of this cave. This cave has one of the largest cave openings in Lava Beds and is easily accessed from a parking lot. Therefore, this is a pretty popular cave and you have to navigate around people to get places. But it’s so worth checking out!
Big Painted Cave
If you want to see Native American cave paintings and pictographs by the Modoc people, Big Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge Cave are known for them. Both caves can be accessed after a short hike. It’s about 3/4 of a mile to Big Painted Cave and another 1/4 mile to Symbol Bridge Cave from there. It’s a relatively short hike, but when the weather is hot, it feels like forever to get there and back since there is very little shade on this trail. However, since only crazy people like us would walk this in the summer during the hottest time of day, we had both caves all to ourselves.
If you shine your flashlight on some of the rocks they display a flourescent green color.
Symbol Bridge Cave
A short walk from Big Painted Cave led us to Symbol Bridge Cave. This one had more pictographs which seemed better preserved. Another small cave, but there were many pictographs to find here. Make sure to check out both the left and right sides of the cave.
“The paintings at Symbol Bridge are related to the spiritual activities of the Ancients. As you walk there, do so with honor. Spirits still sing there, and if you show respect to them and to their site, they, in turn, will honor you.” – Charlie and Jo Larson, Lava Beds Caves
Merril Cave was one of our favorite caves (I’d say our second favorite overall). This one has a walkway (above rocky terrain), and then stairs that go pretty far down to view the ice floor. You’ll have to climb down steep stairs with railings, so having headlamps helped here. To have to maneuver through the terrain made the experience that much more exciting! By this time of day (about 5 pm) we noticed that there were very few cars and people around, so we were lucky to have the cave to ourselves again. I can imagine this one is a popular cave though since it is easily accessed from the parking lot and there is even a restroom.
Back at the campground as we sat watching the sun go down sitting side by side in our camp chairs with a drink in hand, we shared a “life is good” moment, putting all the craziness that life hands us in perspective. Sharing experiences with the ones you love… so, so grateful for them.
I have one more upcoming post about the caves at Lava Beds, including our all time favorite cave. They are all so interesting and unique! Since this was our first time here we initially stuck to the “least challenging” caves in the beginning (all of the ones mentioned in this post are “least challenging”). However, as we got more comfortable, we tried out some of the more advanced caves, and found them to be quite accessible. I’ve been recommending this place to all my friends and family, it really is a hidden gem!
If you’re interested, please check out more cave explorations (More Lava Beds National Monument Caves).