Lava Beds National Monument

Lava Beds National Monument is located in northeastern California, in Siskiyou and Modoc counties. The monument lies on the northeastern flank of Medicine Lake Volcano and has the largest total area covered by a volcano in the Cascade Range.

Lava Beds National Monument
IUCN category V (protected landscape/seascape)
A cave entrance with volcanic rock above and shrubs below
A collapsed lava tube forms a cave entrance
Map showing the location of Lava Beds National Monument
Map showing the location of Lava Beds National Monument
Location in California
Map showing the location of Lava Beds National Monument
Map showing the location of Lava Beds National Monument
Location in the United States
LocationSiskiyou and Modoc counties, California, United States
Nearest cityTulelake, California
Coordinates41°42′50″N 121°30′30″W / 41.71389°N 121.50833°W / 41.71389; -121.50833Coordinates: 41°42′50″N 121°30′30″W / 41.71389°N 121.50833°W / 41.71389; -121.50833
Area46,692 acres (188.96 km2)[1]
EstablishedNovember 21, 1925 (1925-November-21)
Visitors135,286 (in 2017)[2]
Governing bodyNational Park Service
Lava Beds National Monument Archeological District
NRHP reference No.75002182[3]
Added to NRHP1991

The region in and around Lava Beds National Monument lies at the junction of the Sierra-Klamath, Cascade, and Great Basin physiographic provinces. The monument was established as a national monument on November 21, 1925, and includes more than 46,000 acres (190 km2).

Lava Beds National Monument has numerous lava tubes, with 27 having marked entrances and developed trails for public access and exploration. The monument also offers trails through the high Great Basin xeric shrubland desert landscape and the volcanic field. In 1872 and 1873, the area was the site of the Modoc War, involving a band led by Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack). The area of Captain Jack's Stronghold was named in his honor.

Geologic formationsEdit

Lava Beds National Monument is geologically significant because of its wide variety of volcanic formations, including lava tubes, fumaroles, cinder cones, spatter cones, pit craters, hornitos, maars, lava flows, and volcanic fields.

Volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have created a rugged landscape punctuated by these many landforms of volcanism.


Cinder cones are formed when magma is under great pressure. It is released in a fountain of lava, blown into the air from a central vent. The lava cools as it falls, forming cinders that pile up around the vent. When the pressure has been relieved, the rest of the lava flows from the base of the cone. Cinder cones are typically monogenetic.

The cinder cones of Hippo Butte, Three Sisters, Juniper Butte, and Crescent Butte are all older than the Mammoth and Modoc Crater flows, more than 30,000–40,000 years old. Eagle Nest Butte and Bearpaw Butte are 114,000 years old. Schonchin Butte cinder cone and the andesitic flow from its base were formed around 62,000 years ago. The flow that formed Valentine Cave erupted 10,850 years ago. An eruption that formed The Castles is younger than the Mammoth Crater flows. Even younger were eruptions from Fleener Chimneys, such as the Devil's Homestead flow, 10,500 years ago, and Black Crater 3,025 years ago. About 1,110 years ago, plus or minus 60 years, the Callahan flow was produced by an eruption from Cinder Butte. Though Cinder Butte is just outside the boundary of the monument, the Callahan flow is in Lava Beds and is the youngest flow in the monument.

Spatter cones are built out of thicker lava. The lava is thrown out of the vent and builds, layer by layer, a chimney surrounding the vent. Fleener Chimneys and Black Crater are examples of spatter cones.

Lava flowsEdit

Roughly ninety percent of the lava in the Lava Beds Monument is basaltic. There are primarily two kinds of basaltic lava flows: pahoehoe and ʻaʻā. Pahoehoe is smooth, often ropy and is the most common type of lava in Lava Beds. ʻAʻā is formed when pahoehoe cools and loses some of its gases. ʻAʻā is rough, sharp, and jagged; an excellent example is the Devil's Homestead lava flow, which originated at Fleener Chimneys. Most of the rest of the lava in the monument is andesitic. Pumice, a type of rhyolitic lava, also is found covering the monument; this rained down around 900 years ago during the eruption of Glass Mountain.

