Lava Beds National Monument

Man's activities in this rugged landscape have been nearly as violent as the natural forces that created it.For a million years the volcano has spewed forth lava, gases, and cinders, creating what seems to be aninhospitable landscape. Yet the youngest cinder cones -- 1,000 years old -- are covered by vegetation thatprovides food and shelter for wildlife. For centuries this area was home to the Modoc Indians, whohunted in the valleys and mountains, fished in the rivers and lakes, and used the tules (reeds) that grewaround the lake to make their homes, boats, and other items. Their way of life was changed forever by thearrival of settlers in the 1850s. After repeated confrontations and much bloodshed. the Bureau of IndianAffairs negotiated with all the Klamath bands in October 1864. The settlers were relieved, but thenegotiations were disastrous for the Modocs. They were asked to give up their homeland and to live on areservation with bands who were their traditional enemies. Finally, the Modocs agreed to try living on thereservation, but within a few months they began to leave. They returned to their old homes saying thatthey wanted a reservation for themselves on their ancestral land. Even more Modocs left the reservationin 1867.

By late 1872, the U.S. Army was ordered to return the Modocs, by force if necessary, to the reservation.On the morning of November 29, 1872, an Army patrol went out to bring in the Indians, but fightingbroke out. Initially victorious, the Modocs, under the leadership of Captain Jack, drove off the troops andsought safety in the lava beds, where for almost five months 52 warriors held off a growing army,eventually 20 times larger. An effort to end the war by negotiation ended in even more bloodshed. Bylate May almost all the Modocs had been captured, and on June 1, 1873, Captain Jack surrendered. OnOctober 3, 1873, he and three other Modoc leaders were hanged. The remaining members of Jacks bandwere sent to a reservation in Oklahoma.

A Natural Wealth
At first glance the land looks barren, covered by scrawny grasses and clumps of sagebrush. Closerexamination reveals much more. In north end of the monument, which is at the lowest elevation,grasslands dominate and few trees are to be seen. Further south, and higher, the vegetation graduallychanges as more and more junipers intrude on the grasslands. In the extreme southern reaches, thegrasslands disappear altogether, and the junipers give way to a pine forest.

All of this land is volcanic in origin and making soil that can support plant life takes a long time. Onceestablished, the vegetation provides shelter, food, and refuge for small animals who in turn are a source offood for predatory animals and birds of prey. In the northern grasslands, squirrels, kangaroo rats, yellow-bellied marmots, jackrabbits, California quail, meadowlarks, and the rare sage grouse can be found.during the winter, mule deer come from the other side of the volcano to feed in the monument, wheresnowfall is less and does not last as long.

An unusually large concentration of raptor birds dwells in the monument and throughout Klamath Basin.Several factors make this environment favorable. The area is home to many rodents -- rats, mice,squirrels -- for the birds to feed upon. The cliffs overlooking the Tule Lake also provide the kinds ofnesting areas that these birds require, for the cliffs are nearly inaccessible to nearly all predators andstrategically positioned so the birds can scan the countryside and take quick notice of any and allactivity.

Chief among the raptors is the bald eagle that winters here in numbers greater than any place outsideAlaska. Twenty-four species of hawks, falcons, owls and other birds of Prey can be seen on themonument. Since rodents are their chief form of food, the birds are an important check on what easilycould be an infestation with the attendant problems of disease and the devastation of crops in thesurrounding countryside.

The semiannual migration of birds along the Pacific Flyway is a truly spectacular occurrence in this area.Waterfowl nest on the lakes of the Klamath Basin, and in late spring the waters are covered withthousands of ducklings, goslings, and the offspring of other waterfowl. Despite the magnificence of thespring time numbers, however, the fall gathering is even more remarkable, for approximately 1 millionducks and half a million geese stop here to rest and feed on their way south, some birds coming from asfar as Siberia.

There are times when the sky is literally darkened by the arrival of a very large flock of birds, anincreasingly rare event in North America. The road from the northeast entrance of the monument isparallel to the common boundary of the Tule Lake Unit of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge.From vantage points along the road you can watch more than 20 species of ducks, plus many varieties ofgeese, grebes, pelicans, herons, cormorants, gulls, coots, terns, avocets, and other water birds.

