Lava Beds National Monument (North California)


What? : Lava Beds National Monument is unique park located at a far location in East Northern California just on the border of Oregon. You have many things to see and explore in this remote park so it worth the visit. It’s rugged high lava flow desert landscape, dotted with volcanic mountains and cones, countless lava tube caves that you can walk into and explore, Native American rock art, historic battlefields, and the nearby Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.


Additional Lassen Volcanic Park Blogs and Related Posts:

Where? : Lava Beds National Monument is located in a remote part of California, the Northeastern corner; near the small town of Tulelake, California, and Klamath Falls, Oregon.

There are 2 main ways to reach the road that is crossing the park, one is from the north (highway 161) and the other is from the east (highway 139).

Google Map Link


When? : While the park is open all year, not all roads outside the park are open during the winter and early spring months. Occasionally in winter, snow can temporarily close park roads until they are plowed.

During early springs you can enjoy the wildflowers bloom and a hot summer day it is fun to get into the cold air caves and enjoy the low temperatures.


Due note 1: Lava Beds has one campground, Indian Well Campground, located 1/2 mile from the visitor center and cave loop.


Due note 2:  The Park Rangers at the visitor center can help you plan your visit in the park based on your time constraints and skill levels.


Due note 3: Some caves can close due to nesting bats, check in advance about close cave in the park website or at the visitor center and respect clear clos signs at cave entrances.


Due note 4: You need a Caving Permit before entering any cave. These permits are free, and available at the Visitor Center during operating hours, I received it at the park entrance station.


Due note 5: I recommend visiting the cave by yourself as a self-guided tour, according to available time and difficulty level chose the caves you want to visit, take your time, and explore the different corners of the caves. There is no problem of getting lost inside the caves because most caves are practically one tube, in and out walk. Make sure you are keeping you and your group safe. The monument does offers ranger-led cave tours, morning walks/talks, and evening campfire talks in the summer.


Due note 6: When getting into the cave it is recommended, but not a must, to have: long pants, closed-toed shoes, knee pads, and helmets. Gloves, knee pads, helmets, and few flashlights can be purchased at the visitor center. Flashlights can be checked out for free at the visitor center and must be returned each afternoon. Although recommended, it is not a must to have all the items above and you can enjoy the caves without any special elements like gloves, knee pads, helmets. A good reliable flashlight and one spare is a must !

Due note 7: Phones are not considered as a flashlight, when getting into the cave carry with you 2 good flashlights.


Due Note 8: The caves have cooler constant temperatures, ranging around ~50 degrees or cooler, dress accordingly.


Due Note 9: In some caves you can see the hydrophobic green/gold sparkling bacteria that cover portions of the caves ceiling. The bacteria are sensitive, do not touch the “golden” areas where it exists.


Due Note 10: No fires, smoking, food, or pets are allowed in caves. You can bring water with you.


Due Note 11: First time spelunkers (caving activity) and small children can handle these caves, provided being in an absolutely dark close space under the surface doesn't scare you them too much.


My thoughts: Although its remote location I visit this park several times and it was always fun to “rediscover” the beauty of the many lava caves or to visit new caves that I skip the last visit. The walk in the cave is unique experience, you can actually see how the melted lava flow inside the tube like gluey-liquid or honey. The interesting ceilings shapes where melted lava dripped and “frozen” into spikes. Do not miss the longest and most challenging cave, the Catacombs, you do not need to do it all, progress until you want and then hike out.



Plan Your Park Visit:

Lava Beds Park remote location at the northern border of California is far from major tourist attractions but it worth the effort coming here.


Due to park relatively remote location I usually combing the visit here in a longer road trip I’m doing in northern California (Redding/Lassen) or a visit at Oregon state (Bend OR, Crater Lake NP,…).


How much time to plan for the park visit:

I do recommend planning your park visit as one full day and give yourself enough time to explore many caves and do some hiking.

If you are short in time and need few hours to drive to/from your next destination so also a shorted half a day (3-5 hours) visit will be also good. If this is only few hours visit plan ahead which cave to visit, start at the visitor center and ask the ranger for recommendations.


Where to sleep: 

The nearest city to the park is Klamath Falls, OR. where you can find many night accommodation and restaurants options.

