Feather Falls

March 9, 2018.

Feather Falls Loop | 8 mi | 1870′ ele. gain | 3:15 hr.

I found Feather Falls in a Northern California hiking book. I had to drive to Sacramento for a weekend event, so I decided to tack on an extra day and do some hiking. The book rated Feather Falls as a “3” difficult level but “10” for scenery. Sounded like a plan to me. The description noted, however, that the trail was once a loop but now an out-and-back route due to some trail damage. The out-and-back would be 9 miles, but since it was pretty flat and easy going I figured I could tackle it in under 4 hours.

I camped for the night at the trail head camping area, a free, walk-in tent site in the forest. It was very convenient to roll out of my tent in the morning and walk right up to the trail. I had forgotten to pack any hiking pants so I put on my sweats, hugged my thermos of tea and started up the trail. There was no indication of any closure up ahead so I was excited to be able to do a loop hike.

The path was wide, well-worn and well-graded. There was a disappointing number of plastic water bottles tossed on the side of the trail. I can’t believe people are still actually buying those things.

I sipped my tea as I wandered up the trail, enjoying all the unusual plants of the northern California forest. Everything looked similar to Oregon’s flora but just different enough to make me feel like I was on a movie set. There were fir-like trees, madrone-like shrubberies and ferns that were just a little off.¬† The occasional mushroom, flower, or newt splashed color on the otherwise brown and drab landscape.

About a half hour up the trail I reached a pretty waterfall on Frey Creek. The water tumbled down beautiful granite slabs, with lush green moss growing on either side.

Not 15 minutes later I approached a viewpoint of Bald Rock Dome, a mini-Half-Dome right across the valley. This striking granite rock face apparently has some “old-school” climbing routes on it, but today was not about climbing for me. I admired it, wiped the drool from my mouth and continued on.

Signs along the trail kept me both entertained and informed. One warned of poison oak, which apparently grew everywhere (but I didn’t see any).

I reached a new-ish looking trail sign that pointed towards the falls and headed in that direction. The trail looked like it was paved long ago but was now pretty eroded and worn away. Shooting star grew along the trail. More views opened up. The anticipation was building.

Suddenly I could hear the water’s roar. I sped up, following the eroded trail to a wooden viewing platform with a front-row seat at the falls. Feather Falls, according to the signs, was the 6th largest waterfall in the contiguous U.S. and the 4th highest in California. It has a bit of an identity crisis, as the trailhead sign marks it at 640′ tall and the Internet calls it 410′ tall. Besides, a quick search of “tallest waterfalls in California” shows that it doesn’t even rank in the top ten. Despite the number, it was an impressive waterfall. I enjoyed a good 20 minutes here, looking at the panoramic views and appreciating the solitude.

I returned to the “falls” sign and headed towards the other half of the loop. Again, there was no indication that the trail was impassable so I went that way knowing that I might have to backtrack if I encountered a sketchy section.

The sun finally peeked through the clouds. The warmth felt good on my skin. I negotiated a few washed out sections of trail but otherwise the other side of the loop was totally passable. It did have a different character: it was steeper, narrower and more rugged. I’m sure most visitors simply did the out-and-back. But doing the loop at least shaved off a mile, so I was back to the car in just over three hours. Plenty of time to make it to Sacramento and take a nap before I had to be presentable.

Feather Falls lived up to its expectations, well, except for the height. The trail was lovely. The waterfall was mesmerizing. And the early morning solitude was well-worth the early wake up.

March-ing at Crack in the Ground

March 4, 2018.

People are funny.

I put a Crack-in-the-Ground adventure on the Cascades Mountaineers Meetup group and got very few bites. I couldn’t tell if it was the timing, the driving distance, the fact that it wasn’t a mountain, or ??? that no one was interested in committing to this outing.

In fact, the day before the trip I was down to just two participants, one being my husband. The other sent me an email and asked whether I was going to go with just the couple of us. “Heck yes!” I said. “I’d go if it was just me!” So, the three of us went.

We drove out the night before to camp nearby. Luckily we had a Subaru to get us up the long gravel roads that were covered in snow. We cleared out a couple of spaces large enough for our tents and settled in for a cold but pleasant night.