The flows from Mammoth and Modoc Craters comprise about two-thirds of the lava in the monument. Over 30 separate lava flows located in the park range in age from 2,000,000 years BP to 1,110 years BP. Some of the major lava flows within Lava Beds National Monument include the Callahan Flow; Schonchin Flow; Mammoth Crater Flow; Modoc Crater Flow; and Devil's Homestead Flow.

Lava fieldsEdit

Gillem Bluff, a fault scarp, was created as the region stretched and a block of earth dropped down along this fault (see Basin and Range Province). The tuff layer on top of Gillem Bluff is 2,000,000 years old, indicating the rock layers beneath are even older. The oldest lava flow from the Medicine Lake Volcano within the monument is the Basalt of Hovey Point, near Captain Jack's Stronghold, which is 450,000 years old. Petroglyph Point was created about 275,000 years ago when cinders erupted through the shallow water of Tule Lake; violent explosions of ash and steam formed layers upon layers of tuff.

The caldera is thought to have formed by subsidence, during which basalt and andesite were erupted up on the slopes.[4]

Lava tubesEdit

An illuminated lava tube
Lavacicles on the ceiling of Mushpot Cave

Lava flows dated to about 30,000–40,000 years ago formed most of the lava tubes in the monument. As the hot basaltic lava flowed downhill, the top cooled and crusted over, insulating the rest of the lava and forming lava tubes. Lavacicles on the ceiling of a lava tube were produced as the level of lava in the tube retreated and the viscous lava on the ceiling dripped as it cooled.

Dripstone was created when lava splashed on the inside walls of the tubes. The leaching of minerals from pumice gravel, soils, and overlying rock provides for deposition of secondary speleothems in lava tubes.

Lava Beds National Monument has the largest concentration of lava tubes in North America. One has electrical lighting; the others are illuminated by ceiling collapse portals or require flashlights, available on loan.

Recent activityEdit

A series of small earthquakes in late 1988 has been attributed to subsidence in the caldera. North-northeast trending ground cracks, as well as north-northeast trending vent series show relationships between tectonism and volcanism. One notable ground crack, the Big Crack, extends along the northeastern boundary of the monument.


The high elevation, semi-arid desert environment of Lava Beds National Monument receives an average of 14.8 in (376 mm) of annual precipitation, including 44 in (110 cm) of snowfall. The climate is characterized by warm, dry summers and cold, moderately snowy winters. The monthly daily average temperature ranges from 31.5 °F (−0.3 °C) in December to 68.0 °F (20.0 °C); there are 21 days with 90 °F (32 °C)+ highs annually, and 10 days where the high does not rise above freezing. The average window for freezing temperatures is September 23 thru June 7.

Climate data for Lava Beds National Monument (1981–2010 normals)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 62
Average high °F (°C) 41.9
Average low °F (°C) 22.9
Record low °F (°C) −13
Average precipitation inches (mm) 1.74
Average snowfall inches (cm) 9.8
Average precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in) 9.6 8.8 10.7 8.9 7.4 5.6 2.8 2.4 3.2 5.7 9.6 9.1 83.8
Average snowy days (≥ 0.1 in) 6.6 4.9 4.7 3.3 0.6 0.1 0 0 0 0.5 3.3 5.2 29.3
Source: NOAA (extremes 1948–present)[5]

Flora and faunaEdit


Yellow blazing star (Mentzelia laevicaulis)

The lava tube collapse systems and lava outcrops support a great diversity of plant life, from an impressive variety of lichens and mosses to plants such as desert sweet (Chamaebatiaria millefolium), the aromatic purple desert sage (Salvia dorrii carnosa) and yellow blazing star (Mentzelia laevicaulis). An impressive variety of fern species are present in cave entrances including the spreading wood fern (Dryopteris expansa) and the western swordfern (Polystichum munitum). These species are well outside of their normal range, which is 90–125 mi (145–201 km) west on the northern California coastline.


