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Lava Beds National Monument

By Kenneth Doutt, National Park Service
Lava Beds lies on the northern flank of the Medicine Lake Volcano and covers only about ten percent of the volcano’s surface area. At approximately 150 miles around the base, 7,913 feet in height, and covering more than 770 square miles, Medicine Lake is one of the largest composite volcanoes by volume in the Cascades volcanic area. Eruptions from nearly 200 surface vents created a volcano with a gently sloping profile - like a shield. Here in Lava Beds, you will find more than 700 lava tube caves, cinder cones, spatter cones, craters, and fault scarps. Twenty-two caves have been developed to ease public use. A dark, quiet, isolated world apart awaits visitors who venture into these caves.

Lava Beds Cave Entrance, Lava Beds National Monument
As a high desert climate area, Lava Beds is home to a remarkably diverse combination of wildlife and vegetation. There are fourteen species of bats present in the monument, including western myotis and Townsend big-eared bats. In the lower elevations, mule deer are often visible in herds up to fifty among western juniper groves, and at high elevation the trees change to ponderosa pines and become home to the rare climate-influenced American pika, found at some cave entrances. In spring, wildflowers abound, and year-round, a host of unique bird species visit from the nearby Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge.
Lava Beds National Monument

On October 13, 1972, two wilderness units totaling over 28,000 acres were designated by the U.S. Congress at Lava Beds National Monument.  These wilderness areas equal 61% of the monument’s total land area.  For the past forty years, these wilderness areas have been successfully managed to wilderness standards and their natural condition has improved since designation.  Areas previously heavily impacted by grazing, power lines, and roadways have been actively restored (see Sarah Bone and Nancy Nordensten, Vast Wilderness in a Small Package for more about this restoration effort).
In this rugged, seemingly impassable land, Native Americans made their home for thousands of years. Petroglyph Point has one of the largest panels of Native American rock art in the United States.

Lava Beds National Monument
In addition to its geologic features, the monument encompasses the main battlefield of the Modoc War. Captain Jack’s Stronghold, a fortress of lava rock, became the place where the Modoc Indians made a stand for their homeland, refusing to be relocated to a reservation. The ancient lava flows among the shores of Tule Lake are cut with deep lava trenches and dotted with small habitable caves, creating a natural fortification with a seemingly endless number of places to hide. The Modoc War was the only major Indian War fought in California, running from November 1872 until June 1873, and the only one in which a general of the regular Army was killed. At the end, fatalities included 53 soldiers, 17 civilians and 15 Modoc warriors (only five of whom were killed in battle). The Modoc leader Kientpoos, known to the settlers as Captain Jack, and three other Modoc fighters were tried and hung on October 3, 1873 at Fort Klamath. Captain Jack’s Stronghold Trail takes you through the heart of the Modoc War.
Lava Beds National Monument

Before venturing into a cave, stop by the visitor center to keep yourself and the cave safe. There are 12 hiking trails in the monument, and numerous interpretive wayside panels along the scenic roads. Highlighted “must-see” hikes at the park include the 0.7mi Schonchin Butte Lookout trail, Mammoth Crater, and Hidden Valley.

For more information contact the Lava Beds National Monument at (530) 667-8113 or visit

Kenneth Doutt is a National Park Service Ranger who provides interpretation with the Tule Lake Unit WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument and Lava Beds National Monument


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