Walk Through Lava Caves at Lava Beds

“Chocolate” lavacicles hang from the ceiling of a lava tube cave

For a class I took, the students were told that they’d just met a space alien who told us that we had to show it around the western US.  Which attractions would you take the alien to?  I’ll admit that in my assignment I mentioned a few places that were a bit off of the grid.  One of those attractions was Lava Beds National Monument, on the premise that I wanted to show the alien what the inside of the earth looked like.  Although I wouldn’t say that the caves at Lava Beds look exactly like most of the inside of the earth, at least they’re fascinating.  You get to walk where lava once flowed, and you can see the formations as well.  And, yes, I got a good grade on that assignment!

To get to Lava Beds from I-5 from the south, get off of I-5 at exit 747 in Weed, California and turn right onto I-5 Bus.  After 0.3 miles, turn right onto US-97.  Go 36 miles on this road, then turn right onto E Ball Mountain Road (also known as Little Shasta Road) and drive 2.2 miles.  Next, turn right onto Old State Hwy for 0.3 miles; turn left onto Antelope Sink Road.  After 0.1 miles, turn right onto Red Rock Road and go 7.2 miles.  Then turn left onto Willow Creek Red Rock Road for 2.7 miles, and right onto Willow Creek Road.  After 11 miles, you will need to turn left to stay on Willow Creek Road, now called NF-46N21.  Go 0.2 miles; then turn right onto Hill Road (NF-10) and drive 6 miles to the visitor center.

To get to Lava Beds from the north on I-5, take exit 14 in Ashland (Shale City), Oregon and go left (east) on SR-66.  You will continue on SR-66 for 64 miles before turning right onto SR-39 (Klamath Falls-Malin Hwy).  Travel 14 miles, then turn right onto Malone Road for 1.8 miles.  At this point you will enter California.  Turn left onto SR-161 (State Line Road), then take an immediate right onto Hill Road.  Drive 22.4 miles to get to the visitor center.

The first thing you should realize about the caves at Lava Beds is that the formations aren’t what you’d find in many of the more famous caves, such as Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Caves.  The caves at Lava Beds are actually lava tubes, not limestone caves, so the formations aren’t the pretty stalactites/stalagmites normally found in limestone caves.  Instead, you can see the lava that hardened as it dripped off of the ceiling of the cave, and the pretty bacteria that sparkles on the ceiling.

Flowers bloom in the midst of lava fields

How did the caves form?  So the park people tell us, a huge volcano erupted, sending tons of lava flowing down its sides.  The outer lava hardened, while the inner lava kept flowing.  Eventually, the molten lava all drained out, leaving caves behind.  At some point, the top of some of the caves collapsed, allowing people to come down inside of them and explore.

One of the things I really like about Lava Beds is that you can “rent” flashlights at the visitor center.  Basically, you have to give them some information about yourself (your name, vehicle license plate state and number, and show your driver’s license) and they will let you have flashlights for your group for the day.  You must return the flashlights by 4:30pm, but they’re free, and it saves many people from losing their way in the caves because they didn’t have a good enough flashlight with them.  It also allows each person in a group to have a flashlight, including the children.  Thankfully, they don’t require that they must see each person who’s get a flashlight: two of us went in and were able to get flashlights for every member of our group, even though the other eight people had stayed outside.

There are may caves to explore in the park, many of which are on the Cave Loop, near the visitor center.  After a while all of the caves begin to look the same, so I’ll mention a few of my favorites that stand out in my mind:


The big draw for this cave is The Golden Dome, an area with a high roof and an abundance of golden bacteria on the ceiling of the cave.  It is a good first cave to do for two reasons: first, it is the very first cave that you will come to on the Cave Loop, and, second, it is pretty hard to get lost in here.  You could go around in a circle if you don’t notice which way you come in, but with some sense of direction, it would be difficult to do this.

A short trail leads from the parking area to a ladder leading down into the cave.  Watch your head, as the cave ceiling is quite close to the ladder.  This particular spot has been termed “Headache Rock” for good reasons!  From the bottom of the ladder, continue straight (in other words, don’t go around to the back side of the ladder).  There are some low spots, so watch your head, and the floor is very rough, so watch your step.  Along the way, be sure to shine your flashlight on the ceiling, and admire the different colors of bacteria that grow there.  Water droplets and crystals make them sparkle.

At the end of the cave is a circle, which you can go around, so check where you came in so you don’t go in several circles before finding your way out.  We went right (straight) first.  Soon you will enter the “Golden Dome”, which, if you ask me, had less golden crystals than some of the other caves, but it’s still very nice.  An added bonus of doing this cave is that if you go behind the ladder, you can travel underground to the Garden Arches and Hopkins Chocolate Cave, which is the next stop on the Cave Loop.

Update: For more pictures and cave details, see the post from a second visit!