The next morning, after a nice breakfast, we packed up and headed for the trail head. All the information I’ve ever found about this place indicated that there’s about a mile to explore before heading back, but I knew from my previous trip here that this was not the case. We had a good day ahead of us.

In the age of the Internet, there’s little left to the imagination. You can download GPS tracks, look at satellite imagery, read precise route directions, place yourself inside a 360 degree view and basically know everything you need to know before setting out. To me, this removes much of the joy of exploration. Sure, it’s nice to be able to do some research and plan ahead. But it’s also nice to be able to discover things as if you were the first person there. So I’m going to give you, the reader, that privilege here. Instead of writing a play-by-play, I’ll end with just a few teaser photos and some observations.

The last time I’d visited this place is was much warmer. I underestimated how cold it would be, and how wet my feet would get. I was glad that I brought my headlamp. And running my GPS app was fun for marking points of interest but not necessary for navigation. If you can’t stay oriented with a giant crack in the ground, my friend, perhaps hiking is not the hobby for you.

So go forth and explore. One last tip: give yourself more than an hour to visit this iconic Central Oregon landmark.

Bessie Butte

February 20, 2018.

1.5 mi.| 500′ ele. gain | 1 hr.

It’s like Pilot Butte, but a longer drive.

That’s pretty much all you need to know about Bessie Butte. The elevation profile is pretty similar. The views are similar. The trail tread is pretty similar. There are two key differences: you won’t see many other people there and the summit is wild. No pavers, no mountain finder, no rock wall. Just a bunch of dust, scrub and fire-charred rocks.

But, it was something different.

For the Hike366¬†project I really wanted to show as few repeats as possible. I could have just hiked the River Trail, or clambered up Pilot Butte, or done any number of short, easy, in-town trails over and over again. But that didn’t feel right to me. So I sought out other locations to shake things up and at the same time broaden my local knowledge.

Of course I turned to my pal Sarah, a long-time local, to share some of her wisdom with me. And the two of us met up today to hike up Pilot Butte’s cousin, Bessie.

It was a really lousy day. The sky was saturated with clouds. It felt really gloomy and oppressive. What made the hike worth it was hanging out with Sarah and enjoying a slightly different perspective from this particular location.

Will I rush back out to hike this butte any time soon? Probably not. But having experienced it once I feel at least educated enough to be able to talk about it and recommend it to others, or not!

Tumalo Creek exploratory hike

February 19, 2018.

It was, as the kids would say, cold AF today. But, it was a hike day and I had to get out there. My map study led me to a section of Shevlin Park that I had yet to explore. It appeared that there was a trail along the creek, although I didn’t know how far it went or what my options would be from there. The best way to find out was to take a walk.

I bundled up and drove across town. My tires crunched over last night’s snow coating the parking area. I cinched up my hoodie nice and tight. Did I mention it was cold?

There was a signpost indicating a “Tumalo Creek Trail,” and there were even human footprints on it. I walked the trail as it paralleled the creek, with red foliage brightening up the white and gray terrain around me. Soon I came to a gravel parking area and some kind of dam or water control system on the creek. The trail continued on, and so did I.

The air was cold, but it was quiet. This stretch of trail was a bit off the radar for most of Bend, it would seem. And for good reason. The public right-of-way abruptly dead-ended after about a mile and a half, so I turned back.

Brrr…I thought. No problem. On the walk back I examined the creek and all the cool ice sculptures that had formed on its edges. There was a benefit to enduring this cold air. These ephemeral artworks were only visible to those who braved the elements. I felt lucky to be there.

In the end, it was only a 5K, but a nice one and I achieved my goal for the day, which was simply to get out and take a hike. Sometimes that’s all that I need to do.

Tumalo Canal hike

February 18, 2018.

Winter. It’s amazing. The air is cold. Snow flutters to the ground. The ground sparkles. Ice crystals decorate the edges of streams and lakes. But all these seasonal changes make it harder to access the high country. That forces me to be a bit more creative about finding places to walk. I’m not a good creature of habit; I like exploring new places. So when a friend mentioned the Tumalo Canal trail system, I said “huh?” And like that, I knew I had some Googling to do.

