Dark days, sore knees and good times at Lava Beds

Bent like a supplicant and reduced to simian movements while navigating through Hercules Leg, where the coarse, cauliflower floor cracked my hard-shell knee pads and the daggerlike low ceiling stabbed my hunched back, I kept looking for the light.

Not the thin beam of illumination issuing from my headlamp, which kept me on course through one of longest, most labyrinthine caves in this craggy corner of northeastern California. Not the periodic shafts of skylight peeking through the basaltic lava after I made the tight squeeze from the popular Hercules Leg Cave into adjoining Juniper Cave. I mean the proverbial Light-at-the-End-of-the-Tunnel – or cave, in this case – signaling the end of this nearly mile-long stretch of intrepid spelunking.

Neither claustrophobe nor nyctophobe, I nonetheless was ready to surface and bask once more in the brilliant June sun.

See, dark thoughts tend to intrude when you spend considerable time underground where, sans head lamp, you experience the blackness of nullity. It’s as if, once submerged, your subconscious comes to the fore. And in two days of cave dwelling at Lava Beds National Monument, which features more than 100 developed caves formed more than 11,000 years ago through the hardening of lava tubes, I had spent almost as much time under the ground as above it. I stooped and shimmied, crawled and careened, through this geologic Disneyland, but the sheer length and circuitousness of the Hercules-Juniper caves unleashed something primal and long-buried within me.

My recurring sensation, emerging from deep in my Freudian substratum, was of a return to the womb, a reliving of the birth experience. I needed to banish that freaky thought from my mental repository, pronto. But instead, I flashed, unbidden, on an image of those trapped Chilean miners from a few years back. Then a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Premature Burial” crept in, in an ominous Morgan Freeman baritone: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.”

Even in the climate-controlled, 55-degree stillness, I broke out in a sweat, fearing inhumation.

Maybe this acute episode of angst came because I encountered so few other people at one of the least-known and frequented National Park Service locales. In 12 caves explored over two days, I crossed paths with only eight other quadrupedal, illuminated souls skulking below the earth’s crust. Above ground, of course, scattered around the 72 square miles of the erstwhile Medicine Lake Volcano, were people camping and hiking, visiting sites of the 1873 Modoc War and spotting waterfowl at the adjoining Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge.

But Lava Beds remains relatively untrod, compared to Lassen and Crater Lake, two popular national parks flanked to the south and north. Here’s a statistic that underscores Lava Beds’ relative anonymity: Its annual visitor count of 180,000 is less than a third of what Yosemite National Park draws each June alone.

That’s one of Lava Beds’ selling points, though. It’s a place where you can have an existential freak-out crawling through a cave and, with luck, no one will be around to witness your embarrassment. For those looking to get away from masses of humanity – which, really, is one of the allures of the outdoors – then a trip north to this sparsely populated outpost hugging the border of Siskiyou and Modoc counties is ideal.

What the landscape lacks above ground, namely towering forests and sparkling bodies of water, it more than makes up for in its underground treasures. Why join the hordes reserving spots to trudge up Half Dome when you can explore Golden Dome Cave and its sparkling coating of hydrophobic bacteria with no waiting?

“We’re not Yosemite, and we like that very much,” said Terry Harris, who served as Lava Beds’ chief ranger for 24 years and now is chief of visitor services. “We have not had to restrict activities because we’ve reached our capacity. Some day, we may, but not now.

“You know, we are not a destination park, but if you’re going to Lassen or Crater Lake, we’re one more park along that wheel of discovery in this area. We’ve had a lot of people who’ve gone to Crater Lake and said ‘Ooh, ahh, that was a great National Park experience,’ and then they come to Lava Beds and tell us they found this little jewel of a place to interact with nature without having the large concessionaire, without having all the protocols, that go with a big park.”

Part of the reason for Lava Beds’ low profile – and, considering some of the caves plunge 150 feet below the surface, we’re talking a real low profile – is its location, aptly described by tourist Eugene Lee, honeymooning with bride Angela Prager, as “this weird, strange corner of California.” Tulelake (pop. 993) is the nearest town, and perfectly fine lodging can be had at the Winema Lodge near the monument’s north gate if you aren’t camping, but if you want luxuries such as restaurant choices and gas stations, your closest choice is 30 miles north over the Oregon border in Klamath Falls.

Klamath Falls is where most Crater Lake habitues encamp, and it’s where Lee and Prager first entertained the notion of traveling south to see some caves.

