Lava Beds Cave Loop – Explore!

The entrance to Indian Well Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

The entrance to Indian Well Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Who would be crazy enough to visit the lowlands of Northern California in the middle of July?  Someone who really wanted to visit NorCal, I guess!  Last summer we took a little detour through California on our way to the Oregon coast (and just about got fried from the 100F+ temps, but that’s another story).  Our first destination was a little park right on the California / Oregon boarder that we’ve loved ever since we first discovered it ‘way back in 2003 – Lava Beds National Monument.  It’s not the cinder cone or hiking trails that keep us coming back (though hiking the Big Crack this time was fun), it’s the lava tube caves beneath the park proper that stay exciting no matter how old we get, and still seem to fill us with that same awe of the “unexplored” realms.  No lights, no cement pathways, no “stay on trails” – explore to your heart’s content, without too much crawling and not too much fear of getting lost!

 


 

Typical Lava Tube - I think this is a less-colorful portion of Golden Dome Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Typical Lava Tube – I think this is a less-colorful portion of Golden Dome Cave

One of the best things is that you don’t have to provide your own light sources (flashlight or lantern).  With up to 10 people to outfit with flashlights, that just doesn’t happen without major prior planning (we often don’t just have 10 battery-powered flashlights lying around the van).  Instead, you can go into the visitor center, provide ID and your license plate number, and they’ll check you out one big red or yellow flashlight for every member of your group.  (In the past, the rangers have always been great about checking to make sure the batteries are well up to snuff before checking them out.  This time, however, they didn’t bother to ensure the batteries were new, and several were pretty wimpy – one or two were so bad they weren’t much good at all.  Hopefully this was just a one-time issue – you might want to check and make sure the batteries are good before you leave the visitor center if the ranger doesn’t do it for you.)

Flashlight fun in Hopkins Chocolate Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Flashlight fun in Hopkins Chocolate Cave

So here I’ll talk a little about each of the caves we explored on this visit.  And really, if you have to visit in July, just be sure your car has air conditioning – the caves stay pretty cool, even when the temperature is 95F above ground (like the day we visited)!

Sign for Mushpot Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Sign for Mushpot Cave

Mushpot Cave

Access: Walk down the path from the visitor center, or park at Indian Well Cave, cross the road, and walk up the trail to the cave entrance.

Lava drips near the entrance of Mushpot Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Lava drips near the entrance of Mushpot Cave

This is the one cave in the park with electric lights and a paved pathway.  Watch your head, though – the ceiling is low in a few places!

Walking the paved path through Mushpot Cave

Walking the paved path through Mushpot Cave

Difficulty: 1 out of 5

Excitement factor: 2 out of 5

Sign for Indian Well Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Sign for Indian Well Cave

Indian Well Cave

Access: Walk down from the visitor center past Mushpot Cave, cross the road, and take the well-marked trail down to the cave.  Or park in the Indian Well Cave parking area and follow the trail down to the cave.

Walking into Indian Well Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Walking into Indian Well Cave

I don’t recall doing this cave before this trip.  It’s big and airy; the biggest issue you’ll have is scrambling over boulders and rocks – there’s not much of a trail once you get into the cave proper.  It’s not very long, though, and there’s natural daylight at both ends.

Exploring Indian Well Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Exploring Indian Well Cave

Difficulty: 2 out of 5

Excitement factor: 1 out of 5

Sign for Golden Dome Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Sign for Golden Dome Cave

Golden Dome Cave

Access: Cave loop.  Park in the small pull-off and follow the path to the stairway (watch your head on the stairway).