Stay at the park campground or if you are coming from the south, you can spend the night at Medicine Lake campgrounds.

You can combine this park visit as part of you South-North road-trip where you visit the park for half a day, and from here you continue to your night destination.


Road trip Options:

(Direction is north to south but you can do them also from south to north):

·         Klamath Falls OR à Park visit for half day à Drive to Redding CA through highway I-5

·         Klamath Falls OR à Park visit for half day à Drive for 2 hours and visit at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park à Drive to Redding CA or stay for the night near Burney and the following day drive to Lassen National Park.


Example of trips I did:

·       Visit Lassen NP and at the afternoon drive north to McArthur-Burney Falls, after a short visit at the waterfalls keep driving to Medicine Lake campgrounds and spend the night there. Drive into Lava Bed Park and visit there for half a day, visit 5 caves and even hiking up to Schonchin Butte Lookout, from here we drove north to crater Lake NP OR.

·       Stay for the night at Klamath Falls OR, drive to the park, visit Petroglyph Point and Schonchin Butte Lookout, visit Skull Cave, drive the Cave Loop Drive and did Golden-Dome, Hopkins-Chocolate, Catacombs, Sunshine, Juniper and Upper & Lower Sentinel Caves. At 1 pm I finished with my park visit and headed south to Lassen NP (3 hours’ drive).



Driving directions:

Driving Klamath Falls, OR:

From Klamath Falls OR this is 1 hour drive south on highway 39, in California it changed into highway 139. After passing the small town of Tulelake CA turn right into road 111, here you can have a short stop at the Petroglyph Point. After a short drive turn right into road 120 that will lead you into the park.



Coming to this area from California:

If you are planning to drive here from Redding CA this is almost 3 hours drive, you can take Highway 299 through Barney or through I-5. On Highway 299 you can visit for short time the amazing McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park (see my blog), at the small town of Adin CA merge north into highway 139. After driving 48 miles on 139 N, you need to take RD44N01 and from there take Lava Beds National Monument Rd.

Another option from Redding CA is to drive north to Shasta on highway I-5 and then using highway 97 to the directions of Klamath Falls OR, from highway 97 follow Highway 161.


Arriving from Medicine Lake option:

Another option to arrive Lava Bed NM is through the south backcountry national forest. There is a clear and in good condition forest road that connect Medicine Lake to Lava Bed NM. I did this drive several times and this is my preferred way to drive here, maybe longer but it is part of the trip fun.

I came from Lassen National Park, short visit on my way north at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. Keep driving north and stayed for the night near Medicine Lake. The following morning, I drove the forest road and arrive early at Lava Bed NM Park.

Driving instructions to this option:

From highway 89 take the small forest road Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway north, this road is 17.1 miles east from McCloud CA, or 24 miles west of McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. Drive north for 31.3 miles on Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway taking the directions to Medicine Lake. Turn into Medicine Lake but before getting into the lake campground road keep driving north on the paved road past the lake. Keep driving on the road (you will see large Lava Beds rocks on your left), at some point, the road turn into an unpaved well maintained forest road. Keep driving north in a burned forest section, in the winter this area is Doorknob Warming Hut Snowpark. When I drove here, June 2022, there was a major cleaning and recontraction work here to clear some the fire damage.

After ~6.5 miles drive on the forest dirt road you will get into the Lava Bed NM area, here you will see on your left the small parking lot for Mammoth Crater (very short viewing stop).

From here another 3 miles driving on the dirt road and you will arrive on the main park road, turn right and after a short drive you will see the visitor center entrance on your right.


The Park Visit - Half  Day Itinerary:

·       Dedicate around 2-4 hours for cave visits. Focus on the caves that are located on the loop road near the visitor center. The largest, most beautiful, and most time-consuming cave is probably the Catacomb Cave (located in the cave drive loop near the visitor center), do not miss this cave visit. Plan for at list 1 hour only to this cave. As your time permit you can visit several others cave that are much shorter in length and difficulty. I manage to visit Golden-Dome, Hopkins-Chocolate, Catacombs, Sunshine, and Upper&Lower Sentinel Caves and it took me 3 hours. I was alone so I was fast, plan 4 hours for this loop.

