Lava Beds National Monument

Valentine Cave

Lava Beds National Monument is a United States National Monument in the Shasta Cascades region of California.



The Medicine Lake volcano has erupted intermittently for approximately half a million years. The most recent flows of pumice and obsidian at Glass Mountain (south of Lava Beds in the Modoc National Forest) occurred less than 900 years ago. Since there have been no eruptions within historical times, and there are no signs that the volcano is getting ready to erupt soon, geologists consider Medicine Lake dormant.


The park displays the hardened results of over thirty separate lava flows exposed at Lava Beds. Rocks visible within the Monument range from two million year old volcanic tuff at Gillem Bluff in the northwest corner, to basalt about 1100 years old at the Callahan Flow in the southwest corner. Multiple eruptions of liquid basalt that flowed from Mammoth and Modoc Craters (on the Monument's southern boundary) between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago formed most of the lava tube caves here. This flow covers about 70 percent of the Monument. A different flow in the southeast corner of the park that emerged around 11,000 years ago was lower in viscosity and created smoother textured caves, including Valentine Cave. Cinder cones, spatter cones, and other surface lava flows also appeared periodically between every few hundred and every few tens of thousands of years.

The park's lave tube caves were formed as fluid lava at up to 2000°F (1093°C) flowed down gentle slopes, cooling and solidifying upon contact with the ground and air. Lava touching the ground solidified first, followed by the sides and then the top of the flow. This hard shell of cooled lava insulated the liquid rock inside, allowing it to flow long distances before it cooled and came to a stop. The lava continues to flow until it either drains out or seals the end of the tube. In the millennia since, weather and gravity have punched holes in the ceilings of these extensive tube systems every few hundred feet, leaving behind almost 700 individual caves. These caves now provide not only outstanding opportunities for exploration, but habitat for a host of species ranging from threatened bats and bacteria, to tree frogs and sword ferns that cannot survive in the dry surface environment. The perennial ice formations found in some caves also give scientists an opportunity to study the effects of climate change.

The rounded mounds of many cinder cones dot the Lava Beds landscape. A cinder cone forms when high pressure and dissolved gases in magma cause an eruption that blows a fountain of lava into the air. The cooling lava then falls as cinders around the vent. Many cinder cones also ooze liquid lava from their bases if the eruption's underground magma source changes character, such as the Schonchin Lava Flow emanating from Schonchin Butte. This is the only cinder cone with a trail to the top; please help preserve others by not climbing on them.

Spatter cones are formed by thick blobs of lava resembling lumpy oatmeal that are thrown out of a vent. Thicker than cinders and thrown less high into the air, they form a cone where they land. Black Crater is an example of an impressive spatter cone. A hollow chimney may also form where the lava emerged — those found at Fleener Chimneys are 150 ft (46 m) deep.

Other formations in the park include craters such as Mammoth Crater, which once contained a massive lake of lava that overflowed rather than erupted, and left behind an enormous empty crater. The highly fluid, basaltic lava was transported many miles to the northern part of the Monument, creating networks of lava tube caves all along the way. Gillem Bluff is an example of a fault scarp, a place where large blocks of crust move relative to each other, sometimes during violent earthquakes. Many long cliffs or ridges in this area are found along faults. Gillem Bluff has moved up relative to the basin below, exposing layers of ancient basalt believed to be two million years old.

Flora and fauna

Lava Beds National Monument has over 50 species of mammals, fourteen of which are bats. The most frequently seen are coyotes, ground squirrels, jack rabbits, cottontail rabbits, and groups of mule deer. Kangaroo rats are commonly seen on summer evenings as they run across the roads.

The park spans three very different habitats and is adjacent to the wetlands of Tulelake Wildlife Refuge, and as a result a good variety of birds can be found here. The southern most area of the park is the highest, receives the most precipitation, and supports a ponderosa pine forest. Farther downhill to the north, the middle elevations are a juniper and shrub woodland. Extending to the northern boundary are lower grasslands and sagebrush. These three areas provide habitat to some birds that specialize in living in them, and some birds at are generalists, able to live in some or all of these habitats. A selected few are listed below according to where they are most often found.

The park is also home to 14 species of reptiles and amphibians. Eight of these are snakes, including the Western rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes may be seen on the surface or under a rock outcrop. They may be found near a cave entrance but seldom go inside. Rocky mountain rubber boas are small, gentle, nonpoisonous snakes that live inside caves. Rattlesnakes are poisonous, but no one has reported being bitten by one at Lava Beds since the area became a monument in 1925.


 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Daily highs (°F) 42 45 51 57 66 75 85 85 77 65 49 41
Nightly lows (°F) 23 25 28 32 38 44 51 50 44 36 27 22
Precipitation (in) 1.6 2.1 1.9 1.2 1.3 1.2 0.6 0.5 0.5 1.1 2.1 1.3

   Data from NOAA (1981-2010)

Get in

By car is the only way, basically. The nearest major town is Klamath Falls, so you could fly or train and rent a car from there. Unfortunately, there's no public transportation into the park. The more adventurous can bicycle or hike into the park and save half off the entrance fee!

The main entrance is from the north end of the park, either from Hill Road or from Newell on the main park road. There is also a southern entrance starting from 139 at Perez then passing Tionesta, but the road is rough and might be closed due to snow in the winter.