Golden bacteria on the ceiling of Golden Dome Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Golden bacteria on the ceiling of Golden Dome Cave

This has always been one of my favorite caves in Lava Beds.  Bright yellow bacteria grows on the roof and walls, sparkling with water droplets.  It’s beautiful.  The cave is also a bit adventurous because while you won’t get lost, it’s in a figure-8.  There was literally a couple who, after we watched them walk in three or four circles, decided to follow us to see if they could find their way out…

The ceiling of Golden Dome Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

The ceiling of Golden Dome Cave

Difficulty: 2 out of 5

Excitement factor: 5 out of 5

The sign for Hopkins Chocolate Cave and the Garden Bridges in Lava Beds National Monument, California

The sign for Hopkins Chocolate Cave and the Garden Bridges

Hopkins Chocolate Cave

Access: Cave Loop.  Park in the pull-off for Hopkins Chocolate Cave and Garden Bridges.  Follow the paved path to the cave entrance.

The ceiling of part of Hopkins Chocolate Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

The ceiling of part of Hopkins Chocolate Cave

This is another of my favorite caves in Lava Beds.  Brown lava “drips” from the ceiling, looking like some kind of melting chocolate.  I suspect it wouldn’t taste very good, though.  Make sure you look for Mr. Hopkins’ graffiti on the way out (I suppose such things from October 2, 1892 are considered historic, while if he did it today, it would be defacing).

Darker

Darker “chocolate” drips in Hopkins Chocolate Cave

Difficulty: 3 out of 5

Excitement factor: 4 out of 5

Sign designating the Hopkins Chocolate Cave trail from the Garden Bridges trail in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Sign designating the Hopkins Chocolate Cave trail from the Garden Bridges trail

Garden Bridges

Access: Cave loop.  Park in the pull-off for Hopkins Chocolate Cave; follow the paved path around the bridges.

One of the Garden Bridges in Lava Beds National Monument, California

One of the Garden Bridges

The bridges are pieces of the lava tube between sections of the cave that have collapsed, creating a kind of arches.  Not very exciting, but cool all the same.

Views across the desert near the Garden Bridges in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Views across the desert near the Garden Bridges

Difficulty: 1 out of 5

Excitement factor: 1 out of 5

Entrance to Hercules Leg Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Entrance to Hercules Leg Cave

Hercules Leg Cave

Access: Cave loop.  Park in the tiny pull-off for Hercules Leg Cave.  Follow the paved path to the cave entrance (visible from the parking area).

Looking up through a portion of the collapsed roof of Hercules Leg Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Looking up through a portion of the collapsed roof of Hercules Leg Cave

The cave itself is just nice, but the really cool part is that if you don’t mind a little ducking, crawling, and wiggling (ok, not much of the latter) you can connect this to Juniper Cave.  (Don’t worry, it would be hard to get lost along the way – while there are a few choices in turns, you just have to keep following the footprints, and if you do get off-track, all you’ll need to do is to turn around and go the other way, said someone who has a pretty good sense of direction).  So that’s pretty exciting.  I’ve personally done it three times; all those times, some members of my group weren’t thrilled with the tight spaces (which aren’t all that tight considering real caving requiring wriggling), so they took the van around to meet us at Juniper Cave parking area.  Oh, and this time, we met a cave snake, quite benign the rangers told us later…

Our cave snake - a Rubber Boa - in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Our cave snake – a Rubber Boa

Difficulty: 5 out of 5 if you go all the way to Juniper; otherwise, 3 out of 5

Excitement factor: 4 out of 5 if you go all the way to Juniper; otherwise, 2 out of 5

Sign for Juniper Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Sign for Juniper Cave

Juniper Cave

Access: Cave loop.  Park in the little pull-off for Juniper Cave.

That piece of wood looks like someone tried to get out of - or possibly in to - Juniper Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

That piece of wood looks like someone tried to get out of – or possibly in to – Juniper Cave

See above – you can also crawl up from Juniper Cave to Hercules Leg Cave.  Fun, fun, fun!

Lava formations in Juniper Cave (I think)

Lava formations in Juniper Cave

Difficulty: 5 out of 5 if you go all the way to Hercules Leg; otherwise, 3 out of 5

Excitement factor: 4 out of 5 if you go all the way to Hercules Leg; otherwise, 2 out of 5

The Upper Entrance to Sentinel Cave in Lava Beds National Monument, California

The Upper Entrance to Sentinel Cave

Sentinel Cave – Upper Entrance

Access: Cave loop.  Park in the pull-off for Sentinel Cave – Upper Entrance.