·       If you have more time and you want to do 1 hour hike than the best option is to climb the Schonchin Butte Lookout, it has amazing view from the top.

·       On your way from/to Klamath Falls OR stop at Petroglyph Point section of the park (this can be short as 15 minutes stop). You can also enjoy the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge on your drive.

·       If you have additional 30 minutes to spare (including the drive to the cave) I recommend visiting the unique and large Skull Cave.

·       Unless you are interested to learn about the place history I will skip the visit in Modoc War sites, there is nothing much to see here.



Explanations on Lava Tubes Creation:

Over the last half-million years, volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have created a rugged landscape dotted with diverse volcanic features. This area is the largest total area covered by a volcano in the Cascade Range.

Most people think of volcanoes as mountains, but there are no real large mountains in Lava Beds NM. Unlike the classic volcanic cone mountains, here, a large Medicine Lake Shield Volcano that has shallow and slow-moving lava “rivers” that flowed out of vents of a deep magma chamber. The lava flowed and covered the valley.

Around 10,000 to 60,000 years ago as lava flows on the surface, the outer edges cool and harden, below that upper layer the melting lava keep flowing. Once the lava flow ended and drained away, they left behind them and empty worm-shaped rock tubes. These tubes diverge and converge, forming a network of caves underlying the surface of the rocks.

Today, there are over 700 lava tube caves in the National Monument, of which around 20 caves can be explore by the park visitors.

Lava Tubes, unlike water-formed crust caves, are dry with no current activity of stalactites and stalagmites creations, they are “frozen in time” of the hard lava rock.

The lava tube floors are mostly flat because the last liquid lava got flat before it hardened in place.



Before Visiting the Caves:

Before you are getting into any lava tube you must pass at the visitor center for explanations and get (free of charge) approval permit and car tag that indicate you can visit caves. The permit is open from 10am to 4pm. I received this car tag when I entered the park north entrance.


The need for a pass is as a precaution against the spread of White-nose syndrome that has infected bats, anyone wanting to enter the lava caves must be screened and receive a permit and this is also for you getting safety explanations from the rangers.

In any case it is good to visit the visitor center, get information on open/close cave and recommendations how to plan your park visit.

From the Visitors Center, where you can rent flashlights and buy helmets, a walking trail takes you to few caves within a few hundred feet, I understand that those caves are lit with electric lights. I must admit I did not visit at the cave near the visitor center but rather went straight to the cave driving loop.



Cave Driving Loop Visit:

Along the loop, various accessible lava tunnel and cave entrances are well-marked. Drive and stop at each starting point. A very short and easy hike will lead you to the cave entrance.

The loop road doesn't have a dedicated foot path, forcing hikers to walk along the edge of the road.


"Go before you go" There isn’t any restroom near the loop drive. Make sure you are prepared for lots of time spent exploring the caves by making a pitstop at the Visitor Center where bathrooms are accessible from outside the building even after-hours.


A two-mile-long one-way drive loop from the Visitors Center will lets you visit 9 caves (if they are all open). There are other cave locations in the park, most are only within a short driving distance from the park visitor center.


List of caves and difficulty levels according park website:

Least Challenging Caves: Mushpot, Sentinel, Valentine, Skull, Merrill, Heppe, Big Painted, Symbol Bridge, Ovis, Paradise Alley.

Moderately Challenging Caves: These caves may involve stooping through low sections and/or rough floors. Golden Dome, Sunshine, Indian Well, Balcony & Boulevard, Blue Grotto.

Most Challenging Caves: These caves have some portions which require crawling and maybe some cave-navigation. Labyrinth, Lava Brook, Hopkins Chocolate, Hercules Leg, Juniper, Catacombs, Thunderbolt.



Detailed Cave Information:


Golden Dome:

This cave is the first cave on Cave Loop drive. The cave is a short walk from the road and the descent into the cave is through a very narrow opening in the rock on a ladder. Be careful not to bang your head on the entrance rock (mainly on your way up).