Another way to the park is from Highway 89 near McCloud up past the scenic Medicine Lake. Turn north off 89 at Bartle and follow the easy-to-miss signs. A good map or GPS is quite useful. If you pass Jot Dean Ice Cave, you're on the right track. This route will close due to snow in the winter. The last stretch of road to the park is about 15 km of graded dirt. Make an easy stop at Mammoth Crater on the way in.

Hikers entering the park from the Newell/Tulelake area can cut diagonally though to the campground and Visitor Center on Lyons Trail (a non-trivial desert hike with no water--be prepared.)


$10 entrance fee, good for 7 days. $5 for bicycles, motorcycles, and on-foot. $20 gets you in for a year.

There are several passes that allow free entry for groups traveling together in a private vehicle or individuals on foot or on bike. These passes are valid at all national parks including Lava Beds National Monument:

In 2016 the National Park Service will offer several days on which entry is free for all national parks: January 18 (Martin Luther King Jr. Day), April 16-24 (National Park Week), August 25-28 (National Park Service's 100th birthday weekend), September 24 (National Public Lands Day), and November 11 (Veterans Day).


Lava Tube Caves

NOTE: White-nose syndrome is a disease that has killed millions of bats in caves east of the Rockies. The disease is spread when fungal spores are introduced into bat populations, so to prevent its spread some caves that contain bats are closed to visitors, and all park visitors must check in at the visitor center prior to entering any cave in order to be screened for white-nose syndrome. If you have visited a cave east of the Rockies in the past ten years, do not bring any shoes, clothing, or other item from that visit with you into any cave in Lava Beds.
The caves vary greatly in difficulty. For the most advanced caves kneepads, elbow pads and a helmet will make the experience of crawling over sharp lava in the dark far less unpleasant.

Least-challenging caves

These caves have relatively high ceilings and smooth floors or trails. A good choice for groups with young children, or anyone who wants a less strenuous experience.

Moderately-challenging caves

These caves may involve some stooping through low sections, and/or have areas of rough floor to negotiate. Additional protective gear is recommended for the more difficult spots.

Most-challenging caves

These caves have some portions that require duck-walking or crawling. Helmets, kneepads, and gloves are a must in these areas to protect yourself from sharp lava. Other sections may be easier. These caves are also more complicated in some places— purchase maps in the Visitor Center to find your way if you intend to explore them completely.


Lava Beds National Monument above-ground landscape


The Visitor Center has some minimal supplies, including some snack food, lip balm, batteries, flashlights, and ice. Of course, they also have plenty of tourist items, and will sell you postcard stamps. For caving, they will sell you bumpcaps (highly recommended, as even a brush with the ceiling can leave you bloody) and will let you borrow flashlights for free. They also have books with maps of the caves and other information.

Straight north of the park where Hill Rd meets Highway 161 at Ainsworth Corner, there is a small general store with food and supplies.

In Newell, northeast of the park, there is a small general store with groceries, video games, and expensive gas.

The town of Tulelake is northwest of Newell a short distance, and has a grocery store.

South of the park, Tionesta has a small store and will sell a limited amount of expensive gas.

North in Oregon, the town of Merrill has plenty of gas and stores. (It's Oregon, so don't try to pump your own gas!)


The Visitor Center only has a small selection of snack food, so there's no real way to get food in the park.

The neighboring towns of Newell, Stronghold, Tulelake, Tionesta, and Merrill have restaurants or general stores, and Tulelake has a supermarket.



There is no lodging within the park. The nearest lodging can be found in the towns of Tulelake (12 miles from the park), Klamath Falls (56 miles north) or Alturas (63 miles southeast).


If Indian Well campground is full or you're visiting on the cheap, you can camp for free in Modoc National Forest just south of the park. (Campfires will require a permit, if they are allowed at all; check with the Forest Service.) Look for places to camp off Tichnor Rd ("Tickner", "Ticknor") which runs east/west about 1-2 km south of the park. The road can be rough, but a passenger car can drive it in the summer--watch for mud and snow in other seasons.


Two wilderness areas are present at Lava Beds: Schonchin and Callahan. You can access Schonchin via Three Sisters Trail and Lyons Trail, and Callahan by Whitney Butte Trail. Overnight camping is allowed, but must be 400 m from any trail. No fires are permitted; gas stoves are allowed. No surface water exists in the park, so all water must be packed in.

There are few or no bears in the park, but there are mountain lions. Rattlesnakes are common, but they just want to be left alone.

Stay safe

Mountain lions have been spotted; beware walking alone near dusk especially if you're of small stature.

Bears are not a problem near the campground and are rarely sighted, if ever.

Deer can be pesky, so keep your food deer-proof.

Ground squirrels can sometimes be present en masse; they'll chew into your tent to get your food if you put it in there.

Rattlesnakes like to rest near cave entrances. Don't put your hands and feet where you can't see!

Bubonic plague is present in the park; it is a once-quite-popular disease that spreads through the bite of fleas which have fed on infected rodents. Don't sleep near rodent holes, and steer clear of rodent nests which are commonly found in caves.

Hantavirus has also been detected in the park.

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