I can’t stop thinking about the caves of Lava Beds National Monument. Exploring those unique caves was so fascinating, but the activity itself was such a family bonding experience. I mean you are literally stuck together traversing in the dark with only the members in your group to help guide you to the exit. It’s nature’s escape room 🙂 So, I am writing one more post to get it all out of my system (part 1, introduction to Lava Beds here) …until we return someday.
LBNM lies on the northern slope of the enormous Medicine Lake Volcano found in Northern California, and has some of the greatest concentration of lava caves in the US with over 200 caves located and explored (although no one knows for sure how many there are). Most of the best caves have been improved upon (stairways, walkways, trails) to allow for more public access. It gives me great comfort to know that people have worked hard to make these caves safe and accessible to us. Depending on which caves are open at the time of your visit, the number of caves available for you to explore will vary (20 or so?) and I’m sure that the wonderful park rangers at the Visitor Center will have all of that information for you (also cave closures can be found on the NPS website). Although we were disappointed with some of the cave closures (protecting the colony of maternity bats is a good reason though), there were plenty of caves left for us to explore.
The NPS website assigned a degree of difficulty to each of the accessible caves: “least,” “moderately” and “most challenging.” They all require flashlights before entering, but the “most challenging” caves recommended helmets as well. Not knowing what to expect, we started exploring the “least challenging” caves then moved on to the “moderately challenging” caves. The only difference to the “moderately challenging” caves was that there was some more rock scrambling and some stooping. If you watch your step, your head, and use your common sense, there is no problem getting around these caves. The last cave we explored (Hercules Leg) was a “most challenging” cave, which turned out to be our favorite cave of all.
So, grab your flashlights and come with us…
Mush Pot Cave (least challenging)
This cave is found just a short walk from the Visitor Center and is a great introductory cave. This cave is nicely lit up inside and has many information placards and signs throughout. If you start your day of exploration at the Visitor Center (so you can pick up a copy of the Lava Beds Caves booklet, which has the maps of the caves themselves, and borrow flashlights if you need them), then Mushpot cave is just down the trail to the Visitor Center and a great place to learn more about the caves of Lava Beds.
Indian Well Cave (moderately challenging)
This trail through the cave isn’t very long, but there is some scrambling you have to do over boulders and rocks to explore areas up close. This cave is relatively close to the Visitor Center with parking close to the cave entrance. As the name implies, Indian Well Cave had at one point accumulated water here allowing for the Modoc Indians to set up their main camp near here.
Sunshine Cave (moderately challenging)
This cave is found on Cave Loop Road and was a relatively short cave with a skylight about midway.
Hercules Leg Cave (most challenging)
Our favorite cave ended up being the last cave we explored. We didn’t have helmets on this trip, so we thought the “most challenging” caves were off-limits based on the recommendations. We wanted to just check out what a “most challenging” cave looked like and head back when we felt it was too challenging. We were actually able to walk quite a distance before we came upon an area where we thought we needed helmets. This cave meanders near the surface with many openings and is relatively flat. There is much to look at in this cave, take your time and be sure to look around. Make sure you check out both the left and right branches at the cave entrance. The left branch is the main branch which eventually meets up with Juniper Cave, while the right branch allows you to see the “Hercules Leg” pillar which the cave is named after. It was in this section that a bat flew right by my hubby’s head, so beware and be conscientious of bats in the area.
We didn’t get to do much non-cave hiking here, the weather and smoke from the northern California fires made it too uncomfortable for that, but exploring the caves was an unforgettable experience that we for sure will be back to do more of. Maybe some day we will return during the cold weather months because the ice formations in the caves are supposed to be amazing. I hope you have a chance to explore this area yourselves, it’s well worth the effort to get there!