Lava Beds Caves

Lava Beds National Monument

Useful Information

Location: Lava Beds National Monument, California.
72 km south of Klamath Falls, Oregon. Hwy 139, from north turn west 6,5 km south Tulelake. From south turn west 43 km north of Canby.
(41.713445, -121.506891)
Open: Lava Beds National Monument is always open to visitors.
Visitor center: winter daily 8-17, summer daily 8-18. closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Fern Cave: MAY to OCT Sat 14, reservations required!
Fee: 7 day vehicle pass $4, bicycles $2, campground $6 per night.
Classification: Speleologylava tube
Light: none, bring torch
Guided tours: self guided
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: (nY): Lava Beds Caves, an excellent booklet you can purchase from the visitor's center at Lava Beds HQ (~$8)
Christopher Tomlin (2001): Tubin' at 5000 Feet, Chelsea Spelaeological Society Newsletter Vol 43 No 12 Dec 2001 pp 99-101
Charlie and Jo Larsen (1990): Lava Beds, ABC Publishing, Vancouver, Washington, 1990 price $5.00
Address: Superintendent, Lava Beds National Monument, Box 867, Tulelake, CA 96134, Tel: +1-916-667-2282
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.


mid 1930s Fern Cave explored by archaeologists.
late 1930s Fern cave vandalized and closed.


Lava Beds National Monument covers a geographic area that is pock-marked with cinder cones and covered with lava flows. The central volcano is called Medicine Lake Volcano, the largest mountain in the Cascade Range. The monument covers more than 500 lava tubes.

Mushpot Cave is located beneath Indian Well Visitor Center, at the southern end of the Monument. This tube is lighted during business hours of the visitors center and contains exhibits about lava tube geology. All other tubes are in a more or less natural state.

The National Park has done a superb job in organising the Lava Beds for tourists. They have produced several free leaflets and there is an excellent guide book. This gives locations details, surveys and descriptions of the major caves that are open to the public. Furthermore, they will lend you one torch per person for free, you just have to show your driver's license. However, you have to return the torches by 16.30 hours or they will come looking for you!

There are about 400 known caves in the Monument, many of which do not appear on the Park maps given to the public. This is because the restricted caves contain fragile ice, bats or even ancient pictographs. Trips can be booked, but this must be done well in advance.

The caves open to the public contain extra-heavy steel stairways to take account of overweight visitors. A large number of caves are on the Cave Loop. This Loop is a road built over the lava field, so you can drive from entrance to entrance. Many of the caves on the Loop consist of the same lava tube that has been truncated by internal plugs or by external collapses.

Lava Beds Monument is so dry that you get dehydrated just by breathing. So carry plenty of drinking water. The lava tubes are very hot, so lightweight clothing is advised. If you wish to go crawling, and there is plenty of opportunity, knee pads are a must, likewise heavy gloves. One really powerful lamp per party is useful as the tubes tend to be big and the dark rock does not reflect the light.

Skull Cave

A simple cave consisting of one massive, 18 metre diametre tube, 60 meters long with a boulder floor. At the end, a stairway descends 15 meters past an impressive rock arch, and it is like walking into a freezer as there is a thick bed of ice at the bottom.

Golden Dome Cave

This is entered via a stairway in a chimney. The Golden Dome itself is covered with fungus which is covered with water droplets and glows with a golden hue when a light is shone on it. A down-tube leads to a series of walking size tubes. An up-tube, going against a refreshing draught leads to some crawlways and a shaky, un-marked exit in loose blocks, very close to:

Hopkins Chocolate Cave

Named originally after the mud in the entrance series, but this is long gone and this area is very dry. Some passage are quite low and roots appear in places with massive cracks everywhere. In other places, melted parts of the ceiling have pealed off leaving behind bubbly craters looking exactly like Aero chocolate.

Upper To Lower Sentinel Cave

A through trip in a tunnel like passage 3 m wide and 6 m high which extends for 200 m. There are plenty of side passages. Some of the side passages are gated.

Valentines Cave

The double entrance is very impressive with neat natural benches running along the walls. The first 200 m consist of a 10 m+ lava tube. Named after the Ranger who discovered the cave on Valentine's Day when the surface temperature was -23 °C and the cave was emitting a large column of water vapour.

Catacomb Cave

The longest cave in the Monument at just over 1.6 km. Named after its resemblance to the catacombs in Rome - there are a lot of dead end alcoves. Knee pads are essential. Near the entrance, the cave forms a 3D maze on 3 levels. Further in, the cave narrows to two parallel tubes which goes for several hundred meters before pinching out. Near the end there is a connecting passage for the masochists.

Text by Tony Oldham (2002). With kind permission.
This contribution is based on Tubin' at 5000 Feet by Christopher Tomlin, Chelsea Spelaeological Society Newsletter.

Fern Cave

Fern Cave is one of the smallest caves at Lava beds, but probably the most interesting and least accessible one too. It is closed to the public except for one tour every Saturday. It is mandatory to make an reservation for a ranger guided tour, and the number of visitors is restricted to six per tour. The group rides to the cave on a dirt track for several kilometers, the road and the cave are gated since the 1930s, due to some vandalizm. Even the the indigneous Modoc who once used this cave and their ancestors who still do, are esteemed by a ritual cleanse with the smoke of burning sage before entering the cave.

A metall ladder leads down about three meters into the cave. In the area directly below the entrance ferns grow because of the humidity of the cave, which gave the cave its name. The cave was discovered and named by J.D. Howard, a pioneer who explored most of the Lava Beds in the early 20th century. Right beneath the ladder are two panels with pictigrams, one shows about five pictures and is 1.50 m wide, the other is 3 m wide and shows 10 pictures. The meaning of the symbols is unknown, but there is a theory, that some symbols looking like a supernova and a crescent moon depict an astronomical event reported around the world in 1054. archaeological excavations revealed stone tools, charcoal, obsidian, basket fragments and glass beads in the cave sediments. A stone pestle and mortar, probably used for grinding paint pigments, is visible until today.