The Tumalo Canal Historic Area is a stretch of land managed by the Prineville BLM. The trails are open to walkers and/or horses but not bikes like the neighboring Maston area. A new place that’s close to home, with no mountain bikers and easy access in the winter? It sounded like something I needed to check out.

I grabbed a map at the trailhead and headed off in to the snow. I was socked in with gray clouds. The area was classic high desert: juniper, sage and grasses. Impossibly bright splashes of green came from lichen clinging to tree branches. I trudged along in the gloom, snow pelting down from overhead. I passed one couple on their way back out.

A patch of blue. The sky! It showed itself for a moment before covering back up again. I continued walking, trying to link up the numbered posts on the trail with the numbers on the map. I reached the old canal and confirmed my position, then kept walking. Some of the trail junctions were confusing. There were old roads and trails that weren’t well-marked, located right next to the ones that were. I got slightly discombobulated, then made my last turn for the stretch back home.

Finally, the clouds began to part. The sun came out for good. Warm rays of light brought joy to my face. Ah, what a lovely feeling. I noticed all the colors and textures now. How the furrowed juniper bark swirled up from the ground towards the tips of each branch. How the yellow grasses caught the light just so. How the snowflakes rested on each micro-ledge of the rock cliffs. I walked slowly and intentionally, seeing so much more than I had before.

There were no epic vistas, no challenging climbs, no major sights to see. But this simple little trail system brought me something that none of the dramatic Cascades Highway trails would: an opportunity to stretch my legs in the winter, and the space to stop and look at all the little treasures that nature had to offer.

Dry Canyon, Redmond

February 6, 2018.

7 mi | minimal ele. gain | 2:30 hr.

I noticed a funny thing on Google Maps the other day. I turned the terrain layer on and scrolled through Bend and Redmond, looking for new features to explore. And there, cutting right through Redmond, was a canyon. In that canyon, it was mostly blank. BLANK. In the center of Redmond. I dug around a bit, until I found out a name: Dry Canyon. And it was filled with parks. A trail ran through the length of it. I had to check it out in person.

On the city’s website, Dry Canyon is dubbed the “crown jewel” of the city parks. How had I never heard of it before? At 3.7 miles one way I could easily do this as an out-and-back hike in an afternoon. I packed my backpack.

I arrived at the southern terminus of the trail in the early afternoon. Patchy clouds filtered the sun overhead. Although it was chilly, the sun that broke through felt warm.

Blacktop cut through the dry grass and juniper trees filling the shallow canyon. I hopped on the trail among other walkers, cyclists and joggers. As soon as I saw a side path cut out into the dirt I took it. It looked like walkers and mountain bikers made several unofficial trails in the desert landscape. The tread was gentler on my joints and it was prettier in the brush, anyways.

But my off-trail exploration was short-lived. Soon I was funneled into an underpass that was decorated with murals. Then I found myself in the middle of a city park, with sports fields, parking lots and people everywhere. Then I walked onto a disc golf course. And then…

The Maple Avenue Bridge.

I’d seen pictures of this bridge in magazines. There are climbing holds, permanent bolts and quickdraws placed on the underside of the bridge so that people can climb on the structure. Pretty cool! But alas, with no rope, rock shoes or climbing partner, I had to just crank my head back and gawk at the scene today.

As I continued walking north, I found some wilder places to ramble. Dirt paths led every which way through the broad canyon. At some point I distinctly remember a smell. An odor that sliced through the air. Having a bad sense of smell, is rare that I pick up such a scent. But this was so pungent, it had to be…

Ah yes, a wastewater treatment facility. Right at the end of this lovely trail. What an unfortunate coincidence.

I had hoped to linger here and have a snack but given this new information, I hightailed it back the way I came. Once I was out of range of the sickening aroma I found a park bench and dug into my treat bag.

On my way back I admired the diversity within this canyon. In places, basalt columns rose vertically from the dry brush. Occasionally the steep walls were broken by wide stairways leading into the neighborhoods. Some areas looked wild, pockmarked with Ponderosa pine and juniper. Sagebrush filled large swaths of the canyon. Birds and squirrels filled the air with chirps and chatter. Lots of people were out recreating in a number of ways. This was truly a land of many uses.

