Caving in the Lava Beds
The caves found here were created by flows of smooth lava 10,500 to 65,000 years ago. As the lava cooled, caves formed and created homes for unique cave life to thrive. These fantastic underground worlds can be visited on your own or by guided tour in the summer. Please "take only pictures leave only footprints" so others have a chance to discover what you have during your trip.
White Nose Syndrome is a serious concern in California! The fungus that causes WNS has been discovered only three hours from here. As of today, it has not reached this park. Although you have gone through the decontamination station at the convention (right?), you MUST still stop by the park's Visitor Center to get a free caving permit before entering any caves. You can be cited by federal park rangers for entering caves without this permit! The process is simple and only takes a couple minutes.
For experienced cavers, the lava caves you may visit in a quick trip to this park will not pose any significant challenge. If you get out further into the park's back country, many caves become increasingly challenging. In any instance, if you plan to do the tight crawls, use knee and elbow pads that you don't mind trashing. This lava can be nasty mean. If you go off-trail, take way more water than you think you might need. This high-desert ecosystem will suck it out of you in no time at all. As always, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
Least Challenging Caves
These caves have relatively high ceilings and smoother floors or trails. They're perfect for a quick trip or for kids and rookies!
Mushpot Cave (770 feet)
Recommended as an introductory cave for lava rookies, interpretive signs explain: formations, ecology and cave climate. The cave is lighted, however, bring extra light and watch your head.
Sentinel Cave. Photo: John Woods, NSS.
Sentinel Cave (3,280 feet)
This cave's easy main trail requires no stooping or ducking, and has lots of interesting features. This is one of the only developed caves with two entrances.
Valentine Cave (1,635 feet)
Named for the day it was discovered in 1933, it has large main passages with smooth floors and walls. It was created by a different lava source than the caves on Cave Loop.
Skull Cave (580 feet)
The wide open feel of this cave makes it an excellent choice for those who do not like tight closed-in spaces. It is a remnant of three very large lava tubes, one on top of the other. This allows cold winter air to be trapped inside and create a year-round ice floor on the lower level, accessible via a smooth trail, down a metal stairway to a platform. It is named for the bones of pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and two human skeletons discovered inside.
Skull Cave. Photo: Matt Bowers, NSS.
Merrill Cave (650 feet)
Visitors once ice skated by lantern light on an enormous ice floor at the bottom of this cave. Changing air flow patterns are the suspected cause of melting. Today you may see small ice remnants from a viewing platform at the bottom of a stairway.
Heppe Cave (170 feet)
A .4 mile walk will take you to this tall twilight-lit cave. In some years you might find a small pool of water; this water can be an important water source for wildlife as there is no surface water in Lava Beds.
Big Painted Cave (266 feet) and Symbol Bridge (148 feet)
Irreplaceable historic Native American pictographs adorn the entrance areas of these two short caves, look closely to find the pictographs as they blend in with the rock. An easy 0.75 mi (1.21 km) hike is required to reach them.
Ovis & Paradise Alley Caves. Photo: Dave Bunnell, NSS.
Ovis Cave (216 feet) and Paradise Alleys (1,033 feet)
Ovis cave contained 36 bighorn skulls when it was discovered in the 1890's. In Ovis ceiling heights exceed 25 feet, and some outside light is visible throughout. Paradise Alleys has smooth floors and ceiling hights exceeding 7 feet are found throughout this cave.
Moderatly Challenging Caves
These caves may involve stooping through low sections and/or rough floors. Additional protective gear is recommended for the more difficult spots.
Golden Dome Cave. Photo: John Woods, NSS.
Golden Dome Cave (2,229 feet)
Beware of "headache rock" when entering and exiting the cave via the ladder. The downstream portion of this cave (heading north) requires some stooping. The back section where the "Golden Dome" is located is a figure-8; take note of your location so you don't go around in circles. The golden ceiling in this and many other caves here are the result of light reflecting off water droplets that bead up on a coating of hydrophobic bacteria. The bacteria are not harmful to humans but are easily damaged, so please do not touch. The upstream portions of this cave require more stooping and some crawling.
