Lava Beds National Monument, Tulelake, California

Lava Beds National Monument
Lava Tube Caves Loop
Tulelake, California
National Park Service
I'm not a fan of caves. Although we visited them as kids and about gave my Dad a heart attack, I hadn't even tried to go down into as much as a gold mine in years. This is until Chris and I explored some caves at Pinnacles National Park last year. Although it certainly made my heart race, I found the caves very interested and had a great time. I found myself in Oregon for a few days of solo adventuring, so thought I would check out the Lava Beds National Monument. Although you can learn more about the Battles that were fought here as well as the Wildlife Sanctuary, I was mostly interested in the Lava Tube Caves

I was driving from Klamath Falls, Oregon and made my way to the Lava Beds National Monument via Merrill, Oregon. 

Driving towards the park. The landscape begins to change and you can see more and more mountains of black lava rock. I was granted with a beautiful day for exploring. 

It's not surprising that there are lava fields everywhere, so hiking shoes are highly recommended. I went from down in a cold, dark cave with a sweater and head lamp to outside in a hot, sunny day with sunglasses on. If you forget to bring your flashlight, you can get one from the Visitor Center. I found a headlamp AND flashlight worked best for me. I could see where I was walking as well as look all around at the inside of the cave. I took a TON of pictures. You'll see what I mean when you scroll through, but I went through so many caves and they are all different. Believe it or not, I actually edited out almost 100! I have also included some videos of the caves. Pictures just couldn't quite capture it all. 

As I get closer, I start seeing more Lava Beds. 

The caves are all rated "Least Challenging", "Moderately Challenging" and "Most Challenging".
Going to start with the least challenging and work my way up from there. 

Off to find my first cave...
Driving into the Park, I noticed a sign for Merrill Cave. I didn't see it on the Cave Loop Map, but decided to check it out. I thought all the caves we could tour were on the loop, but there are several that you can see before you get to that point in the park. I'm glad I decided to stop here. 

Merrill Cave - Rated Least Challenging
For  many of the caves, especially those that are rated least challenging, there are paved walkways, metal stairway entrances and bridges. 

These signs are at every cave. I'll only post one. 

This is listed as least challenging, but all of the caves have many, many stairs, ladders, bridges and uneven walking surfaces. 

The entrance is full of colors and I'm doing good far. Excited to get into my first cave and see if I can handle it! 

I pushed beyond my claustrophobic tendencies and anxiety and entered the cave! 
It's still early in the Park and I'm the only one here. The cave is very, very dark, cold and quiet. 

This cave has walkways that continue to go deeper and deeper into the cave. 

Colors and textures on the ceilings and walls are so colorful when I light them up with my flashlights. 

Ok. I'm really proud of myself for getting this far into this cave. Then I saw this. 
It goes straight down into the abyss. I thought I was doing really, really well up until now. 
I wish I could have done it and had this been cave 6 or 7, I might have. For now, this is the end of the road for Cave #1. 

There are areas with low overhangs, so watch you're head. If you hit it, that's gonna hurt! 

The Merrill cave had more red colors than any of the other caves. 

Woohoo! I made it outside and survived my first cave! 
Along the way, I saw several little animals scurrying around. It's very desolate out here, so I was happy to see them.  There seem to be some type of critter at each cave. 

Also near the entrances of many of the caves are large valleys of lava rocks. 
It's hard to capture how big these really are in a snapshot, but they are very large and filled with sharp, black lava rocks. 

Skull Cave is next. 
Rated Least Challenging

National Park Services was down in this cave doing some measuring of vegetation at the entrance, so I got a chance to chat with them a little bit. I heard all about the ice at the very bottom of this cave. Let's see if I can get there. I told them about my fear of enclosed spaces and how cool these were, but very challenging for me. They said they come and look for me in 20 minutes if I didn't come back up. Awesome. 

A trail leads down into this cave. You follow it for quite a while before the bridges and stairs begin. 

Some cool coloring on the wall.

going down.. 

and down...

Cool colors and rock bridges

and down.

Without lights, you have no idea where anything is. It's a black hole. I ended up going down FIVE flights of stairs. 

And then I finally arrived at the ICE FLOOR!

It doesn't feel cold enough down here for there to be a solid block of ice, but it's definitely ice. 

Sunlight! A very welcome sight. I survived my first cave floor experience. I've got many more caves to go, we will see how far down I can get. The Skull Cave was awesome. 

Both the Big Painted Cave and the Symbol Bridge required hiking out about 3/4 a mile. There are many trails out here to hike, but this was the only I saw that had a cave at the end of the trail!

There was a butterfly conference going on at the Big Painted Cave. There were groups of them gathering all around. 

Another large Lava Bed at the entrance to this cave. 

Not rated, but similar to Moderaly Challenging because of the entrance. 

Getting to the entrance of this cave is a little rough. 

I explored around the inside of this cave quite a bit. It's not large or very deep and most of it can be seen without any additional lighting. But I didn't see any pictographs or symbols at all. 

Let's hope the symbol bridge offers up some pictographs. 

Yes! Here they are. These symbols are undated. They really don't know how old they are or what they mean, but they are indeed very cool. 

In modern times, this could be the sun and an airplane. 

Looking down into the cave. These symbols were all located to the left of the opening. 

This one included some red paint as well. 