I watched the clouds and light change as the early afternoon marched towards evening. Days are so short in February.

After experiencing the Dry Canyon in its entirety, I can say now that this is the crown jewel of the Redmond City Parks!

Shevlin Park Loop

February 4, 2018.

4.7 mi. | 300′ ele. gain | 1:45 hr.

I always find it amusing when facts are debatable. The Shevlin Park loop, probably one of the most popular hikes in the park, is listed on various websites as 6 miles, 4.6 miles, 4.9 miles, etc… The most consistent sources clock it in at 4.7 so I’m going with that.

Today I partnered up with a friend who was going through some relationship troubles and needed some fresh air and kid-free time. I was happy to facilitate this.

The air was cool and brisk, as any day in February, and we heartily took to the trail. We walked quickly as we talked. There was so much to say and so much to hear. Occasionally we pulled off the side of the trail to let a runner pass. Trail running is so popular around here. I think it’s Bend’s favorite pastime.

As we reached the mid-point of the loop we paused on the bridge. The water tumbled beneath us. It was a nice place to stop and take it all in.

Nature is chaos. Life is chaos. It seemed appropriate then, to put the two together. I was sorry that my friend’s marriage was collapsing. I struggled to hear her pain. But together, in the forest, among birds and trees and clouds, we shared a moment. I was grateful that she felt comfortable enough to talk.

We walked on, shifting gears to lighter topics. There were more people on this side, mostly hikers. Everyone smiled and said hello as they passed. It was a jovial crowd. Anyone who’s out on a walk in the winter is pretty dedicated to being out there and having a good time. How nice is it to live in a community that values preserving and enjoying natural spaces.

As always, Shevlin Park brought the goods. I only wished that our hike could have been a little longer.

A stroll on the Deschutes River Trail

February 2, 2018.

I needed a hike today for my Hike366 project so I texted my friend Sarah to see if she was available. We decided to meet at a coffee shop downtown and then walk the Deschutes River Trail until we ran out of time.

It’s easy to take a hike in Bend. The Deschutes River Trail, which covers 20 miles from end to end, runs straight through the middle of town. It’s a convenient place to take a stroll whether you’ve got 5 minutes or 5 hours. Today we had just under 2 hours, since we parked downtown and didn’t want to get a ticket.

It was a chilly, moody day. Bend is well-known for “300 days of sunshine.” Well, today was not one of those days.

Nonetheless, we sipped our coffee, caught up on life and walked on the trail through downtown, Drake Park and the Old Mill.

We stopped across from the surf wave to watch people in their wetsuits try and catch the wave. Then we turned our attention to the large numbers of waterfowl enjoying the natural side of the river.

We ended up waiting longer than we’d anticipated as a huge caravan of ducks slowly plodded across the path. They were adorable to watch.

Heading south, the pavement eventually turned to dirt and it finally felt like we were on a hike. From here the Deschutes River Trail gets a bit wilder. But we wouldn’t have much more time to explore. The clock was ticking.

I love living in Bend. It’s so easy to find a trail and start walking. But the face of Bend is rapidly changing and I wonder how things will look ten years from now. I hope that we are able to preserve access to wild spaces and contain development as much as possible.

Otter Bench

January 10, 2018.

9.3 mi. | 1060′ ele. gain | 3:30 hr. | All the trails at Otter Bench

It can be difficult to find new and interesting things to do in the winter when all you want to do is go for a hike. The snow makes access to high places difficult and sometimes dangerous. Bare ground is at a minimum. After much snooping around I came across a trail description for Otter Bench, just a stone’s throw from Bend. I checked the forecast, packed a bag and headed out.

It felt weird, pulling up to a trailhead in basically a neighborhood development. But there it was. The hardest part of the whole day was just figuring out exactly where to go from the parking lot, since there were trails and user paths going every which way.