A Hidden World
This area of northern California has a history of volcanism. The legacy of those times -- and it should notbe assumed that all volcanic activity is a thing of the past -- is all around. Cinder cones, shield volcanoes,strato-volcanoes, lava tubes, both Pahoehoe (smooth and ropy) and Aa (rough and cinder-like) lava,spatter cones, and chimneys are all a part of this legacy. Perhaps one of the most striking volcanicfeatures in Lava Beds is the phenomenon of lava tube caves.

Lava tubes are not particularly unusual in a volcanic area nor is their formation difficult to explain orunderstand. Nearly 200 caves have been counted within the monument making this formation anespecially prominent feature.

When lava pours from a volcano it is hot, about 1800 degrees F. The outer edges and surface of the flowcool rapidly, however, and begin to slow down and harden. This outside layer acts as insulating materialwhile the rest of the flow beneath it remains hot and fast moving. The flow continues on, somewhat like ariver that keeps on flowing even though the surface has frozen over. When the eruption stops and theriver of lava drains, a tunnel or tube -- the outer shell -- is left. Lava tubes can lie atop one another, theresult of subsequent flows. Many of the tubes here were formed about 30,000 years ago after an eruptionat Mammoth Crater on the southern boundary.

Sometimes portions of a tube's roof may collapse as it cools. These openings allow plants, animals, andprecipitation to enter and create a world of life within. A few of the tubes are ice caves; rain collects inthem and the air temperature remains constantly below freezing. Even when temperatures outside reach100 degrees F, lava is such a good insulator that the air remains below freezing and ice formations can befound year round.

Many of the caves were first explored and named by J.D. Howard, a local miller. The names he paintedon the walls are still visible in most of the caves. In many of the caves, trails have been laid out andladders installed to make access easy. Many of these caves lie off Cave Loop Road, southwest of thevisitor center. Mushpot Cave, an extension of the-visitor-center, is the only cave in which lights havebeen installed.

Visiting the Monument
Food, lodging, and auto services are available in Tulelake and Klamath Falls. Near the visitor center a43-unit campground for tents, pickup campers, and small trailers is open all year. There are no hookups.Water is available during the summer. From September 15 to May 15 water is available at the visitorcenter. The Fleener Chimneys and Captain Jacks Stronghold picnic areas have no water; open fires areprohibited.

The campground at Lava Beds is situated about 1/2 mile from the Visitor Center area. It consists of 43 sites, suitable for tents, pickup campers, or small trailers. Each site bas a picnic table, a fire ring, and a cooking grill. No showers, hookups, dump-station, store, gas, fast-food, or pop machine! Plenty of clean air, crystal-clear cold drinking water, and beautiful open space.

Reservations are not accepted because all sites are rarely filled. The busiest times are holidays and weekends, and those rare occasions when a large group is present. Of course it is best to arrive mid-week, early in the day.

Summer camping fee is $10.00 per night per site (plus a monument entrance fee of $4.00 per private vehicle, good for one week; or $2.00 per person for bicyclists and non-private groups). Water and flush toilets are available in the campground area. The summer season extends from mid-May to mid-September -- the actual dates may vary. During this time, ranger-guided activities are also available, including evening campfire programs.

Winter camping fee is $6.00 per night (the monument entrance fee is still charged). The water in the campground is turned off; a pit toilet is nearby. Water and flush toilets are available 24 hours a day at the Visitor Center restrooms.

Wood fires are permitted in the campground. Firewood is available in designated areas; ask for information at the Visitor Center.

Pets are permitted in the campground, but must be kept on a leash at all times. They are not permitted in caves, in the Visitor Center, or on any trails. This is for the safety of the wildlife, as well as for you and your pet. Check at the Visitor Center on the bulletin boards for other campground regulations.

In the summer rangers conduct walks, cave trips, and campfire programs. Check bulletin boards and thevisitor center for schedules. Elevations in the park range from 4,000 to 5,700 feet. Cold weather ispossible any time of the year, and snow has been recorded in nearly all months. Winter daytime highsaverage 40 degrees F; lows average 20 degrees F, and fog is frequent. Summer daytime highs average 75 to 80 degrees F; lows average 50 degrees F. Summer precipitation averages 1.25 inches per month.

Obtain the latest information on monument regulations and safety prior to beginning your exploration ofthe park.

1 Indian Well
Tulelake, CA 96134
(530) 667-8104

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 3 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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