By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: A place rich in history, geology

When I tell friends that Lava Beds National Monument is one of my favorite places to visit, they sometimes look at me in disbelief and say, “Why on earth would you enjoy going there?”

True, it does not have the gorgeous scenery of Hawaii. Rather, it is a wild, untamed, surreal terrain that looks as if it could be the devil’s handwork. And yet, this is one of the longest continuously occupied areas in North America — because its people revered that rugged land. The cultural and historical legacy of the lava beds goes back thousands of years.

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You perhaps do not know of this monument. It is in a remote northeastern corner of California on the Oregon border.

Here you will find early Native American rock art and archeological sites. Here is the home of the Modoc and the Klamath people. Here is the heritage of homesteaders, sheep ranchers, cave explorers.

This was also the home of entrepreneurs, including one who moonshined using a remote cave as the site of his operation. Another operated an underground ice-skating rink.

According to Wikipedia, the monument is the largest concentration of lava in North America. And with its resulting caves and lava tubes, this family-friendly site becomes a mini theme park with its spelunking opportunities, and entertainment for hikers, geologists, archeologists.

Here is Petroglyph Point — one of the largest panels of Native American rock art in the United States. The Lava Beds Archeological District was listed March 1991 on the National Register of Historic places.

Lava flows in this area seem about as common as rain in Oregon. Flows from Medicine Lake region account for many of these lava creations, with some dating back 10,000 years.


If you plan to visit, check the internet for information on services, possible fires or other closures, and hours.

No gas was available when we last visited there, and food was sold only at the visitor’s center. Pets were not permitted on the hiking trails or elsewhere in the monument.

Road conditions during winter months can be a problem. Bring some warm clothing because caves can be considerably cooler than temperature at ground level. Some have ice year-round. These caves and lava tubes will probably be the biggest draw for most visitors.

The lava left far more than caves and tubes. You’ll also see fumaroles, cinder cones, spatter cones, pit craters.

The lava flows are estimated to have occurred some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.

One cave has electric lights and others have illuminated ceiling panels. Be advised that 25 of the tubes have narrow entrances and you’ll have to crawl through parts of some caves. Gloves and knee pads can be helpful in some. It’s also suggested that it’s a good idea to take along compass and map.

As of a recent count, the monument has 700 caves, and miles and miles of lava tubes and tunnels. One wonders what constitutes a cave — how big must it be to receive that designation?

The monument also has some 15 species of bats, and they hope to keep all those species. At one time, they were screening and still may be doing so, in an effort to prevent an epidemic of white nose syndrome.

If you have boots, clothing or gear that you have worn in barns or any structures in which bats have roosted, those items should be left at home.


When you get to the Monument you can get information not only at the visitor’s center, but considerable from the friendly rangers. They are enthusiastic about helping anyone experience a crawl through a cave. And they can help you choose one that is appropriate to your experience level.

All of the caves are rated as to their challenging degree. Mush Pot is one of lesser difficulty, but if you are an experienced spelunker, you’ll probably head for the most difficult, such as Labyrinth, Hopkins Chocolate or Catacombs. One of the caves has Headache Rock, and you’ll perhaps be cautioned to duck or watch for it. Despite its publicity, the number of headaches it has caused is hard to estimate.

One particularly interesting cave is Golden Dome, which has a beautiful golden sheen ceiling that is said to be due to hydrophobic bacteria growth.

You also may see other unexpected things in these caves, such as cave crickets, rubber boas, millipedes — and bats. Some have hanging plants. Be warned that crawling through some of the caves is a tight squeeze.

Despite the area’s semi-arid conditions, it has considerable plant and animal life. Numerous lichen and mosses grow in the caves. You may detect the aromatic scent of purple sage.

The monument has no territorial water resources. Some of the animals obtain their supply from caves. Birds fly to Tule Lake, 12 miles north. Here in the monument are mule deer, gopher snakes, prairie falcons, coyote (that will sing to you come nightfall), western meadowlark, Anderson’s larkspur, kangaroo rats, yellow-bellied marmots. On the ponderosa–juniper bush land, you may see pronghorn, bobcat, jackrabbits. In the forested region you might see a mountain lion, bald eagle, golden mantled squirrel, and western rattlesnakes.


For those who prefer hiking on some of these trails, are battle sites from the 1870s war between the Modoc people and the U.S. Army. Explanatory information along the trails brings the history to life.

The lava stronghold was an excellent fortification especially because the Modoc knew of virtually every lava tube and cave in the lava beds.

As more settlers flocked to this home of the Modoc, the U.S. government attempted unsuccessfully to move them out of their homeland. For several months a small force of Modocs resisted the attacks on the stronghold.

One heroic figure of the war was Winema, a Modoc woman who married a white settler, Frank Riddle, with whom she had a son, Jeff. Winema and her husband served as interpreters for the Modoc and the army.

A peace commission had been scheduled, and Winema learned that the Modoc were planning an attack on during the session. She went to the peace commissioners with the information, but they did not believe her.

When the commission met, Captain Jack and two Modoc cohorts shot General Canby and Rev. E. Thomas. Winema saved the life of severely wounded Alfred Meacham with quick thinking: She shouted, “The soldiers are coming,” and the Modoc fled.

Meacham dedicated a book to Winema Riddle and was full of praise for her efforts for peace. He helped to win for her a military pension of $25 a month, which she received until her death in 1920 of influenza.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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