Tunnel visions in a California desert park

Snow-capped Mount Shasta, California’s fifth-highest peak, dominates the view along Interstate 5 near the Oregon border.
Snow-capped Mount Shasta, California’s fifth-highest peak, dominates the view along Interstate 5 near the Oregon border. The Washington Post

At Lava Beds National Monument, the floors come in three textures: ropy, cauliflower and clinker. They lurk in a bizarre network of caves with such names as Mushpot and Hercules Leg, created by ancient volcanoes.

It’s a long drive past scorched earth and sagebrush to the Lava Beds visitors center, and it wasn’t until my family and I entered its buzzy warmth that we realized what we were in for in this remote corner of northeast California. Flashlights, helmets and knee pads lined the front counter, and free maps listing the caves open to the public categorized them using “must duck,” “must duck-walk” and “must crawl.” These were not your familiar stalactite-dripping limestone caverns: These were carved by flows of lava that erupted from the nearby Medicine Lake volcano intermittently over the past 500,000 years.

For my two young sons, Jack and Theo, spelunking at Lava Beds — “Should we visit the cave with the ice floor first, or the one with the lavacicles?” — was an otherworldly highlight of a road trip that showcased a part of their home state they knew almost nothing about.

Skipping the popular coastal journey up Route 1, my husband, John, and I opted instead to drive Interstate 5 north of Sacramento last spring to explore this other part of California. We found ourselves in a geologically diverse universe marked by volcanoes, vast wildlife preserves and the largest of the internment camps in the American West that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. It was colder and darker than what we were used to in Los Angeles, and a reminder that California is a big, complicated state (complete with a 40-year secession campaign, still going strong, to carve off part of the north and put it in a 51st state, Jefferson).

Lava Beds, on more than 47,000 acres near the Oregon border, is perhaps the state’s biggest unsung National Park Service site. Last year, the monument drew about 140,000 visitors, said Patrick Tyler, the chief of visitor services. (Yosemite National Park gets an annual average of 4 million.) But Lava Beds is a popular pit stop for travelers shuttling between Lassen Volcanic National Park and Crater Lake, about 90 miles to the north, and it often draws return visitors, Tyler said.

“In the continental U.S., this area has the highest concentration of lava tube caves,” he noted. The caves were formed when outer layers of flowing lava began to cool and create a kind of shell, while the molten lava beneath kept moving. When the volcanic eruption stopped, the river of lava would drain, leaving behind long tubular spaces, with their distinctive ropy (smooth), cauliflower (bumpy) or clinker (jagged and broken) interior surfaces.

So far, 800 caves have been discovered at Lava Beds, with about 200 deemed safe for exploration. The longest and most challenging, Catacombs, extends 1.3 miles, and has a ceiling that rarely exceeds 3 feet.

Decisions, decisions

After poring over a map, we headed for the loop behind the visitor center, which is lined with 11 caves of varying difficulty. Like most newbies, we started at Mushpot cave, which has a lighted, smooth trail and interpretive signs. After a few more easy caves that involved minimal stooping, we were ready to tackle Golden Dome, a half-mile lava tube accessible only by ladder with an entrance that rangers accurately call “headache rock.” We waddled, flashlights in hand, in semi-darkness to the sparkly ceiling that gave the cave its name; Jack said it reminded him of Harry Potter making his way along the uneven underground passage to the village of Hogsmeade.

We learned later that the gold shimmer is caused by water droplets that bead up on harmless bacteria that coat the upper surfaces of the cave.

The boys would have been happy to visit dozens more lava tubes, but we dragged them away from the Cave Loop to explore other highlights of the park, including a wall of heavily weathered rock petroglyphs believed to come from the Modoc Indian tribe, who lived in the area until conflict with white settlers drove them to resettle in Oklahoma.

Lava Beds is also the site of the Modoc War of 1872-1873, one of the last Indian battles in the continental United States and the only one in which a U.S. general was killed. Today, visitors can stomp around the fortress of craters and boulders marking Captain Jack’s Stronghold, where the Indian chief known as Captain Jack and 50 of his tribesmen held off the U.S. Army for more than five months before surrendering.

Internment camp

Not far from this natural fortress is the Tule Lake Unit of World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, one of 10 “war relocation centers.” Little is left of the facility, whose prisoners included TV actors George Takei of “Star Trek” and Pat Morita of “Happy Days” and their families. Surrounded by a foreboding landscape that made escape impossible, it became a high-security segregation center in 1943 for the “no-no’s"” — those Japanese Americans who answered no or refused to answer two key questions on a U.S. government loyalty questionnaire. At its peak, the center held 18,800 internees; it closed in March 1946.

