October 29- November 1, 2023.
Lava Beds is a low-key National Parks Service site in Northern California. I’d been there twice before and knew that it would be an interesting place to hole up for a few days no matter what the weather did. There are many things to do, from learning about the Modoc war to exploring caves to hiking across the lava landscape. Since I’ve written in detail about the caves before, I’ll highlight some of the other things we did on this trip.
Our friend LeeAnn drove down to spend a few days with us before we left the Pacific Northwest for good, so I had a hiking buddy while Aaron was working. One day, we decided to take a hike and poke our heads into a few caves we noticed on our maps that were not labeled on the official park map. When we inquired about them at the visitor center, they wouldn’t even give us any information. So we packed up our helmets, headlamps and gloves and followed our curiosity.
I’m not going to be the one to blow up information on caves that aren’t on the beaten path, so you’ll have to follow your curiosity as well. We ended up walking by a few caves we weren’t expecting. Some of these caves were open to explore, while others had posted signs saying “Cave closed.” Whether it was to protect hibernating bats or to protect us from unsafe conditions, they didn’t need to tell us twice! If there was a “do not enter sign” in front of a tantalizing hole in the ground, we did not go inside.
No worries though, because there were several openings that were free to explore. It was a little scarier for me to walk into a cave that I had no map or information for. We stayed close together, moved slowly and marveled at being in a place that most visitors don’t get to enjoy. One cave started inside a massive entrance and ended at a small passageway at the other end! But most were out-and-back excursions.
If you’re really into caving, I’m sure you know where to find more details on the 700+ unmarked caves scattered throughout the park. I was content with poking my head into a handful of caves off the main cave loop. If you do venture off the beaten path, be sure to do it with a friend or two, carry three sources of light and let someone else know where you’re headed.
I spent one full day exploring the trails on the surface of the park, including some trails on my map but not theirs (are you sensing a theme?). Before LeeAnn left for Oregon, we hiked up the trail to Schonchin Butte. This steep, 0.7 mile trail spirals right up to the summit just like my favorite Pilot Butte trail back in Bend. The difference today was the overwhelming smell of smoke in the air from prescribed burns nearby. Lucky for us, the hike began on the shady side of the butte so we were walking up the hillside in cool, morning air.
A beautiful fire lookout marks the summit. It is a working lookout during the summer, but it was locked up for the season when we visited. We took the little loop trail around the summit crater and enjoyed 360-degree views of the surrounding lava beds.
Our next stop: Captain Jack’s Stronghold. LeeAnn took off for home and left me behind to start walking back toward the van. But first, I wanted to spend some time among the lava caves and fortresses in which the Modoc Indians took their last stand against the U.S. government troops. I read about how the remaining native families tried to defend their homeland against the invading colonizing forces and how this narrative continues to play out across the world today. Then, I slowly walked the half-mile short loop, stopping at each numbered post and tried to imagine what the interpretive brochure might say (since none were available). I wondered how the NPS currently framed the settler vs. native interactions here. I thought about how I was raised to believe the myths of the “land of the free” and how I’ve had to re-learn American history and un-learn the propaganda that was taught in schools. It was a heavy morning. The smoke only made it more heavy.
From there, I walked along the road for a couple miles to a trailhead that didn’t exist on the park map but that I saw on the Google satellite images. As I approached the alleged trailhead, I slowly looked for signs of the trail. Aha! Found it. The “Sheepherder trail” was clearly an old road that was filling in with grass and tumbleweed. I saw a few somewhat recent boot tracks on it and started walking. My planned route would take me on a north-south line between the road and the campground. While I would have very much enjoyed a 15 mile walk back to the van on most days, I knew the smoke would make my walk really challenging and I plotted a few different ways to get to the road where Aaron could pick me up sooner.
I used my trail spidey-senses to follow the old two track as it wound its way between gentle hills and piles of lava rock. The tumbleweed really liked to collect in the low places between hills, which aligned almost exactly with the road. I was glad that I chose to wear long pants and actual shoes and that tumbleweed isn’t covered in thorns. I pushed through the dry vegetation for miles before finding a place to stop and eat my lunch.
Along the way, I stumbled across a few seemingly arbitrary posts indicating a wilderness boundary. I also found one section of trail that was marked with obvious cairns, but they often were not in view of each other. They stopped and started arbitrarily and not near any trail junction. It was the wild west out there. I continued on, following the “Powerline Trail” around Hardin Butte and onto the “Hardin Butte trail.” All of the trail names in quotes do not officially exist.
I noticed that an actual trail to marked points of interest were just north of my location. I struck off between outcrops of lava to find this trail. It was surprisingly not as hard as I thought and soon I found myself looking at a sign entitled “Last Victory for the Modoc.” The last part reads: “Many Modoc were not interested in indiscriminate killing, but were determined to defend their land and culture. After this battle, they were never again successful in doing so.” This read to me as very cold and dehumanizing, as if people who had inhabited land for many thousands of years had no right to continue living there because a bunch of white guys with guns said “mine now.” I sat on that wall, awash in those heavy feelings again.
One mile of trail led to the parking lot. Just before arriving there, I veered off on a short spur to Black Crater. This area had several interpretive signs describing the lava features visible from the trail. I walked among the familiar terrain, very ready to get out of the smoke.
The campground at Lava Beds National Monument has 43 sites, which are all first-come first-serve. At only $10 a night it’s the best deal around (besides dispersed camping). We found one of the few sites that we could squeeze in the van and a little car in the same parking area. Our site overlooked a large grassland with just a few trees. It had a picnic table, fire ring and a grill. A heated, lighted bathroom with a flush toilet was a quick walk away. And there was a water spigot just across the road.
We managed to scavenge enough firewood from nearby campsites to have a nice fire each night. Most of the sites were empty; only 2 or 3 sites were occupied each night. I remember having a similar experience the last time we camped there. But even better than the campfire were the epic sunsets and moonrises each evening. Even with the light of the moon, thousands of stars spread like glitter across the sky. What a beautiful and quiet place to be outside.