As soon as I saw photos of Lava Beds National Monument, I knew this park was one I wanted to visit. Located on the very northern edge of California, the park makes a great day trip for spelunkers of all ages and experiences.
There are 700 caves and miles and miles of lava tubes and tunnels in this area, and several of them are made easily accessible along the main cave loop. One thing I loved about visiting this park was that since it was so remote, we rarely ran into people and had most of the caves to ourselves.
While staying in Yreka, CA at the heart of Siskiyou County, we took a day to drive out to Lava Beds to explore some caves and tunnels for the day. On the way there, we passed Mt. Shasta and had to stop for some great photo opportunities of the snow-capped mammoth in the distance, particularly on the 97 and south of Dorris, CA.
We also passed the Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge where we saw tons of birds and bird photographers. Check the season when you go, because about bald eagles migrate to this area between November and April! Such a great opportunity to get to see this majestic bird in the wild with your own eyes.
Location: Google Maps
Cost: $20 entrance fee
The park is very remote, and service is spotty. Be sure to download offline maps of the area on the Google Maps mobile app, and bring plenty of water, food, and snacks for the entire day. There isn't much in terms of food up in this area!
My Favorite Caves
Hopkins Chocolate Cave - Google Maps
Our first cave of the day was Hopkins Chocolate, which had some cool collapsed areas that formed arches you could walk over.
Golden Dome Cave - Google Maps
We continued through Hopkins Chocolate Cave for several minutes heading north towards Golden Dome Cave. These were the narrowest tunnels we experienced this day, with some portions requiring us to squat and shimmy under some of the passages.
Soon we started seeing green and shiny gold colors on the walls, caused by microscopic bacteria that cling onto the lava rock walls. Water would bead on these bacterial mats, which caught the light from our headlamps. Be sure not to touch any of the walls with the sensitive organisms!
Sunshine Cave - Google Maps
Sunshine Cave is a short cave that leads to a photogenic area where the ceiling also had collapsed. I also loved the small skylight we found just a short way in.
Mushpot Cave - Google Maps
Mushpot cave is a beginner cave located near the Visitor Center. This is the only lighted cave in the area, and we enjoyed reading all of the informative signs throughout the cave about the animals you can find in these underground environments as well as the geological background of cave formation.
Skull Cave - Google Maps
Skull Cave was the only cave we visited that was off the main cave loop, but it was also our favorite of the day.
Named from all of the animal bones found inside, this cave has a paved walkway along one side of the enormous tunnel wall that eventually leads to some stairs that bring you down to the ice floor, which you can view from behind the metal gate. We felt the temperature drop dramatically as we descended the several metal staircases! You'll definitely need a light to explore this one.
Devils Homestead Flow - Google Maps
You'll pass this flow after the entrance while headed to the caves, and you'll be treated to an overlook of an entire field of sharp, dark, basaltic lava. It's not a cave, but you should still stop to admire this viewpoint on your way to the main cave loop.
More Caves To Consider
Some other caves that we wanted to check out that happened to be closed at the time due to bat hibernation:
Sentinel Cave - the longest easy cave tunnel you can make your way through. Either start at the upper or lower cave entrance!
Catacombs - I'd love to come back with more experience and gear to do this one, as it is considered the longest and hardest cave in the monument.
Crystal Ice Cave - you need advanced reservations to go on this guided tour of beautiful ice formations inside a cave. They only give out six permits every Saturday from January to March! More info and reservations here.
Fern Cave - conversely, from June to September, six people each Saturday can visit Fern Cave on a guided hike. The main attraction are the lush green ferns that grow at the entrance to the cave. More info and reservations here.
For more information about current cave closures, visit the NPS site.