Fun with lighting in Sentinel Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Fun with lighting in Sentinel Cave

See below – this connects quite easily to Sentinel Cave – Lower Entrance.

Enjoying a catwalk over a lower chasm in Sentinel Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Enjoying a catwalk over a lower chasm in Sentinel Cave

Difficulty: 2 out of 5

Excitement factor: 4 out of 5

Sign for the trail to the Lower Entrance of Sentinel Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Sign for the trail to the Lower Entrance of Sentinel Cave

Sentinel Cave – Lower Entrance

Access: Cave loop.  Park in the pull-off for Sentinel Cave – Lower Entrance.  You can also walk up the quarter mile trail from the visitor center.

Entering Sentinel Cave (Lower Entrance) in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Entering Sentinel Cave (Lower Entrance)

I have no idea how we missed this gem before now!  It’s really a cool cave, and it’s also a fairly easy cave to go through (not much ducking required, let alone crawling).  (Actually, I think it’s always been closed for bats – or maybe we were always too tired to check it out, since it’s the last cave on the loop?)  The long-ish access trail is made up for by railings, catwalks, double-teared caves, and high ceilings, ending at the Upper Entrance to Sentinel Cave.  It’s well worth checking out.

Shadows and lights in Sentinel Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Shadows and lights in Sentinel Cave

Difficulty: 2 out of 5

Excitement factor: 4 out of 5

Lava drips drip water in Golden Dome Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Lava drips drip water in Golden Dome Cave

Other Caves

If you look at a park map, you’ll notice that I missed several caves on the cave loop – Labyrinth, Lava Brook, Thunderbolt, South Labyrinth, Blue Grotto, Catacombs, Ovis, Paradise Alleys, and Sunshine.  All of these are nice in their own right, but I do think that I’ve detailed the best of the best here.  The others were closed for bats on our latest visit, or else we’ve been to them before and felt the others more worth visiting.  The Catacombs are known for being easy to get lost in, so I haven’t spent much (if any) time in that cave.

The shadow descends into Golden Dome Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

The shadow descends into Golden Dome Cave

Round Trip Trail Length: Varies dramatically.  I didn’t keep track because the GPS doesn’t work underground very well.  I’d guess overall we hiked 3-5 miles, maybe a little less.  If you really don’t mind walking, you can walk from cave to cave around the cave loop instead of driving.

Net Elevation Change: Varies dramatically depending on which caves you do.  Again, the GPS doesn’t do well underground, so I don’t even have data 🙂

Facilities: None on the cave loop (not even any bathrooms!)  The visitor center has visitor services, restrooms, water, small gift shop, and more.

Fees: $15 per vehicle, valid 7 days.  Lava Beds Annual and American the Beautiful Interagency Passes (Annual Pass, Senior Pass, Access Pass, Active Military Pass, Volunteer Pass, and 4th Grade Pass) also accepted.

“Chocolate” lava drips in Hopkins Chocolate Cave – I do think there were more and longer “drips” on previous visits

Trail Notes: The caves do not have stalactites – they’re lava tubes, created when molten lava hardened on the outside, while the middle kept flowing, leaving behind a “tube” of rock.  Also note: Because of White-Nose Syndome, the park service asks you not to take anything into the caves that you have taken into a cave since 2006.  Before exploring any of the caves, you’ll need to stop by the visitor center to be screened and receive a “Cave Pass”, and if you’re not sure, they’ll spray down your equipment with a special disinfectant spray.  I had asked ahead of time (social media is good for something!) and so we didn’t have anything to disinfect, though I did see several people getting their shoes sprayed.