Once you walk down into the cave you should explore both up and down directions of the tube. In Golden Dome you will find the areas of hydrophobic bacteria that cover portions of the cave’s ceiling, causing a “golden, sparkling green”, and the figure eight loop at the rear of the cave. Overall, this is 2,230 ft long cave.


Hopkins Chocolate Cave:

This is not a cave but rather a cave that collapse leaving behind some roof sections. The beauty here is the melting like hot Chocolate rock formations and colors, this is very short visit, and it is interesting to see the “melting and dripping” rock. At the same location you can have a short visit at Garden Bridges.


Blue Grotto Cave: It was close when I visit here.



This is the park’s longest and most challenging caves. You can have only a short visit here (beginners), but you can also spend here several hours of cave exploring (experts). A full cave exploration can take 6-8 hours, but you do not need to do it all and even in 30-60 minutes visit is very rewording.

I visit here for a more than 1 hour and it was fun !

No matter your spelunker level is do not skip this cave visit. Go and explore it as your time allow or as you reach a place with a difficult level that is not comfortable for you to proceed.


According to the park website the length of the Catacombs Cave is 6,900 ft long.

This very long cave is easily entered, but gradually increases in difficulty, both in path complexity and ceiling level as you progress it is getting into low (3ft) to very low (1ft) ceiling height sections.

A cave map is highly recommended for any group planning to explore the entire cave, as multiple levels and numerous side passages can be confusing.

There is a detailed map of this specific cave. You can see how long it is and how complex it can look when exploring it.


The trail to the cave gradually descends and enters the cave. At the first section the ceiling is high, and you can walk up straight. You immediately find fork in the cave where you can go into two different directions. The cave split and rejoin several times, and this create a confusion of a much larger and complex cave. Usually, no matter where you go you will rejoin on the other side.

At some point there are more levels so you can walk down to a lower/upper cave level. At some places you need to climb down on the rocks and in other there is a metal leader.

As you progress more into the cave the ceiling is getting lower, and you must bend or even “walk” on your knees with the help of your hands.

After some progress like that I “gave up” and turn around.

Going back is simple, almost no matter which way you chose to go it is in the right direction of the cave entrance.

If you plan to explore longer and deeper sections of this cave, I recommend the following:

·       You must have knee pads

·       Bring head flashlights (and additional good light source for backup and safety)

·       Use helmet, it will prevent head injuries

·       Do not carry any backpack

·       Long sleeves shirt

·       Have some water with you (and “pee bottle” to collect your urine).

·       Bring a paper cave map copy


I visit this cave twice, the previous visit (summer 2017) was with my kid, and we enjoy exploring the cave for 2 hours, The last time I was here (June 2022) I visit alone and when I was exploring the cave I was the only one in the cave, thing that enhanced my caving experience.

As I said I did not explore the entirety Catacombs cave, as it takes very long time and efforts, and I did not have knee pads, so it was hurting my knees.


I can only say that the cave section that I visit were amazing, this is the most fun cave to explore and unique experience.

I recommend it to all, go and explore until you feel you had enough and then head back out.


Ovis Cave: It was close when I visit here.



This cave is the next cave up Cave Loop Road from the Catacombs and was the most well-lit cave out of the caves I visited here. As you progress into the 500ft long cave there are two collapses in the roof of the cave that let the sunlight in.


Hercules Lag Cave:

As in Sunshine also here there is a collapse roof section that insert light into the cave. You can go through the collapse area and come back from the other side.

The Hercules Leg has generally high ceilings and smooth floors.


Juniper Cave:

I only spend a short time in this cave, and I did not manage to fully explore it. Starting with high ceiling but after short distance it get low and challenging to progress.


Upper Sentinel/Lower Sentinel:

This is the last cave on the Cave Loop Road, it is actually one long cave with two entrances. The best way to experience this cave is to park a vehicle at the trailhead for Upper Sentinel entrance and walk through the cave down to it exit and from there walk back to the road ad Lower Sentinel stop. At this point you need to walk up the short loop road back to your parking car.

This is relatively long cave, around 3,500 ft long but unlike Catacomb cave that has low ceiling in many places this is a large, tall cave where it easy and simple to explore the cave.

In the middle of the cave there is a metal structure that help you to cross some sections, overall because it is easy to walk through you can finish this cave in relatively short time.