Despite harsh, semi-arid conditions, native wildlife has adapted to the environmental constraints present in the region. There are no terrestrial water resources in Lava Beds National Monument. Some animals obtain water from caves, while others fly about twenty km (12 miles) north to Tule Lake. Federal and state animal species of special concern in the Monument include the Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii), fringed myotis (Myotis thysanodes), long-eared myotis (Myotis evotis), long-legged myotis (Myotis volans), pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus), silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivigans), Townsends big-eared bat (Corynorhinus townsendii), western small-footed myotis (Myotis ciliolabrum), and American badger (Taxidea taxus).

Because of a lack of surface water, amphibian presence in the monument is limited. The most common species found in the monument is the Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regilla). This species is also found in the biologically rich cave entrances in the monument. Reptile species found in the monument include the northern sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus graciosus), Great Basin fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis biseriatus), western skink (Eumeces skiltonianus skiltonianus), Rocky Mountain rubber boa (Charina bottae utahensis), gopher snake (Pituophis melanoleucus), desert night snake (Hypsiglena torquata deserticola), and western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis).

Key animal species by habitat:


Archeological siteEdit

Lava Beds National Monument includes Petroglyph Point, one of the largest panels of Native American rock art in the United States. The region was historically occupied by the Modoc people. The Lava Beds National Monument Archeological District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 1991.[3]

Modoc WarEdit

During the Modoc War of 1872–1873, warriors of a band led by Kintpuash (Captain Jack) used the lava beds as a defensive stronghold to resist being captured and returned to the Klamath Reservation in Oregon, to which they had been removed, as European Americans wanted their lands. The Modoc took refuge in a natural lava fortress that was later named Captain Jack's Stronghold. From this defensive base, a group of 53 fighting men and their families held off US Army forces, amounting to ten times the Modocs' population, for five months.

In April 1873, at a peace commission meeting, Captain Jack killed General Edward Canby while associates killed Reverend Eleazer Smith and wounded two other commissioners. Canby was the only casualty of the Indian Wars who had the rank of general at the time of his death. The Modoc mistakenly thought the Americans would leave if their leaders were killed. Instead Army reinforcements were brought in and the Modoc were eventually forced to surrender. Kintpuash and his associates were convicted of war crimes for the murders, and executed by hanging at Fort Klamath.

Lava Beds WildernessEdit

A false-color satellite image of the park and surrounding area (click image to enlarge)

The Lava Beds National Wilderness is a 28,460-acre (11,520 ha) wilderness area within the Lava Beds National Monument. It was designated by the US Congress on October 13, 1972, with passage of Public Law 92-493.[6] The wilderness protects more than half of the national monument in two separate eastern and western units. The larger eastern unit contains the extensive Schonchin lava flow on the east side of the monument. The western unit covers the monument's area within the transition zone of the Cascade Range's montane southern end and the arid Modoc Plateau ecosystems.

The different soil types creates plant community diversity in the wilderness area, providing various habitats for a wide range of wildlife. The numerous coyotes and foxes, as well as raptors, feed on rodents such as the jackrabbit and kangaroo rat. The kangaroo rat is especially adapted to waterless environments because it does not need to drink.[7] It obtains water as a byproduct of the oxidation of nutrients in the seeds it eats.[7]

Many raptors are seen in the wilderness area, with 24 species of hawks identified.[8] The monument is located on the Pacific Flyway, and the bald eagle winters in the northern portion of the wilderness area.

The National Park Service manages the Lava Beds wilderness area and has several restrictions in place. Camping is prohibited near cave entrances or trails. Open campfires may be prohibited during very hot and dry weather.

Lava Beds trailsEdit

The Lava Beds National Monument has 13 hiking trails, all of which cross or enter the backcountry.[9] The most popular trails are short, but lead to a number of historic sites as to several geological areas within the Lava Beds Wilderness. The long trails are mostly in designated wilderness areas.

These trails are primarily associated with park attractions, especially the Lava Beds geological wilderness, and are sometimes out-and-back day hikes, and in many cases are improved boardwalks and supported with interpretive signs and exhibits.

