It was pitch black. I adjusted my helmet and turned on my head lamp. Instantly, a strange world of lava formations and low-hanging ceilings greeted me, part of the caves my friends and I explored this past weekend at Lava Beds National Monument, located in the northernmost point of California.
This trip was one of the most fun I’ve experienced, with a weekend spent camping, exploring really interesting caves of all varieties, and testing our physical and mental fortitude in a grueling mile-long expert cave. Read on for the details!
Lava Beds National Monument: Quick Intro
Lava Beds National Monument is known for its system of lava tube caves. What makes these caves different from typical rock caves seen elsewhere is that these were created from flows of smooth lava 10,500 to 65,000 years ago. Stop and let that sink in – these caves were entirely the result of volcanic eruptions! The outer portion of the flow dried quicker than the inner portion forming the tubes once the lava drained.
There are over 600 caves in the area, with most of the developed caves in a two-mile long Cave Loop. There were close to 20 developed caves open when our group visited in late spring.
The drive from San Francisco was a long but painless one, about 7 hours one way, similar to a typical trip to Los Angeles. Since we left after work on Friday, we arrived at the campgrounds in the early Saturday dawn.
The campgrounds at Lava Beds National Monument were well-maintained and spacious. We spent a couple nights cooking over a camp stove, staring at the stars in the night sky, talking about life and random thoughts, and staying warm next to the camp fire.
Luke, Mike, Vicki, and I had an absolute blast cooking two pounds of carne asada meat for dinner, enjoying wine (“fruit salad”) while watching the sun set, and trying to stay warm in the surprisingly cold evening air.
Cave Exploring on Saturday
Saturday was our first day of cave exploring and consisted of easy and medium-difficulty caves. We excitedly packed our gear (helmet and flashlights), stopped by the visitor center to check in, and started our caving adventure.
The first cave we explored, Mushpot Cave, was the introductory cave. We didn’t even need our flashlights, let alone our helmets, since this cave was lit in the inside (the only one) and had a lot of educational signs explaining the different types of formations. Things got a bit more serious at our next cave, Skull Cave, which had a massive entrance that was simultaneously impressive and foreboding. The air immediately got much colder once we descended the metal steps towards the heart of the cave, and we spotted the water that was perpetually frozen on the cave floor.
After a short hike to get to our next destination, we were inside the medium-level cave called Big Painted Cave, which had some really cool historic Native American pictographs on random rocks that we could walk right up to and admire. These were painted by Native Americans on spiritual journeys and many reflected the natural world, including streams, trees, and suns. Symbol Bridge, a cave that was more like a giant bridge, was right next to Big Painted Cave, and we took in the sights while enjoying a quick lunch sitting on the rocks.
As we stepped into our next cave, Golden Dome Cave, the Black Keys song “Gold on the Ceiling” immediately started to play in my head. This was another medium-level cave that had sparkling flecks of gold covering the entire ceiling throughout. I found out that the color was caused by bacteria and water, and whenever I shined my headlamp at the ceiling it would glow. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Hopkins Chocolate Cave was equally interesting, with chocolate-like lava formations on the cave ceilings and walls. Seriously, it looked like someone had smeared fudge chocolate all over the caves. We followed a group of students from Oregon into the cave and ended up finding our own little spot in a low-ceiling nook. We took a breather there on our stomachs and put on a light show with our flashlights while I played “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service for our own little in-cave dance party.
Before heading back to the campgrounds, we ended our day with another easy-level cave, Sentinel Cave. It was a nice stroll and good break from the afternoon sun, and along the way we even saw a family with young children enjoying the beauty of the cave.
Sunday: Catacombs Cave
After a nice rest, we woke up Sunday prepared for the crème de la crème, the toughest and longest cave at Lava Beds National Monument. The day before, we’d purchased a map at the visitor center and the ranger walked us through a good route, and with our helmets and flashlights, we entered Catacombs Cave. It would be four hours before seeing daylight again.
Catacombs started off innocently enough. It was pretty easy to walk through with a minimal amount of stooping, but about a third of the way in, we immediately knew we were getting a lot more than we’d imagined.
The guide books and rangers had all recommended gloves and kneepads. We had none of those. Essentially, the pathway quickly transformed into openings that at some points were about a foot tall. The smooth floors we were used to in easier caves quickly gave way to jagged and ribbed rocks. We had to crawl through without hitting our heads on the overhanging spikes, while simultaneously bearing the pain that came from putting pressure on a bunch of rocks on the floor.
I ended up army crawling, wiggling, ducking, and breakdance two-stepping through crevices, tunnels, and tubes. There were points where we would climb into a tube and change directions midway to avoid falling through head first. Once of the most painful parts was the aptly named “Devil’s Backbone,” which involved a long passage of army crawling through ribbed rocks.
Slowly but surely we made progress through the pitch blackness, our paths lit up only by our head lamps and flashlights. I couldn’t believe my eyes when we finally spotted the cave registry at the end of the cave. We signed it, took some pictures, and promptly realized we were only halfway done.
Our trip back was much of the same, but by now we’d gotten a lot more experienced with what to expect and what to do in certain situations. I was getting good at human Tetris, and our spirits were high as we reached “Boxing Glove Chamber,” which was close to the cave entrance. After hopping through a hole and converging onto our original path, we finally spotted the exit. The sun was bright but we were ecstatic – we’d conquered Catacombs Cave after a mile of battling our way through.
Like I mentioned earlier, Lava Beds National Monument was one of the most fun trips I’d taken in a while. I loved it because the caves were unique, interesting, and fun to explore. Camping is always fun, and the best part about the entire trip was that we didn’t have to worry about buying expensive things or dealing with huge crowds.
Park entry was $10 per group, our campground was $10 per night, and we bought food to cook from the grocery store. The total could not have been more than $50 per person for the trip, including gas money. All the caves were well kept and in pretty much every cave we’d run into one or two groups at the most.
If you’re looking for a fun and unique weekend getaway out in nature, Lava Beds is a great place to be! Shout out to our awesome and tough caving crew – Luke, Mike, and Vicki. We did it! #C2J!