After exiting Lower Sentinel, the car one-way loop road end and you can drive back to the parking lot.



Cave outside Cave Loop Road:

Although there are few caves outside the visitor center, I only visit Skull Cave.


Skull Cave:

This cave is not located on the Cave Loop Road; but is located 10 minutes’ drive from the Visitor Center on the main park road.

Once you finished exploring the caves on Cave Loop Road and you are on your way out (or on your way to hike to Schonchin Butte Lookout) take the main park road to Skull Cave. The cave is named for the many animals skulls found within it.

This is not just one lava tube, but two lava tubes that are stacked atop one another.

This cave is uniquely large, the towering open mouth of the cave make a dramatic entrance into it.

This cave extends hundreds of feet long into the ground and at the end you are getting down in few stairs stretches into the lower lava tub. The trail ends at fenced ice floor that collects in the winter and remains frozen year-round.


Other Park attractions and Point of Interest:


Schonchin Butte Lookout:

Probably the most landscape dominate element in the Lava Bed NP is Schonchin Butte cinder cone volcano.

You first need to drive to the small parking lot at the end of the unpaved road leading to the base of the cone. From the parking lot a short but steep 0.7 miles hike will take you to the fire lookout at top of Schonchin Butte. At the summit's lookout, you'll find a rewording 360-degree view of the park and all the surrounding for many 10’s of miles away.

From here you can clearly see the flat Klamath National Wildlife Refuge are to your north, Mount Shasta to the southwest and Mount McLoughlin in Oregon to the northwest.

Overall, this is 1.5 miles hike up and back, and it took me and hours to complete and get back in my car.




Mammoth Crater:

Located on the pard dirt road that led south from the park into the National Forest land and Medicine Lake.

Between 30-40 thousand years ago a torrent of red-hot lava flowed out of this crater. Mammoth Crater had the greatest impact on the monument’s landscape, over 70% of the surface area of Lava Beds is covered by basalt that originated here. From this crater, lava ran downhill, forming braided streams of lava up to ten miles long. These lava streams formed most of the caves along Cave Loop Road.

From the parking lot a very short trail leading to the rim viewing point of Mammoth Crater. This is a surprisingly deep created but except a short visit there is not a lot more to see here. This is a very short visit and I’m not sure it worth it driving here …. unless you are driving to Medicine Lake or the nearby forest.


The Modoc War:

The winter of 1872-1873 was a troubled one in the Lava Beds, where a small band of Modoc Indians was surrounded by a US Army force outnumbering them as much as ten to one. Most of the battlefields of this conflict, known as the Modoc War, are located today within the monument, and are still preserved today.

Modoc War sites are found primarily at the northern end of the park. I must admit there is not so much to see here and unless you are interested in the local history I will recommend skipping this place.



Petroglyph Point Unit:

This unit is located off the main park area to the north.

You can visit here if you are coming from/to Klamath Falls because this is right on your way.

If you are coming from the park visitor center: From the park north entering station you need to drive east, pass Captain Jack's Stronghold, and drive all the way out of the park until you reach a T junction. Here you turn left on road 111, cross the train track and immediately after turn right into a dirt road that will lead you to the large rock hill on the east side of the field, park your car near the restroom.

Google map link


Most petroglyphs found at Lava Beds are located at Petroglyph Point, a former island within ancient much larger than today, Tule Lake. It's thought that Native Americans from the Modoc people canoed out to the rock to carve figures into the vertical soft rock surfaces that were once just above water level.

With over 5,000 individual carvings, this site is one of the most extensive representations of American Indian rock art in California. Dozens or even hundreds of generations of artists paddled out in canoes, sharp sticks, or stones in hand, to leave their mark here in the soft volcanic tuff.

Japanese WWII camps:

Not so far from location, right on highway 139 you can find California Historical Landmark 850-2: Tule Lake Relocation Center.

Tule Lake was one of ten American concentration camps established during World War II to incarcerate 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry American citizens.

Not a lot to see here except the explanation boards.

Probably the best-preserved camp is located in Manzanar CA, just on highway 395 between Big-Pine and Lone-Pine.