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Lava Beds National Monument is a Geologically and Historically Fascinating Place


View from Captain Jack's Stronghold. That's Medicine Lake Volcano in the background. Photo by Daniel Mayer via Wikipedia.

Northern California’s
Lava Beds National Monument, which celebrates its 83rd birthday November 21, is a strange looking place bursting with fascinating stories. As if the largest collection of lava tubes and caves in the coterminous states weren’t enough to make this park very special, it’s also the place where Captain Jack and his warrior band held off an attacking force ten times its size during the Modoc War of the early 1870s.

Lava Beds protects and interprets the largest collection of lava tubes and caves in the coterminous states. Remnants of California's volcanic past, the lava flows are a result of the Medicine Lake shield volcano, part of the same chain that includes Mount St. Helens, Mount Shasta, and other famous Cascades peaks. The lava tubes and caverns were literally born of fire, for as the volcano would erupt (most recently as 1,000) years ago, the lava would ooze and swirl down the mountainside. The outmost layer of lava then cooled, while underneath, molten lava still slid downhill, creating a void under the crusty exterior. Cracks, craters, tubes, cones, and bluffs all work together to make the Lava Beds area a rugged, crinkled landscape.

These volcanic features, while interesting and significant enough alone, aren't the only reason while Lava Beds is a National Park Service site. Petroglyphs, rock art, and other archaeological artifacts approximately 10,000 years old are scattered throughout the park. Native American history, especially that of the Modoc people, permeates the landscape.

The Modocs are perhaps best remembered for the Modoc War, a conflict that began in the fall of 1872 and lasted into early summer 1873. As with most conflicts of the Indian Wars, the American government made promises to First Peoples, assuring them they could stay in their ancestral lands, and then broke those promises. The Modoc War, described in an online book, was primarily a guerrilla conflict at first as the Indians sought to stop the settlers from encroaching on their land. Then Captain Jack, a local Modoc leader, and about 170 others holed up in the Lava Beds area. This fortification, from which they managed to hold off up to ten times as many United States Army soldiers, is now an area in the northern reaches of the park that is named – appropriately enough - Captain Jack's Stronghold. The Modocs were eventually forced out of the Stronghold, having been cut off from their water and betrayed by a Modoc leader named Hooker Jim.

Native Americans weren't the only ones to have left their mark on this land. Settlers, CCC crews, and even a nearby World War II internment camp (the largest Japanese internment camp in America) have all left their mark on this sometimes aesthetically and culturally tortured landscape. Indeed, as the National Park Service points out in a leaflet referencing the Modocs in particular, “many still refuse to return to an area with such terrible memories.”

Fortunately for people today, Lava Beds is a place where you can forge your own (hopefully happy) ties to your family and to the land. It's a place where rangers lead guided tours of caves throughout the year, and most caves are open to self-guided forays into the depths. This winter, visitors are encouraged to take part in the weekly Crystal Ice Cave trip, which will bring you into a breathtaking world where ice and lava create an unforgettable landscape. With a maximum of six participants each week, visitors should make reservations by contacting the park visitor center, and are assured of plenty personal attention. Aboveground, hiking trails, a campground, the visitor center, and an automobile tour route through the park provide plenty of options.

The park is currently rewriting its general management plan. Park officials say that the draft GMP should be published by late summer or early fall of next year. The preferred alternative is expected to include a managerial mix of resource protection and a renewed emphasis on science and education. There are no plans at this time to expand the wilderness area. The park hopes to continue receiving Centennial Initiative money to hire additional maintenance and interpretive staff for the Summer 2009 season.


Fantastic scenery, but read up on the Modoc War before you go so you can really enjoy your visit. Once again wear good hiking shoes or boots. I like leather with ankle support. Been 20 years since I was there and they may not let you venture everywhere anymore. Well worth a visit, but once again, know your history to make sure you know your history to make it more interesting.

Thanks for that suggestion, Bill. Learning about a park's history before visiting it is a practice we heartily endorse here at Traveler.

Bill,  the Park Service still lets folks wander whever they want with a few exceptions.   Fern Cave is closed except for guided tours.  Portions of the ice caves are closed to protect the ice. Sometimes burned areas are closed to foot traffic to allow the vegetation to recover.  

The Modoc War book mentioned in the article has been moved.  Took awhile, but I found it at:

For more on this great National Monument (people around here tell me it's more interesting than Crater Lake NP) see:

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