NPCA’s traveling park lover ventures into the northern California desert to Lava Beds National Monument and discovers a history of Indian wars and a picturesque landscape of lava tubes far off the beaten path
This story is part of a series by Jim Stratton exploring some of America’s most fascinating and least known places.
Our car was the only one in the parking lot as my girlfriend Craig and I pulled in to Captain Jack’s Stronghold in Lava Beds National Monument last month and unloaded a picnic as the sun dipped low on the horizon.
I love experiencing wild places with one special companion or a few friends. It somehow makes wide-open spaces more intimate. And while I credit the heat for keeping most folks away, it also helps that the park is remote. Not many people visit the high desert of far northern California in the summer. Like me, you have to want to go to Lava Beds. It is not on the way to anywhere, but is well worth the extra effort to visit and experience a little geology and a whole lot of history.
This site preserves most of the battlefields from a conflict known as the Modoc War, when the Modoc Indian leader Captain Jack led an uprising in 1873 against the U.S. government. This all took place in a jumbled volcanic landscape created by the massive Medicine Lake Volcano located just south of the Klamath River Basin, a water-rich environment east of the Cascade Mountains on the Oregon-California border.
Back in the day, lots of salmon spawned in the Klamath River and the region’s wetlands and lakes teemed with waterfowl. These rich resources supported a number of tribal bands including both the Klamath and the Modoc. When white ranchers succeeded in having the Modocs moved to the Klamath Reservation, it sparked conflicts between the two native groups, and the Modocs, who wanted their own reservation, split for their traditional lands at Tule Lake on the Klamath Basin’s southern edge. When the U.S. Army tried to move the Modocs back to the Klamath Reservation, shots were fired, people died, and 150 Modoc men, women and children ran further south into the lava beds.
It’s easy to see why Captain Jack led his people into the lava beds. The volcanic landscape was well-known to the Modoc and provided shelter and protection from the pursuing army.
After our picnic, Craig and I took the Park Service’s half-mile loop trail into a well-protected circle of rock known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold. We stood behind shoulder-high lava bulwarks where Captain Jack and his band of 60 men held off 1,200 soldiers for over five months. While the Modoc shot dozens of soldiers, Jack didn’t lose a single man.
As I stood behind these lava walls, I tried to imagine firing at the advancing army. We stood at the very spot Captain Jack used for his command post, and we gazed down into the very lava tube cave where Captain Jack held his war councils during the siege. We saw the escape route used by Captain Jack before the Modocs were eventually captured and sent back to the Klamath Reservation. And we stood in reverence by the medicine flag raised to remind us of the Modoc’s loss of cultural identity so settlers could graze a few cows.
We had spent our first night in the area at the Ellis Motel, a cute little establishment just outside of the town of Tulelake, and took our evening meal at a nearby restaurant named for Captain Jack — one of the few places to buy a burger and a beer along Highway 139. As we headed into Lava Beds the next morning, we birded our way through the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a remnant of a much larger lake that was drained decades ago for agriculture. Now, only about 20 percent of these historic wetlands remain, setting up the current water wars in the Klamath Basin between farmers and conservationists who want water in the Klamath River for salmon. As you can well imagine, I’m rooting for the salmon.
After loading up our cooler in town, we arrived at Lava Beds before noon and easily scored ourselves a campsite in the shade before setting out for a day of caving. Did I mention it was hot? But visiting Lava Beds National Monument on a hot day doesn’t really matter, as this is a place of underground caves where the temperature averages 55 degrees year-round. Created by fairly recent lava flows (10,500 to 65,000 years ago), lava tube caves emerge as the lava cools around a river of molten rock and as that molten lava drains out, a cave is left behind. There are over 700 caves in the monument, the highest concentration in the contiguous 48 states. And the Park Service has done a great job of providing easy access to a couple of dozen.
The always-friendly park rangers at the visitor center suggested a six-cave tour that would give us differing underground experiences and keep us out of the heat of the day. One of the caves, Mushpot, is the recommended starter cave as it is the only one with a lit and paved trail. The others we checked out — Golden Dome, Sunshine, Valentine and Sentinel (both upper and lower) — required sturdy shoes, a light jacket, a good headlamp (or two), and no inkling of claustrophobia. Sentinel is the only one-way cave where you drop into one opening and, after a half a mile underground, you come out at another opening. The others we explored were all out-and-back hikes of varying lengths from 500 feet to a third of a mile one way. Where needed, the Park Service has installed stairs to get you to the bottom of the cave. And if you didn’t bring a light, they’ll loan you one.
With headlamps lighting the way, we marveled at the smoothness of the walls in some caves. Other caves were covered in dripping lava, like wax down the side of a candle. In Golden Dome, a special bacteria reflected a golden light, making the roof of the cave sparkle like a gilded ceiling in a wealthy mansion. Sunshine cave has several breaks in the ceiling allowing small patches of light to penetrate to the cave floor where a few hearty plants are able to survive. Sometimes we walked on sand, sometimes we needed to carefully pick our way through the rocks. And when we turned our lights off it was really dark.
We did see some folks in hard hats, thick leather gloves and knee pads – serious cavers who were exploring what the Park Service lists as the “most challenging” caves. We weren’t into crawling over rock and squeezing through tight places, so we stuck with the “least” and “moderately” challenging caves where you only had to duck or duck-walk in a few places.
At Lava Beds we discovered a little history, a little geology, and lots of opportunity to explore. And as the sun set on the muted greens and gray of the juniper and sagebrush at Captain Jack’s Stronghold, we plotted out the next stamps in our National Park Passport — a visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park and then on down to San Francisco for a seashore and a couple of old forts.
Now that the weather is cooling off, it’s an excellent time to plan a visit to see everything this remarkable park has to offer above and below ground.
See more in this blog series by traveling park lover Jim Stratton exploring some of America’s most fascinating and least known places.
About the author
Jim Stratton Former deputy vice president for NPCA's regional programs