My goal was to hike all the trails today in order to get the most out of my visit. I began on the Lone Pine Trail, which led steeply down to the river bottom from the parking area. The trail just kind of petered out, so I admired the river and the golden winter foliage before trekking back up.

Back at the parking lot I took the Horny Hollow Trail (which was open this time of year) to the junction with the Pink trail, another spur down to the river. This was a beautiful trail with great views of the Crooked River Canyon. I imagined this place would be insufferably hot in the summertime and was grateful for the cold, wet winter weather I had this morning.

After a quick jaunt down the Pink Trail I returned to the main pathway and continued north. The Opal Canyon Loop formed a lollipop shape as it looped up along the river and then cut inland to return. The riverside walk was lovely. Before turning back I stopped to eat my lunch. I had a great viewpoint overlooking the deep canyon. Far below, the Crooked River rushed by. No one else was out here today.

The hike back was across the broad, flat, high desert plateau. It was less scenic and interesting than the hike in, so I moved a bit more quickly. Occasionally I’d stop to photograph the interesting forms made by dormant winter plants. Their twisted stalks, geometric seed heads and striking colors made me curious.

One more trail to go: the Otter Bench trail. It was just as boring and mundane as the one before. I don’t think I’d go back here in the spring or summer, when access is restricted to this trail. Besides the heat, there just wouldn’t be much to look at.

Grateful for three and a half hours of solitude!

Lava Beds for Thanksgiving

November 22-26, 2017.

View all the photos from this trip here.

With forecasts for unseasonably warm and wet weather all across the west, we decided to head south to a not-terribly-well-known National Monument for our Thanksgiving weekend escape this year.

The drive down to Lava Beds is just a few hours from Bend. We arrived after dark and pulled into the campground there. There were two loops; one was nearly full and the other was (inexplicably) empty. So we chose the best site on the empty loop.

The next morning we drove to the visitor’s center to pick up our free cave permit and gather information about entering the caves. I’d been here once, a long time ago, but my caving experience was rather limited. We spoke with the rangers for awhile and left satisfied that we had all the information we needed to have a fun time in the caves.

Cave Loop

On the first day of Thanksgiving weekend, we decided to hit all the open caves on the cave loop (with the exception of Catacombs). The park brochure provided basic information about each cave, including its length and a difficulty rating. They were similar to ski run ratings: green dot for easy, blue square for moderate, black diamond for challenging. We started with a black diamond cave because it was the first one on the loop! Thunderbolt Cave. After donning our helmets and headlamps we took our last breath of above-ground air and descended a metal staircase into the darkness.

There were a few differences between walking on earth and walking underneath it. First, it was quiet. SO quiet. Second, it was disorienting. When I could only see just a little ways in front of me it was difficult to retain any sense of direction or distance. Third, it felt spooky. Okay, I think I’m pretty resilient and have dealt with quite a lot of lousy adventure situations in my life. But this felt different. Monsters lived in caves, right? And did we turn down this passageway or that passageway? Shit!

Without a map or visibility beyond a few yards, navigation was difficult. I felt that little knot in my throat at one point wondering how we were going to get back out again. Great, we got lost in our first cave. But we soon remembered a landmark and soon saw that refreshing beam of sunlight coming down from the outside. Phew! We’d have to be a little more careful in the other caves. This was a wake-up call right from the outset. Nice job, Lava Beds, on not dumbing down the caves with lights and navigation arrows. I’ll take this more seriously now.

Next, Golden Dome. This one was recommended by the ranger. As we walked deeper and deeper into the cave, I’d exclaim: I found the golden dome! There was a hydrophobic bacteria on the cave ceiling that looked like gold flakes when it was coated with beads of water. It was amazing! But then I’d walk into the next room and say, no here it is! There was so much of it! As the trip wore on we’d discover this bacteria living in most of the caves. Why this one was singled out as the golden dome I’m not so sure. Other caves also had spectacular displays of this coloration.

Then, Hopkins Chocolate. There were some low sections that required stooping and creative crawling so that we didn’t tear up our pants. In this one rare instance, I wished I would have been wearing an old pair of jeans.

