Saturday, October 4, 2014

A Visit to the Rugged and Remote Lava Beds National Monument

We've spent the last three nights in what has felt like the most remote area of Northern California: the tiny "town" of Tionesta, CA, just 14 miles from the South entrance of Lava Beds National Monument. The only store in Tionesta is now closed and the closest fuel station is about 25 miles North in Merrill, OR.

Eagles Nest RV Park has been a wonderful home base for our explorations, with its friendly owners, lush green grass in a very peaceful setting and excellent 4G Verizon signal (there's a tower on the hill behind the park). There are 20 full hookup sites at $22/night plus electric. Pay when you leave and there is no checkout time.

That grass is so nice you'll want to walk barefoot on it!

Lava Beds National Monument lies on the Northern flank of Medicine Lake Volcano. This shield volcano has erupted many times over the last 500,000 years, the last time about 950 years ago, and is tectonically still active.

There's a short hike up to the Schonchin Butte fire lookout for incredible views of the Monument and beyond.
The Butte last erupted 30,000 years ago and the Lookout was built by the CCC in 1939.
The Lookout is still staffed during fire season.

The Butte offers fantastic views of the surrounding lava flows and cinder cones as well as Mt Shasta in the distance.

Notice the collapsed lava tube snaking across the valley.

There are over 700 lava tube caves in the Monument and about 20 of them have been developed for the public to explore. The developed caves are designated as Least, Moderate, and Most Challenging so you can determine which ones you'd like to explore. Caves can also be closed at any time due to the presence of bats and protection of their nesting habitats. We explored just a couple of the easy caves due to bat closures and not wanting to crawl into any of the more extreme caves.

Some of the caves go deep into the ground and might consist of several layers of lava tubes. 

Sentinel Cave had two entrances so you could walk through it for about a quarter mile or so.

Colorful wildlife sighting of the day.

A part of the Monument that turned out to be more interesting than expected was Captain Jack's Stronghold, named after Modoc Indian leader, Kientpoos, aka Captain Jack.  It is the site of the 1872 - 1873 Modoc War, in which the Modoc Indians made a valiant attempt to hold onto their land. At one point 60 Indian warriors managed to hold off 600 soldiers.

A trail takes you through the natural lava fortress that the Modoc knew so well. Interpretive signs describe how the Indians used the lava fissures and small caves to fight for their homeland. It is a fascinating and sobering walk through history.

The Stronghold site is an area of lava upheaval in the middle of a relatively flat, grass covered lava plain.

The trail winds you through the natural lava fortress-like fissures.

Another day we drove to Medicine Lake, which lies in the former shield volcanoes crater. We spoke to a fisherman (who had caught his limit of rainbow trout) who told us the lake is 150 feet deep at one point and also contains thermal vents. There are four campgrounds around the lake with some really wonderful looking dry sites (water and pit toilets only), though not very many sites that could hold large rigs.

A wonderful camp site overlooking Medicine Lake.

A half mile walk from the lake brings you to an impressive and abrupt lava flow.

Glass Mountain, an obsidian flow, is another stop you can make on the road between Medicine Lake and Tionesta, CA, but we bypassed it on this trip, having been to the Big Obsidian Flow at Newberry Volcanic National Monument last year.

We walked up the hill behind Eagles Nest RV Park and took the road a little over a mile to the top of Timber Mountain, where there is a fire lookout and expansive views of the area.

An excellent view of Glass Mountains obsidian flow from Timber Mountain fire lookout.

Atop Timber Mountain we found a group of ham radio enthusiasts who were participating in an annual test between California operators and Canadian operators. We also got to visit with the contracted fire lookout person up in the tower. She has been working this tower for 30 summers and has noticed that animals no longer come to the area and birds do not land on the communications towers...makes one reconsider working so close to such devices.

Timber Mountain fire lookout and antennas.
One of those antennas provides excellent Verizon signal for this remote area.

Today we meander South to Susanville for a couple of days. Fall is definitely in the air, even though the days are pushing 80 we had a 28 degree morning recently, so we are in search of some fall color as we continue our travels.

Rosie loved staying at Eagles Nest...
she spent hours laying in the grass or relaxing on her chair watching the local bird activity.


  1. So glad you made it this time and looked like you enjoyed your activities there. Were the pine trees still covered with lichens when you went to medicine lake?
    We did enjoy our stay at Eagles Nest, were the goats still there?

    1. I do remember lichen at Medicine Lake, but it has been very dry here for a couple of years so it may not have been as dense as when you visited.

      Yes, they still had the goats. Rosie was scared to death of them! We sure liked that peaceful place.

  2. There is a terrific park in Susanville. We hiked it, and it looked like it would be ok for riding the mountain bikes. There's uphill, but not excessively so. Here is the link to the park.

  3. Oh I just loved this post. National Monuments are so interesting and this one with its Native history just jumped onto my list from your fantastic pictures. It looks like all the tubes/caves require you to bring your own light. I love that they are not permanently lit or even lit all day long. Also really glad they are protecting the bats. Sure hope they don't have white nose syndrome there. You are doing an excellent job of finding places for us to visit in the west and showing us where to stay. Can't thank you enough. Sure hope we can make it back.

    1. Oh yes, I know you would love this place! They do screen visitors for white nose syndrome. Fortunately it has not reached the Western caves yet.

  4. So glad you enjoyed it! I can't wait to get back and show it to Bill :-) Great to see a good campground nearby, especially one with grass (what a treat in that area). I've not seen an obsidian flow yet so will have to add that to the return trip.

    1. An obsidian flow is really, really neat! We would have done it but were just plain tired and ready to go home!

  5. This National Monument is far superior to Craters of the Moon. I love that you could visit the caves. I find being in a place like this drives me crazy because I struggle to visualize how the events actually looked as they were taking place. I just can't imagine such an upheaval. Thanks for the awesome tour and great park info!

    That is very scary to hear what the fire lookout person said about the animals and birds. I don't think I would still be doing that job if I were her.

    1. Yeah, I thought Craters of the Moon was pretty underwhelming...but it was also quite warm when we visited there. Seriously, visualizing the Indians holding off the soldiers in the lava fortress was fascinating!

      The lookout person was experiencing health problems that may have been exacerbated by the towers. It sounded like she was about at the end of doing this solely because of the towers and their possible effect on her health.

  6. Rosie looks quite at home there...and I can see why! It's beautiful.
    Awesome pictures of the lava rocks and caves Lisa...I am enjoying your trek south and making lots of notes!

    1. One of the best parts about the caves is they are left mostly natural (other than some narrow, rough paths through the centers). No lights. Oh, and there may be metal stairs!

  7. We planned to visit Lava Beds a couple of years ago, then at the last minute changed our plans. I have regretted that decision ever since, so I was happy to see this post. I have put this monument back on the list the next time we are in the area.

    I agree with Pam, I think I would reconsider being in that communications' tower if the animals have all disappeared.

  8. Such an interesting place -- it's not that far from us, and has long been on our list of places to explore. We've been waiting for a fall trip, because it seems that would be the best time to be there. Or maybe spring. Medicine Lake is gorgeous! We could fit into one of the sites at the lake, but the RV park with hookups looks mighty nice. :-)