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  • Writer's pictureChasingBuffaloesandBeyond

Visiting Lava Beds National Monument

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

Located in the northeastern corner of California, Lava Beds National Monument is a hidden gem. Just a quick 50 minutes from Klamath Falls, Oregon or a longer 2.5 hour drive from Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, we stopped here for a day as we were heading to Lassen Volcanic National Park. While relatively unknown to most people, we really enjoyed our time at this wonderful park. This rugged landscape has been shaped over time by the Medicine Lake shield volcano and includes over 800 caves and Native American historic sites and battlefields from the Modoc Indian Wars that create a environment that is truly unique. Within the Monument, there are over two dozen caves that are open for exploration - most of which can be done on your own and range in level of difficulty.

Little boy standing next to the Lava Beds National Monument entrance sign.
Entering in Lava Beds National Monument


Stack of rocks with a white cross marking the memorial to Captain Canby from the Modoc Indian Wars
Canby Cross from the Modoc Indian Wars

Entering from the north and then heading along the east road, the first thing we came across was Canby Cross. This site was in memorial to Captain Canby who died in the Modoc Indian Wars of 1872- 1873 at the hands of Captain Jack - the Modoc chief. Continuing down the road you are taken to Captain Jack's Stronghold where 53 Modoc warriors were able to fight off the 650+ U.S Soldiers for over 5 months before fleeing. Upon Captain Jack's capture, he was hanged and the rest of the Modoc tribe was relocated to Oklahoma.

Dad giving son a piggy-back ride as they walk down the path along the grassy fields and lava rock at Captain Jack's Stronghold in Lava Beds National Monument.
Exploring the area at Captain Jack's Stronghold

Continuing down the road, stop at Hospital Rock for a quick walk. Used as a base for the US Army during the Modoc Indian Wars, this 0.3 mile hike affords beautiful views of the surrounding area and on a clear day you can see clear to Mt. Shasta.

Looking across the desert fields and lava rock towards Mt. Shasta at Lava Beds National Monument.
Looking out over the area from Hospital Rock - Mt. Shasta can be seen in the distance


Little boy standing along the sign and rocks at Petroglyph Section of Lava Beds National Monument.
Learning about the ancient petroglyphs

Continuing east, leave the boundaries of the National Monument and drive a few minutes before crossing back into park boundaries into the Petroglyph Section of Lava Beds National Monument. Here you will find the Petroglyph Point Trail. The area contains Modoc petroglyphs that are believed to be between 2000 to 6000 years old. As many of these petroglyphs were underwater at one point due to the fluctuations in nearby Tule Lake, it is hard to exactly date how old these are.

Petroglyphs in the rock at Lava Beds National Monument.
It was amazing to look upon petroglyphs that are thousands of years old


Looking out over the lava covered black fields at Lava Beds National Monument
Looking out over the rugged landscape

We then headed back west to the main portion of Lava Beds National Monument and drove south towards the Visitor Center and the bulk of the caves that are accessible to enter and explore. Hiking with a 2 year old, we chose to stick with the 'Easy' level of caves to explore, but there are all different levels of caves to explore depending on your abilities and comfort level. Just make sure to bring a flashlight or headlight, closed toes shoes and a jacket as it is quite cool down inside these caves.

Family of three wearing headlights under the blue skies of Lava Beds National Monument.
All set and ready to adventure down into the caves


Little boy wearing a headlight standing next to a sign for Merrill Cave at Lava Beds National Monument.
Our first cave - Merrill Cave

Our first cave we choose to explore was the Merrill Cave. Considered one of the easier hikes in the park, this cave contains year round ice! Interestingly, in the early 1900's people used to ice skate down in the cave. Today, a lot less of the ice remains and what is left is off limits while down exploring the cave. Entering our first cave, we didn't quite know what to expect but the best thing we did to prepare was make sure we each had our own headlight - this freed up our hands to hold onto the handrails and our son as we descended down the two flights of stairs into total darkness. What an amazing experience - and to our excitement our son loved exploring caves!

Father and son descending down the metal stairs into the rocky cave opening at Merrill Cave in Lava Bed National Monument.
Ready to descend down into the cave!
Mother and son wearing head lights standing among the large black lava rocks inside Merrill Cave.
Down inside Merrill Cave - what a unique experience!


For our second cave of the day, we stopped at Skull Cave, named for the collection of animal and human bones found at the site. This is a shorter cave at only 580 feet long, making it one of the more popular caves in the park. The entrance to his cave is huge and easy to enter, then once inside you will descend down a staircase to a lower level, where the hike ends at a ice covered floor.

Looking into the dark tunnel as you enter into Skull Cave
Entering into the popular Skull Cave


Father and son stand outside of the cave opening to Upper Sentinel Cave.
Climbing down into Upper Sentinel Cave

For our next caving experience we drove down Cave Loop Road and hiked the Upper Sentinel Cave. This is the longest cave in the park of those that are listed as 'Easy'. Perfect for us, we set off into the darkness to explore. Make sure you turn off all your lights as least once while exploring this cave to experience total darkness - slightly creepy but cool!

Woman walking thru a dark cave that is lit by flashlight.
Descending down into the abyss of Upper Sentinel Cave
Little boy with flashlight walking towards the lighted opening at the end of Upper Sentinel Cave.
Finding the exit for Upper Sentinel Cave


To end our day, we finished by walking thru Mushpot Cave, this is a cave that would probably be best to recommend as your first cave to visit. This is the only cave that is completely lit and has interpretive signs along the way. Inside the cave, follow the paved path and enjoy the signs along the way where you can learn about the caves and the surrounding area.

Dad and son, both wearing head lights descend down the metal stairwell in to Mushpot Cave.
Heading down to explore our last cave of the day

Interested in planning your own trip to Lava Beds National Monument? Below is our summarized itinerary for you to follow or adjust to your own preferences. ENJOY!

Day 1: Explore the Murdoc Indian War sites along the east road of the park - stop at Canby Cross, Captain Jack's Stronghold and Hospital Rock, continue east out of park until you reach the Petroglyph Section of Lava Beds National Park - walk the Petroglyph Point Trail. Continue back into park and head south to the Visitor Center. Then spend the rest of the day caving - for easy caves - stop by Merrill Cave, Skull Cave, Upper Sentinel Cave and Mushpot Cave.

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