The ceiling in Golden Dome Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

The ceiling in Golden Dome Cave

Trail ★★☆☆☆

Road ★★★★☆

Signs ★★★★☆

Scenery ★★★★☆

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

Exploring the further reaches of Hopkins Chocolate Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

Exploring the further reaches of Hopkins Chocolate Cave

Key GPS Coordinates for Lava Beds National Monument (Cave Loop)

Visitor Center: 41.71464N / -121.51032W (41° 42′ 52.7040″ / -121° 30′ 37.1514″) (4,718ft.)

Mushpot Cave: 41.71363N / -121.50864W (41° 42′ 49.0680″ / -121° 30′ 31.1034″) (4,652ft.)

Indian Well Cave Parking: 41.71368N / -121.50778W (41° 42′ 49.2474″ / -121° 30′ 28.0074″) (4,609ft.)

Indian Well Cave: 41.71368N / -121.50717W (41° 42′ 49.2474″ / -121° 30′ 25.8120″) (4,667ft.)

Golden Dome Parking: 41.71041N / -121.51386W (41° 42′ 37.4760″ / -121° 30′ 49.8954″) (4,851ft.)

Golden Dome Cave: 41.71046N / -121.51351W (41° 42′ 37.6554″ / -121° 30′ 48.6354″) (4,848ft.)

Hopkins Chocolate Cave / Garden Bridges Parking: 41.70925N / -121.51441W (41° 42′ 33.2994″ / -121° 30′ 51.8754″) (4,895ft.)

Garden Bridges: 41.70890N / -121.51405W (41° 42′ 32.0394″ / -121° 30′ 50.5794″) (4,901ft.)

Hopkins Chocolate Cave: 41.70928N / -121.51402W (41° 42′ 33.4074″ / -121° 30′ 50.4720″) (4,898ft.)

Hercules Let Cave Parking: 41.70314N / -121.51585W (41° 42′ 11.3034″ / -121° 30′ 57.0600″) (5,019ft.)

Hercules Leg Cave: 41.70319N / -121.51559W (41° 42′ 11.4834″ / -121° 30′ 56.1240″) (5,012ft.)

Juniper Cave Parking: 41.70700N / -121.51221W (41° 42′ 25.2000″ / -121° 30′ 43.9554″) (4,928ft.)

Juniper Cave: 41.70650N / -121.51138W (41° 42′ 23.3994″ / -121° 30′ 40.9680″) (4,898ft.)

Upper Sentinel Cave: 41.70852N / -121.51128W (41° 42′ 30.6720″ / -121° 30′ 40.6074″) (4,899ft.)

Lower Sentinel Cave Parking: 41.71022N / -121.51186W (41° 42′ 36.7914″ / -121° 30′ 42.6954″) (4,875ft.)

Lower Sentinel Cave: 41.71028N / -121.50874W (41° 42′ 37.0074″ / -121° 30′ 31.4640″) (4,841ft.)

The ceiling of Hopkins Chocolate Cave, Lava Beds National Monument, California

The ceiling of Hopkins Chocolate Cave

Getting to Lava Beds National Monument (Cave Loop)

From I-5 in Weed, CA, take Exit 747 to US-97N.  After 54 miles, turn right onto CA-161E.  You will enter Oregon, then reenter California.  After 17.2 miles, turn right onto Hill Road for 12.8 miles.  Turn right onto Road 10 / Hill Road / Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway for 9.3 miles.  Turn right across from the sign for the visitor center.  Stop at the visitor center, then continue onto the cave loop.

 

Or from Altruas, CA (where US-395 meets CA-299), turn onto CA-299W.  After 18.7 miles, turn right onto CA-139N for 27.2 miles.  Turn left onto Road 44 N 01 for 2.6 miles (thankfully, a sign does point toward Lava Beds National Monument).  Turn right onto Lava Beds National Monument Road for 13.7 miles.  Turn left across from the sign for the visitor center.  Stop by the visitor center, then continue onto the cave loop.

 

If you’re coming from another direction, use a GPS or a really good map (lol).

Map of the entrances / parking areas for various caves along the Cave Loop in Lava Beds National Monument, California

Map of the entrances / parking areas for various caves along the Cave Loop

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