A million years of volcanic turmoil produced the ragged and seemingly inhospitable landscape of Lava Beds Wilderness, located in the Lava Bed National Monument. Despite this, even the youngest cinder cones—hardly more than 1,000 years old—are now covered by vegetation which supports a variety of wildlife. Ground squirrels, deer, marmots, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes are abundant. Plant species such as desert sweet, purple desert sage, yellow blazing star, spreading wood fern, western swordfern, as well as a variety of lichens and mosses are also common. In the northern portion, grassland dominates, changing as the ground rises southward to juniper woodlands and, finally, pine in the extreme southern portion. Raptors nest on the cliffs overlooking Tule Lake, which lies just outside the northern boundary, and thousands of migratory birds pass through each spring and fall. Beneath the surface, at least 500 caves exist, lava tubes formed by flows that cooled on the surface as molten lava still raged below to drain away. These caves, perhaps only a fraction of the miles of caves that have yet to be discovered, lure most human visitors to the area. Elevations range from about 4,000 feet to about 5,700 feet.
The Modoc Indians, abused and murdered by white settlers, made their last stand here, holding off 20 times their number until their final surrender in 1873.
The Wilderness is split into two sections, bisected by a road that runs through the monument. Maintained trails give access to the Wilderness, and off the trails, hiking can be strenuous. You must carry all your water. Cold weather has been recorded in every month of the year. Winter temperatures typically range from 31.5 degrees F – 68.0 degrees F with freezing temperatures occurring between September 23rd and June 7th. In the summer, there is an average of 21 days in which temperatures exceed 90 degrees F. The Wilderness receives 14.8 inches of rainfall, annually, as well as around 44 inches of snowfall.
Leave No Trace
How to follow the seven standard Leave No Trace principles differs in different parts of the country (desert vs. Rocky Mountains). Click on any of the principles listed below to learn more about how they apply in the Lava Beds Wilderness.
Digital and paper maps are critical tools for wilderness visitors. Online maps can help you plan and prepare for your visit ahead of time. You can also carry digital maps with you on your GPS unit or other handheld GPS device. Having a paper map with you in the backcountry, as well as solid orienteering skills, however, ensures that you can still route-find in the event that your electronic device fails.
Motorized equipment and equipment used for mechanical transport is generally prohibited in all wilderness areas.
This includes the use of motor vehicles, motorboats, motorized equipment, bicycles, hang gliders, wagons, carts, portage wheels, and the landing of aircraft including helicopters.
Lava Beds has twelve hiking trails. The most popular trails are short, but lead to interesting historic sites and geological features. Due to resource concerns, pets and bicycles are not permitted on any park trails, in non-developed area or caves. All trails cross or enter the non-developed backcountry, while the long trails are primarily in designated wilderness areas. Carry plenty of water regardless of trail length—no surface water exists at Lava Beds. Watch for rattlesnakes and wear sunscreen and a hat in summer. Be prepared for sudden weather changes any time of year. Lava Beds has many lava tube caves that beckon exploration. They vary greatly in difficulty, length, and complexity. Over two dozen caves have developed entrances and trails, and are shown on the Monument's map. Most are open throughout the year to explore on your own.
Climate and Special Equipment Needs
Summer Weather: Intense sunlight and warm temperatures require plenty of sunscreen, brimmed hats, and a lot of water to drink. In fact, we recommend consuming up to a gallon of water per person, per day. And remember, sweet sports drinks and sodas can do more harm than good in hot weather. They can actually cause cramping and serious medical problems. It's safer to drink water, or water mixed with a small amount of a sports drink for flavor.
Winter Weather: During cooler months, be sure to bring gloves, a warm hat, and be prepared for sudden shifts in the weather. What might seem like a pleasant fall day can quickly become a blizzard, so be prepared for the worst just in case. Waterproof boots are a must for navigating through snow at cave entrances.
Safety and Current Conditions
Caving: Long pants, long sleeves, and closed-toed shoes or boots are a must for all caves. Temperatures in the caves average 55 degrees Farenheit all year. Three flashlights per group is a bare minimum, in case of dead bulbs or batteries, and everyone in your group needs their own. Flashlights can be borrowed from the Visitor Center, but must be returned each afternoon.
Always let someone know where you are going and when you will return when caving. We highly recommend a helmet to protect your head; bicycle helmets work fine, and we sell inexpensive "bumphats" in the Visitor Center. We also recommend sturdy gloves and kneepads if you plan to visit more difficult caves, as you can expect to crawl on jagged lava. Maps of the inside of the developed caves are also available for sale in the Visitor Center, and are highly recommended for the more difficult, more complicated caves.
Rattlesnakes: One poisonous snake, the western diamondback rattlesnake, finds valuable habitat in the park. While exploring the lava beds, never place a hand where you can't see it. If you do encounter a rattler, heed it's warning buzz and back away calmly.
Mountain Lions: Stealthy and elusive, this is mountain lion territory. Always accompany small children and avoid traveling alone in the backcountry, especially if you are of small stature. Be especially wary at dawn and dusk, when lions are most active. If you do encounter a lion that seems curious about you, shout, throw rocks, and make yourself look as big and mean as possible. Do not run away, and contact help if the lion is not scared off.
Diseases: There are several rare but serious infections that can be transmitted by the wild animals who make Lava Beds their homes. If you follow park policy of keeping your distance from wild animals and their homes, you will not only ensure they stay wild, but you will protect yourself from disease and injury.
Although no known cases of bubonic plague have been recorded at Lava Beds, it is usually transmitted when a human is bitten by a flea that has previously bitten an infected rodent.
Hanta virus is transmitted by breathing in aerosolized particles of urine, feces, and saliva left behind by rodents. When caving, try to keep your face away from rodent droppings.
Histoplasmosis is also transmitted by breathing in particles of infected bat guano. At Lava Beds, caves with significant guano deposits are closed in summer to protect maternal colonies.
Want to Volunteer for Wilderness?
Citizens who volunteer their time to steward our wilderness areas are an essential part of wilderness management. Contact the following groups to inquire about volunteer opportunities.