While most go to California for the stunning beaches, Pacific Coast Highway, and southern national parks, few know about the impressive Lava Beds National Monument, nestled along the Oregon border in Northeast California.
This monument is home to the largest concentration of tube caves in the continental United States. Tube caves are created from outer layers of molten lava that have cooled, and these formations have been carved by the nearby Medicine Lake Volcano. You'll have the opportunity to go on independent and guided tours of these caves to see not only rock formations, but also rock art. Additionally, if you head there in the winter and plan in advance, you might get to explore the ice caves.
Lava Beds also boasts incredible historical sites to learn about. From the Modoc War of 1872-1873 to the fortress that was converted to a Japanese internment camp, you'll have plenty to see and explore in California's hidden gem.
Lava Beds National Monument is very remote, and there is no gas available at the park. The nearest gas station may be over an hour away from the monument, so make sure you fill up at one of the nearby cities such as Klamath Falls, Merrill, Tulelake or Alturas.
While you're driving into Lava Beds, keep an eye out for brown highway signs. These mark the turns leading into Lava Beds from US 161.
If you're driving in from Klamath Falls, you'll take Hwy 39 about 15 miles south. Turn right onto Merrill Pit Road, and drive about two miles until you get to Stateline Road 161. Turn left and head east on 161. Turn right onto Hill Road, and it will take you into Lava Beds. You'll pass the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center on your way in. Keep on going, and you'll get to the Lava Beds Visitor Center.
There are a few other ways to get into Lava Beds National Monument. If you're coming in from Redding, you'll have to take Forest Service road 10. Although this road is paved, it has potholes, so make sure you're driving carefully on this route. Additionally, this road is not plowed in the winter, so make sure you choose an alternate route depending on your season of travel.
If you're heading from California Hwy 89 and want to enter the park from the south, make sure your vehicle is prepared for about ten miles of dirt road. The road is technically accessible in any vehicle, but by mid-summer, it will be a much rougher drive due to usage. Plan for about two hours to get into the park if you head this way.
Lava Beds National Monument only has one campground with 43 available sites. Their largest sites can accommodate RVs and trailers up to 30 feet.
Each site has a picnic table, fire ring, and cooking grill. During the summer, firewood may be available for purchase, and you are welcome to collect dead firewood in Modoc National Forest. The campground also has fully outfitted restrooms with water, sinks, and flush toilets.
There are no hookups, showers, or dump stations available, but generators may be used from 8 am to 10 am, and 3 pm to 8 pm. Pets are allowed on leash, but they're not allowed in caves or trails around the park.
Perhaps the most popular activity at Lava Beds is caving. With the right equipment and safety knowledge, you'll have the ability to traverse down into the caves of the park and explore the incredible formations.
Many of the developed caves are located near the Visitor Center and have trails and staircases leading into them. They are divided and categorized by difficulty level, so there will be something for everyone. Make sure you check in with the rangers about closures and caving rules.
If you want a more informational and unique experience, you can sign up for a guided tour of Fern Cave during the summer months.
The majority of the caves in this park can be explored on your own, but Fern Cave has an especially sensitive and unique biome. Make a reservation as far ahead as you can, as this is a highly requested tour, and be prepared for some amazing rock art as well.
Lava Beds National Monument has 13 hiking trails. The majority of the hikes here are short, but they'll take you to fantastic geological and historical sites.
The area is dry, so make sure you bring lots of water. Additionally, in order to preserve the area, no pets or bicycles are allowed on any of the trails.
In addition to seeing rock formations, you'll also have access to stunning ice formations that develop during the winter time.
This is a strenuous excursion that will require physical activity, heights, and tight spaces, so make sure you do your research and assess your abilities before you head into this. Additionally, just like Fern Cave, make sure you reserve your spots early. The guided groups are very small and infrequent due to the sensitive conditions, and ice cave tours are only available in the winter.
Lava Beds National Monument boasts not only unique geology, but a unique history as well. During World War II, a large Japanese internment camp was located in this region. Now, the National Park Service shuttles visitors from the small museum at Tulelake-Butte County Fairgrounds so they can learn more about the historical significance of this area.
During the off season months or if it happens to be too rainy, take some time to learn more about the history of this area. It has been home to various battles and significant events during the history of the United States.
The Tulelake-Butte County Fairgrounds has a museum that can educate you more about the often unknown Northeast California.