Lava Beds National Monument is located in a remote part of the Golden State, just south of the California-Oregon border. Since getting there requires traveling on windy roads (an hour south of Klamath Falls, Oregon or 1.5-2 hours from Weed, California) visitors usually have a specific purpose in mind before making the journey—spelunking. The park contains the highest concentration of lava tube caves in North America—435—of which, about two dozen are open to the public. For the most part, exploration of the caves is self-guided, so if you’ve got a sense of adventure and want to see ancient painted pictographs and carved petroglyphs up close, then visiting Lava Beds National Monument is worth the journey!
Spelunking is the recreational sport of exploring caves for fun. Spelunkers do not collect scientific data. Spelunkers do not venture very far or deep into a cave. Once a spelunker gains some experience and training, then they become known as a “caver.” And once a caver has advanced cave exploration skills, studies the science of caves and publishes articles, they become a “speleologist.” Most visitors to Lava Beds National Monument are spelunkers.
If you’re completely new to exploring caves, start with Mushpot Cave where no exertion is required. Its lighted walkway, high ceiling, and interpretive signs make it an easy first experience. To see the historic Native American pictographs inside Big Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge, though, you’ll need to hike a bit and climb over boulders. Stop by the Visitor Center first to pick up a map and get information about the difficulty levels of all the lava tube caves in the park. If you choose to visit more challenging caves, you will need a bump hat to protect against sharp lava, kneepads for crawling, flashlights, and extra batteries.
Because of weathering, it’s hard to determine the exact age of the pictographs created by Modoc Indians inside Big Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge; they are estimated to be about 1,500 years old. Both caves are shallow and the majority of the glyphs are close to the entrance, so you won’t need a flashlight here. Most of the rock art is painted in black, produced from a charcoal base mixed with animal fat, and white, made with a clay base. Occasionally you’ll see red markings. Unlike glyphs in Nevada and other areas of the West, rock imagery here seems to be dominated by geometric patterns instead of depictions of people and animals.
To see a massive panel of carved petroglyphs out in the open, drive across the park to Petroglyph Point. Many of those images are 5,000-6,000 years old! Since Petroglyph Point was formerly an island, the ancient artists would have paddled out in canoes, sharp sticks or stones in hand, to leave their marks on the volcanic rock. You can tell from the height of the images that the water level rose and fell over the centuries. There’s no water now, and with over 5,000 individual carvings all in one place, this site is one of the most extensive representations of American Indian rock art in California.
1 Indian Well Hqtrs.
Tulelake, CA 96134
Summer Visitor Center Hours: 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Fee: $10.00 per vehicle (pay with cash; not able to accept debit or credit cards)
Campsite Fee: $10.00. There is one campground in the monument that can accommodate small to medium-sized RVs. The campground has water spigots, bathrooms, and an amphitheater for summer ranger programs.
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com