Even if Lava, I found a heart rock.

Time to head towards the Cave Loop Road. This is located farther down the Highway, just beyond the Visitor Center. 

Officially entering the park and Cave Loop Road. If there is no attendant in the booth when entering the park, you have to stop here to pay the entrance fee. $20 per car. 
The black lines show the road and the gray shaded areas show what the design of the caves are underground. If I were going deep into the caves, they recommend map and compass to find your way back out. I found that the areas you could explore in the caves ended before the shaded areas. I also didn't venture back deep into the caves where I thought I could get turned around on the way out.  I think the Sentinal complex of tubes would have been the most interesting to explore from end to end since there are two entrances. But the labyrinth of tunnels made me hesitate going back that far. 

Golden Dome Cave - Rated Moderately Challenging

Here I go! Down into the deep, dark hole once again. 
Funny, that this is getting easier and easier. My heart is definitely racing by the time I could out of the cave, but it's getting easier to charge right down the ladder. 

The Golden Dome was aptly named. You can see more golden yellows here in this cave. 
There were also lots of tunnels here to explore. 

The floor of this cave was very hard to walk on. Very rough and uneven. You could easily trip, especially when trying to look around AND walk. I didn't venture too far deep into this one, but did spend some time looking at all the colors. 

Hopkins Chocolate Cave - Rated Most Challenging

These signs were posted outside a few of the caves. There were a few caves that were closed on the day I went through the park. I assume it is for the bat safety. 

Garden bridges from above. These are definitely more interesting from below. 

The entrance into Hopkins Chocolate

Hopkins Chocolate Cave does live up to it's name. The colors in this cave are certainly more earth tones and browns than any of the other caves. 

This cave is rated most challenging, which requires some challenging tunnels to navigate. I'm doing really well now, but crawling through that little tube is more than I'm game for today. However, I did spend some time looking around. The textures in the walls and ceilings are just amazing. 

Like dripping melting chocolates. 

Coming out of the entrance and looking towards the Garden Bridges area. 

Catacombs Caves - Rated Most Challenging

More HUGE lava beds. 

Sometimes just getting to the entrance is challenging. 

The catacombs have tunnel after tunnel and a constant stream of choices. Left or right, left or right. I decided on the way in that each time I had a choice to make, I'd turn "right". Then on the way out, I'd always choose "left". That worked for a while, but when I started feeling like I may get lost, I came back out. 

These tunnels have a very different look. More wide open and more black in color. 
I really like these caves. If I had more time and maybe someone else with me, I'd love to travel much farther back. Catacombs are very cool caves. 

Sunshine Caves - Rated Moderately Challenging

Hello Mr. Lizard

There were some areas of this cave that required that I get low and almost crawl around some areas, but being able to see light ahead helped motivate me to continue on. 

Sunshine caves offer different textures, shading and colors once again. 

There are small openings in this cave. It's amazing how much light comes in when you're in total darkness. 

Hercules Leg - Rated Most Challenging

Again, the entrance is harder to get to, but definitely worth it. 

These caves have a cool look of smeared tan muck. 

The tunnels go on and on. 

Some areas require that you stoop down low to get under the low areas. 

There were many areas that required choices. This cave made me anxious for some reason. It was very cool, but time for me to go when I got to this point. 

Back to the entrance. Yay

Rated Least Challenging

This is the map of this cave. Had I known going in that I could have gone all the way through to the other end, I would have kept going. I made it about 2/3 of the way without knowing there was light at the end of the tunnel! Would definitely do this again and go all the way through next time. 

Quick Youtube video when I turned off the lights in this cave. 
Total Darkness...

I'm like a pro caver by now. haha. 
I liked this cave. Had a large variety of things to look at. 

The path leads back into that black hole. 

The ceiling

Walkways, stairs and paths. It made it easier to get far into this cave. 

The colors in here are so cool. 

I wish I would have known that going a little bit farther down this way, I would have seen daylight! 
Next time I'll go all the way. I spent a lot of time in this cave. It is also one of my favorites. It's amazing how different all of the textures and colors are in each cave. 

The floor even had weird stuff on it.

I've seen all the caves I can around the Loop. I decided to head towards Petroglyph Point to see more rock art. Along the highway I stopped at the Overlook to see the entire park, lava beds and wildlife preserves. 

And yes, more lava!

What? Dirt road? There goes my clean, new car...

I traveled about 12 miles from the caves, 2 of which were down the dirt road to get to this trail. 

The trail heads to the top of the hill. It's now afternoon and hot. 

But great views of Mt. Shasta! 

And some of the farmlands that surround the edge of the park. 

But never did I ever seen even one Petroglyph.  :-(
I did however find some huge boulders that looked like faces...

And here I am. At the end of the trail...

Not going to see any Petroglyph's today...
I guess it's time to go home. I have spent WAY more time here in the Park then I ever imagined. I also  went into MANY more caves then I ever imagined I could. Of all the things I've done while I was on a quick adventure trip to Oregon, this was my favorite. Would definitely come back again. 
Plan on spending the whole day. 

I've got a 5.5 hour drive ahead of me, so time to get on the road.

I was terribly distracted while driving.
This huge beautiful mountain was staring at me while driving down I-5. I decided to stop at the Vista Point to get a good view and some pictures. 

Mount Shasta. As seen from the side of I-5.