Trail name (arranged by distance from Visitor Center) Description Trailhead(s) Length
Short trails
Bunchgrass Trail Follows the northeast side of Crescent Butte Starts across from Site B-7 in the campground. 1 mi (1.6 km)
Missing Link Trail Links the Three Sisters Trail to the Bunchgrass Trail, creating a 10 mi (16 km) loop. Begins on the Bunchgrass Trail, about 0.5 mi (0.80 km) from campground B-Loop. 0.7 mi (1.1 km)
Heppe Ice Cave Leads into Heppe Cave. Located on the road to Mammoth Crater, 2.2 mi (3.5 km) from the main park road. 0.4 mi (0.64 km)
Big Nasty Trail Named after a rough lava area covered by brush, described as "big and nasty". Starts on Mammoth Crater rim, on the Hidden Valley pullout. 1 mi (1.6 km)
Schonchin Butte Trail Steep trail, has a 500-foot elevation gain and leads to the lookout building Located on Schonchin Butte 0.9 mi (1.4 km)
Symbol Bridge Trail Winds past interesting lava tube structures and other geological features On the first parking area of Skull Cave road, across from the Missing Link Trail Windy 0.75 mi (1.21 km)
Black Crater and Thomas-Wright Battlefield Trail Combines volcanism and history. Within season leads around good views of wildflower displays Within the Thomas-Wright Battlefield memorial 0.3 mi (0.48 km) to the Crater, then 1.2 mi (1.9 km)
Gillem Bluff Climbs to the top of Gillem Bluff for a view of Gillem's Camp. Has a 550-foot elevation gain. Gillem Bluff 0.7 mi (1.1 km)
Captain Jack's Stronghold Trail A rough terrain loop trail with two self-guided interpretive areas through the heart of the Modoc War historical battlefield. Captain Jack's Stronghold 41°49′18″N 121°30′18″W / 41.82167°N 121.50500°W / 41.82167; -121.50500 (Captain Jack's Stronghold Trail) Inner loop: .6 mi (0.97 km). Outer loop: 1.1 mi (1.8 km)
Petroglyph Point Trail Impressive view of the basin and the Medicine Lake Volcano. Northeast side of Petroglyph Point about .3 mi (0.48 km) beyond the bulletin board. 1.6 mi (2.6 km)
Long trails
Three Sisters Trail Loops out into the wilderness and returns to Skull Cave Road. Trailhead at the campground from A-Loop 8.8 mi (14.2 km)
Lyons Trail Crosses the wilderness area on a north–south axis between Skull Cave parking area and Hospital Rock on the North Boundary Road. Skull Cave parkinglot 9.8 mi (15.8 km)
Whitney Butte Trail Crosses the wilderness in an east–west direction around Whitney Butte. Has best view of Mount Shasta and Callahan lava flow Trailhead at the Merrill Cave parking area. 3.3 mi (5.3 km)

Monument expansionEdit

The only expansion in the modern era occurred in 2011 when the monument expanded by roughly 132 acres. An administrative transfer brought two parcels of land which were previously managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management into National Park Service management. These two parcels adjoin the Petroglyph Point Unit of the monument.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Listing of acreage – December 31, 2011" (XLSX). Land Resource Division, National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-03-23. (National Park Service Acreage Reports)
  2. ^ "NPS Annual Recreation Visits Report". National Park Service. Retrieved 2018-03-29.
  3. ^ a b "National Register Information System – (#75002182)". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  4. ^ Decker, Robert; Decker, Barbara (2001). Volcanoes In America's National Parks. New York: WW Norton & Company Inc. p. 160. ISBN 962-217-677-1.
  5. ^ "NowData – NOAA Online Weather Data". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved 2013-07-01.
  6. ^ Public Law 92-493
  7. ^ a b Schrod, J. California Deserts, Falcon Press, 1988 p. 45
  8. ^ Adkinson, Ron Wild Northern California The Globe Pequot Press, 2001 p.220 ISBN 1-56044-781-8
  9. ^ National Park Service. Lava Beds Trails

External linksEdit