Sunshine Cave (466 feet)
Two collapses allow sunlight to enter the cave where abundant vegetation grows. Stooping is required in the main passage, and the back section has floors that are steep, very rough and sometimes wet. Beautiful hydrophobic bacteria coats the ceiling at the back of this cave, where winter icicles adorn cracks in the ceiling.
Sunshine Cave. Photo: Dave Bunnell, NSS.
Balcony Cave (2,903 feet) and Boulevard Cave (759 feet)
These caves have sections of low ceilings, and an optional crawl up onto a balcony created by changing lava flow levels. The "boulevard" was named for the smooth floor created by a lava cascade.
Blue Grotto Cave (1,541 feet)
Named for the pale blue-gray portions of the ceiling inside the "Blue Grotto". The ceilings are high throughout this cave but the floors are rough.
Indian Well Cave (300 feet)
The first half of this cave has a pathway which changes to loose rock. It has a high ceiling and unusual ice formations in winter. Historically, this cave was home to a pool of water, which is how it got the "well" part of its name.
Most Challenging Caves
These caves have some portions which require crawling. Helmets, knee pads and gloves are a must in these areas. They are also more directionally challenging. Ask the trip station at the convention HQ for maps.
Labyrinth Cave (1,239 feet) and Lava Brook Cave (859 feet)
These caves near the Visitor Center are connected by a twisting segment requiring crawling. Ceiling heights tend to be low throughout. As the name Labyrinth suggests you must pay attention to your route! The "Lava Brook" is an interesting pattern left on the floor of one passage by the last lava flow. As you travel through these caves be prepared to exit at one of three locations, the Labyrinth, Lava Brook or Thunderbolt entrances.
Thunderbolt Cave (2,561 feet)
Crawling is required in the downstream portions of this cave where it connects to Labyrinth and Lava Brook Caves. Upstream (right) from the entrance are a few tight areas, one of which is 6 inches wide at knee level. There is some stooping before the ceiling height allows walking upright.
Hopkins Chocolate Cave. Photo: John Woods, NSS.
Hercules Leg Cave (1,948 feet) and Juniper Cave (2,362 feet)
These two caves were connected by the removal of debris in a collapse pit, and together make one long excursion with an entrance and exit. The Hercules Leg portion has generally high ceilings and smooth floors. The connection to Juniper cave involves crossing rocky floors with a passage height of 2.5 feet, and several low sections thereafter.
Hopkins Chocolate Cave (1,405 feet)
Named by E.L. Hopkins for the rich brown color of lava coating the ceiling and walls. Stooping is required in a couple places, and there is one passage with a ceiling height of 3 feet that requires duck-walking. If you look closly, you can find historical graffitti by J.D. Howard, and E.L. Hopkins.
Catacombs Cave (6,903 feet)
This very long cave is easily entered but gradually increases in difficulty. It is possible to walk upright for approximately 800 ft (244 m) to the stairway, after which the ceiling rarely exceeds 3 feet. A few places exist where the ceiling height is less than 12 inches. A cave map is highly recommended for any group planning to explore the entire cave, as multiple levels and numerous side passages can be confusing. This cave is not recommended for inexperienced cavers.
Admittedly, this image is a bit of a tease. Crystal Ice Cave in Lava Beds National Monument is only open to visitation during the coldest months of the year. The cave's ice deposits are too fragile for mid-summer trips. We hope you can tour it someday, but it can't be during the 2021 NSS Convention in June - you'll need to come back in the winter months! Ask at the convention's trip station about other ice caves that are open year-round. Photo: Dave Bunnell, NSS.
Today's Weather: Lava Beds National Monument, CA
- Updated: Wednesday, February 24 at 7:38 pm
- Reporting Station: VAN BREMMER (VABC1)
- Elevation: 5,303 ft.
- GPS: 41.642967;-121.794875
- Data provided by: National Weather Service
Wind: 18 mph (E)
Tonight: Mostly clear. Low around 21, with temperatures rising to around 23 overnight. Southeast wind 2 to 10 mph.
Thursday: Mostly sunny. High near 49, with temperatures falling to around 43 in the afternoon. West wind 2 to 21 mph, with gusts as high as 31 mph.