Pick up your copy of Fugitive Alert at any convenience store and then go hide in over 600 lava tube caves in what is also known as known as the land of burnt out fires.
Located in the remote northeastern part of California, Lava Beds National Monument has the highest known concentration of caves in North America. Along the way, you’ll notice a vast stretch of black rocks that date back 30,000 years to when Mammoth Crater erupted and sent lava downhill for over 10 miles.
A Brief Natural History Of Lava Tubes
As hot lava flowed across this region, a roof formed that began to cool and insulate the liquid underneath. This lava then drained out like a river and left a vast network of tubes.
As the cave roofs collapsed over millennia, plants and animals entered to create life within. Rattlesnakes, mountain lions, 14 species of bats, and rodents carrying bubonic plague inhabited the caves. (Don’t worry, you can take care of bubonic plauge with a simple course of antibiotics. The bats, however, won’t recover so easily if you’re carrying disease into their habitats.)
A Journey Through The Human History of Lava Caves
The human history dates back perhaps as far as 11,000 years. The Modoc Indians became the descendants of these paleo-ancient peoples when they visited these parts during the summer to hunt game and fish in Tule Lake. Skull Cave is where the Modocs left behind hundreds of animal bones.
The Modoc didn’t live in these caves. Instead, they used them for religious ceremonies and vision quests. They left behind pictographs, but we don’t know how old they are or even the significance of the images. We do know that the Modocs used white clay, black charcoal and red ochre as paint.
At the Big Painted Cave, very little is left. Visitors can see washed out stones, giving the impression that this cavern was once splashed with impressive colors.
A little further down the trail, Symbol Bridge has more discernible pictographs.
Not far away, there is an island where, the Modocs believed, Kamookampts or the creator of the world, came to sleep. Today, rangers call it Petroglyph Point.
At one time, the rock was surrounded by the waters of Tule Lake and the Modocs paddled over on canoe. From their boats, they used incising and rough pecking to create about 500 geometric patterns on the soft rock. Scientists used wave cut analysis to date these petroglyphs back about 4,500 to 2,500 years. Due to graffiti (you can still see some from the 1940’s and 1950’s), the petroglyphs are now preserved behind barbwire.
Also many species of raptors nest at the top of the rock, including falcons, hawks, owls, and swallow chicks.
A Brief History Of The Modoc War
In the early 1800’s, European trading parties reached this Modoc land. The Applegate brothers created a southern route of the Oregon Trail and a flood of wagon trains came… with their new diseases. By the late 1860’s, many Anglos stayed, settling on ranches.
But the Modoc and Anglos couldn’t get along. The settlers introduced the idea of private, year-round land ownership and permanent agriculture. These ideas were foreign to the Modoc who used different areas of land season by season.
The Anglos saw the Modocs as people who persistently raided their land. They had the U.S. Government on their side and when they asked that the Modocs be resettled, the government carted them off to live with the Klamath tribe up North.
But a group of Modocs, led by Kientpoos, also known as Captain Jack, returned to their home by Tule Lake. They demanded a reservation here. The ranchers and farmers, however, called up the army once again. In 1872, the U.S. Army tried to force Captain Jack and his people to leave, but they refused. Shots were fired and the Modocs ran to the lava beds. There, they created a strong hold you can still visit today.
Attacks, killings and raids took place for many months. The Modoc shaman put up a medicine flag (a braided rope made of tules and dyed red) to protect the Modoc soldiers. The shallow caves provided shelter and protection for the 160 Modoc people who included women and children. They also rounded up roaming cattle for their food.
But they lost the war. Captain Jack was hanged and the Modoc survivors were forcibly sent to Oklahoma.
Homesteaders & Resorts
Between 1908 and 1930, the wetlands and waters of Tule Lake were drained, diked, and converted to farmland. The U.S. government then gave 80-acre homesteads to pioneer farmers, using a pickle jar to draw names in a lottery.
By the 1920’s, visitors could go to Guy and Polly Merrill’s “resort” (today Merrill’s Cave), where people could skate on an ice floor by lantern light.
During the depression years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide employment for Americans. The CCC worked in Lava Beds National Park from 1933-1942. More than 1,400 men worked in 150-people detachments, each for six month periods. They built the roads, trails, campgrounds, and picnic tables you see here today. They also developed the caves for visiting. Today, spelunkers can enjoy several days worth of caving, so a last word goes out to spelunkers: Bring flashlights, kneepads, and hard hats so you can crawl through the moderate and challenging caves. Exploring kids will love this area!
Address: 1 Indian Well, Tulelake, CA 96134