There’s a small year-round museum with historical exhibits at the Tulelake-Butte County Fairgrounds, and the National Park Service leads caravan tours from here in summer out to the internment camp, about 5 miles away. (Private tours can also be arranged in advance.) It includes what’s left of the complex: warehouses, a paint shop, and a concrete jail building with six cells that held up to 100 prisoners at a time. Conditions during the war were dismal, with temperatures hitting triple digits in summer and below freezing in winter, noted Kenneth Doutt, a park ranger at the monument.

“Big dust storms would come in from the High Sierras, and dust would blow up in the cracks of the floorboards of the rooms people were held in,” he said. “It permeated every aspect of their lives, getting in their clothing, their bedsheets, their belongings.”

We didn’t experience any dust storms in early April, but we got a sense of the bone-chilling wind and desolation on our brief tour through town. Boarded-up storefronts line the pedestrian-free main street, while a lone bed-and-breakfast, Fe’s, caters to birders and other travelers with homey folksiness.

The landscape at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles west, was a little more scenic and kid-friendly. Designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 as the nation’s first waterfowl refuge, it’s set on a 47,000-acre spread of wetlands and grassy meadows that attracts an estimated 80 percent of birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway each year, including bald eagles.

We followed the 10-mile auto tour around Lower Klamath Lake and walked down planked paths to photo blinds, watching from a distance as egrets, pelicans and countless small birds nosed around the lake’s perimeter. Though the refuge is struggling with drought-induced issues just like every other habitat in the state, there was something about the frolicking birds and open bodies of shimmering water that nourished our water-deprived Southern California souls.

Shasta looms

On the way back down I-5, we were treated to dazzling views of Mount Shasta, which was blindingly white after an unexpected April snowstorm. A long drive back to Los Angeles lay ahead of us, but we broke it up with an overnight stop in Redding, a commercial thoroughfare packed with food and lodging options.

It was a striking contrast to sleepy Tulelake, and it provided one more experience that’s hard to find at home: a good local meal. We found Kent’s Meats, an old-fashioned grocer and butcher with a sandwich counter, on the outskirts of town, passing signs for homemade beef jerky and the occasional “Welcome to Jefferson, the 51st State.”

When we pulled up, the parking-lot barbecue that Kent’s puts on every Friday was in full swing. Jack and I joined the throngs of people lined up for hefty, horseradish-smeared tri-tip sandwiches, while John and Theo browsed the huge selection of house-smoked bacon and ham. Off in the distance, Mount Shasta’s white peak glistened, and just beyond it, an extraordinary swath of California that we wouldn’t soon forget.

Randall is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

If you go

Where to stay

Winema Lodge: 5215 Hill Road, Tulelake, 530-667-5158,

Five lodge rooms and 10 motel rooms seven miles from the entrance to Lava Beds. Rooms from $70, with breakfast.

Fe’s Bed-and-Breakfast: 660 Main St., Tulelake, 877-478-0184, Simple rooms and hosts with a knowledge of the local area and history. Double rooms from $80.

Where to eat

Klamath Falls, Ore., about 30 miles north of Tulelake, has a variety of dining options.

Wubba’s BBQ Shack: 3930 S. Sixth St., Klamath Falls, 541-273-4227, Excellent Kansas City-style barbecue. Entrees from $12.

El Palacio: 601 Main St., Klamath Falls, 541-882-5118, Classic Mexican fare in a historic bank building. Platters from $10.

Kent’s Meats: 880 Airport Road, Redding, 530-365-4322, Friday parking lot barbecue starts at 9 a.m. and goes until 7:30 p.m. A deli window also serves made-to-order tri-tip sandwiches for $8 until 4 p.m.

What to do

Lava Beds National Monument: 1 Indian Well, Tulelake, 530-667-8100, Native American petroglyphs, historic battlefield sites and more than 800 lava-tube caves, 200 of which are open to the public year-round. Check with the visitors center for weather- or habitat-related closures. Ranger-led cave tours run daily in summer. $15 per car.

Tule Lake Unit of World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument: Tulelake Fairgrounds Museum, 800 Main St., Tulelake, 530-260-0537, The largest of 10 internment camps in the American West that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II. Ranger-led caravan tours run daily in summer from the museum. They can also be arranged year-round through Lava Beds National Monument.

Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge: Dorris, 530-667-2231, Activities include wildlife observation, photography and a 10-mile auto tour past wetlands, grasslands and bird blinds. Maps and other information available at the visitor center of the Tule Lake Wildlife Refuge (4009 Hill Road, Tulelake).


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