On to the Blue Grotto and lots more crawling. We popped up through a few skylights and ended up wandering into Labyrinth Cave somehow. The only way we knew was that We’d found a metal staircase leading up into the light, plus a trail register in a PVC pipe with the cave name listed. Knowing that Labyrinth Cave was closed we decided to hightail it out of there. We wandered up through an unmarked cave opening and walked cross-country back to the car, being careful not to fall into any unmarked skylights!

Next up: Ovis, Paradise Alley, Sunshine. We were racking up caves left and right.

At Natural Bridge we got to do a little surface walking. Then it was back underground at Indian Well Cave. I was feeling a bit of cave fatigue.

Finally, Mushpot Cave. This was the only developed cave on the cave loop, which was made obvious by the sounds of screaming children that got louder and louder as we approached. Lucky for us, they were finishing up their cave activity and we got to have it to ourselves. It felt so plush and luxurious after being in the undeveloped caves all day.

Last cave of the day: Valentine Cave. I was so ready to be done. I would have appreciated this more in the beginning of the day. We could mostly walk upright in the spacious chambers. The main passageway looked like a subway tunnel. But I wanted to be back at camp, building a fire and making dinner.

That night we feasted on roast turkey and our favorite sides: gravy, squash puree, green beans, etc. Plus a marionberry pie and freshly made ice cream. Oh I’m drooling just thinking about it.

Big Nasty Trail and Hidden Valley

The next morning we rolled out of the tent with full bellies and headed out for a full day of exploration. We stopped into the visitor’s center again, this time to purchase a book of maps for the caves. After our first experienced of feeling disoriented I knew I’d be happier with a map.

But first, hiking. I was itching for a real hike and the Big Nasty Trail was high on my list. How big and nasty could it be?

We began walking under chilly, overcast skies. A short, paved trail led to a viewpoint of Mammoth Crater. This looked exactly as it sounded. A steep-sided crater with lava rock walls lay before us, so big that it was hard to get it all into one photo. From there we sauntered out on the Big Nasty Trail, named for the conditions of the nearby lava flow. The trail itself, however, was lovely. Pebbles and sand made of pumice lay underfoot. This soft surface felt nice after scrambling over lava blocks in the caves the day before. The landscape was very open and beautiful. While it looked very similar to the high desert near our home in Bend, there was a surprising amount of lichen and moss covering the vegetation. Mountain mahogany grew alongside the more familiar Ponderosa pine and juniper trees.

We returned from the loop and hopped on the Hidden Valley trail just across the street. It led a quarter mile out to a viewpoint of the Hidden Valley. This depression in the landscape was filled with Ponderosa pines all lined up as if planted in rows. It would make for a fun scramble down on another day. We had some caving to do.

Heppe Cave

Onward ho! To Heppe Cave. A short trail led to this short cave with towering ceilings. There was a little pool of dirty water at the bottom. In fact the hike out there and the nearby Heppe Chimney were more interesting than the cave itself. Or maybe I just felt a little grumpy about the cave because I slipped on the wet rocks several times there. I did not wear the best shoes for rock-hopping.

Merrill Cave

A picnic table outside the entrance to Merrill Cave was a great place to sit and have lunch. As we ate, a few families exited the cave, got in their cars and left. Ours was the only one remaining, so that meant it was time to explore the cave! We’d been extraordinarily lucky in our adventures so far. There were a few people out and about but we almost never crossed paths with anyone inside of a cave. We passed a few folks entering as we were leaving and vice versa, but otherwise the caves were our own personal hideaways. We felt like explorers for nearly the entire trip.

Like Heppe cave, Merrill Cave had a history of harboring perennial ice. But today, without much ice these caves were far less interesting than they must have been in the past. Good thing we didn’t bring our ice skates. Metal stairways and catwalks led to a gated viewpoint of where the ice used to be. How, so…anticlimactic.

Balcony and Boulevard Caves

It was finally time to pull out the map book! Our last stop was the trailhead for Balcony and Boulevard Caves. These were both listed as “moderately challenging” in our cave guide. We first wandered into Balcony Cave. There was no indicator at the entrance which one this was, but there was a feature that resembled a balcony right near the cave opening. So that was our best guess.

We walked under a heart-shaped skylight and explored the various tunnels and nooks, trying to locate ourselves on the cave map. While I felt pretty comfortable with my navigation skills, I felt like a total newbie in deciphering the cave maps.

We wandered back up, enjoyed the insane clouds for a moment, and then descended into Boulevard Cave. The map looked SO SIMPLE. Any idiot should have been able to figure it out. But I was struggling to match up what I saw in front of me with what was drawn on the map. To test our map skills further, we decided to try one more thing…

Sharks Mouth

On the same page as Balcony and Boulevard, we noticed Shark’s Mouth Cave. With a name like that, how could we possibly go back to camp without looking for that first? There was no developed entrance but based on the information in the book it should have been well within our reach.

Out came the map and compass and we walked slowly in the direction where we believed one of the entrances would be. One led into an 8 foot tall chamber, so we figured it would be easy enough to find.

While it was not “easy,” we eventually found an entrance to the cave and ducked inside. It was a valuable activity to practice using the map inside the cave. I started feeling a little more confidence with this skill. We noticed the shark’s teeth formations and crawled into the shark’s mouth.

Success! Yay! Emerging from the cave just before sunset, we decided to call it a day and drove back to camp.

Catacombs

Armed with the map book and the knowledge of how to use it, we felt ready to test our skills in the Catacombs.

According to the rangers, people can spend upwards of FOUR HOURS exploring the network of tunnels inside the Catacombs cave system. That’s a lot of time underground! Looking at the map, I guessed we’d be able to see about half of it without needing to squeeze into a 2 foot tall slot. That’s not for me.

And so, we packed a small bag with the essentials for a jaunt through the Catacombs.

As we walked through the cave we referred back to the map frequently, identifying marked points of interest and learning how to interpret the markings in the book. This cave had multiple levels, which were not always easy to figure out on the map. We climbed up and scrambled down, took lefts and rights, investigated small cul-de-sacs and squirmed through tight passages. I used all the crawling techniques I knew and invented a few more. It felt like a real adventure! But the really small spaces didn’t appeal to me, and we turned back right where I thought we would. No matter, we spent nearly two hours in the cave and got to see a bunch of cool places.

I had no idea “wilderness” like this existed in the National Parks System, and I was thrilled that this existed as a public resource without handrails, paved floors or a bunch of red tape to get inside. At the entrance of each developed cave there was a standard sign with a bunch of warnings that no one ever reads, and then you’re on your own. Awesome.

First thing I had to do after getting outside of the cave was water a tree!

Skull Cave, Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave

There were three more caves to tick off the list and all could be reached from the campground on a 5-ish mile hike. We drove back to camp, ate lunch and then set off on foot to tackle the final caves. It was a nice walk on trails through the sunny, high desert landscape to the parking lot of Skull Cave. This easy, short cave was reached via a long stairway down into complete darkness. This was another one of those “there used to be ice here!” caves which was not terribly exciting to explore. Since it was marked easy in the book there were also a number of other visitors here.

Next we walked up to the access trail for Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave. The walk, again, was the highlight of this visit. We saw a pika on the rocks and enjoyed the sunny skies above us. Symbol Bridge had some (shockingly) non-vandalized cave painting remaining from Native Americans who’d lived here eons ago. But the juniper tree growing right over the entrance was probably my favorite feature. At Big Painted Cave, very little Native American markings remained today but it used to be a spiritual place for the former inhabitants.

The walk back was a treat. A nice way to cap off a weekend of new adventures. Halfway back to the camp, we stumbled upon a couple of deer on our path. Aaron spotted them first and we both stopped to watch them amble through. Delightful.

I would go back to Lava Beds National Monument in a heartbeat. There’s more to explore. Labyrinth Cave, Hercules Leg, Sentinel, Lava Brook and Juniper Cave were all closed for hibernating bats. Fern Cave, accessible only by tour group in the summer time, was also closed. Plus there was a ton of land we didn’t even come close to exploring. And in a cold snap, the ice sculptures that form inside the cave would be worth the visit. I was glad to have had the chance to get to this special place in 2017 and hope it remains protected, and wild, for decades to come.