“We were talking to a ranger at Crater Lake, and she looked at me like I was crazy when I mentioned Lava Beds,” Prager said. “She didn’t know about it and grabbed another guy. He pointed at the map, but that’s all he knew. Then, we happened to be in a bar at Klamath Falls and were talking again about coming here. And we met this couple who overheard us, and she’s come here many times.”

Word of mouth, Harris says, is how most discover Lava Beds. That, and the Internet.

“We were traveling up to Oregon, and we just Googled what was around, and this came up,” said Amy Hoskins, of Ogden, Utah, “so we thought it might be neat.”

And was it? Neat, that is.

“Sure,” she said, distractedly. “Worth the stop.”

I chatted up Hoskins just beyond the entrance to the aptly named Labyrinth Cave, as she waited for Corey and friend Issac Okelberry to skitter on their bellies over Jupiter’s Thunderbolt, a clump of welded rubble that comes close to sealing off the passage. There’s maybe a 3-foot opening above and a 2-foot space below. Whereas the youngsters climbed, Hoskins chose to slide through underneath. She emitted an audible sigh, as if to say neither way would be easy.

All three emerged fully upright and intact, giggling at the experience, only to find they’d be either down on all-fours or stooping like Quasimodo soon thereafter.

Not all the caves take such gymnastics to traverse as Labyrinth, the Hercules Leg-Juniper combination and the 1.2-mile long, multi-tiered Catacombs. Some are short in length, wide at the opening and mostly horizontal (Skull, Valentine and Sentinel caves); others require only a brief vertical drop via staircase before flattening and finding firm footing (Merrill and Sunshine caves).

Best to study the brochures, which detail the formations and features of the 20 most popular caves, at the visitors center or read the descriptions on Lava Beds’ website beforehand. For all but the easiest caves, a helmet is strongly recommended and a flashlight or head lamp a must. Any bicycle helmet will do, and the rangers offer free flashlights on loan. Anyone who cares about their joints will invest in some sturdy knee pads, as well – the hard-plastic type used by skateboarders, not the soft, volleyball-type of pads.

“I wish I’d had a little bit of warning about how (rough) it was,” Prager admitted, “because I had surgery on my foot and ankle (recently) and it was really rocky, the entire surface. Ninety percent is big, jagged rocks. It’s hard, walking on that cauliflower stuff. And I didn’t know that some of the spaces were only a foot tall or so.”

Another thing to know: These aren’t the types of caves dripping with color you see in Hollywood movies. No oozing, multihued stalactites formed by minerals deposited by evaporating groundwater. The best you can hope for are “lavacicles,” much smaller tips that resemble melted candle wax.

“I just came from Carlsbad Caverns (National Park, in New Mexico) and this was nothing like that,” Prager said. “Carlsbad is, like, gorgeous. All those stalactites. These are just lava caves, like being in a dark place for a long time.”

“But still cool, though,” Lee added.

The appeal of lava caves, with a few notable exceptions, is subtle, more geologic. They are coarse and rocky and, in places, jutting with chockstone or depressed with troughs that once carried lava. There are cupolas on the ceilings, many instances of thin festoons of hardened lava that link two points, and naturally formed balconies and benches upon which to perch. The flooring, given Hawaiian names by early geologists, ranges from “cauliflower aa” (pronounced “ah ah,” an exclamation of pain) to pahoehoe (“PAH-hoy-hoy,” meaning smooth).

It takes, arguably, a more discerning eye to marvel at the features of a lava cave. Jesse Barden, a ranger, points to the Lava Brook Cave, an offshoot of the Labyrinth, as a stark remnant of the area’s volcanic past.

“Back in the (Lava Brook) chamber, it looks like it’s been carved out by a stream, but really what it is is linings from the walls that have peeled off and then lava came in underneath, flowed over the top and welded it back into place. Hard to describe. You need to see it.”

As the spelunking book “Lava Beds Caves,” by Charlie and Jo Larson, puts it, Lava Brook features “a group of rafted breakdown blocks mantled by a thin blanket of smooth lava that resembles a reclining human figure,” which explorer J.D. Howard dubbed “The Sleeping Beauty” when he discovered the cave circa 1930.

This is not to say Lava Beds doesn’t boast its bling. For that, head to Golden Dome Cave, though there’s nary a gold flake or nugget to be found.

You’ll first have to pick through some rock breakdown and step gingerly over cauliflower floor, and you might notice yourself even perspiring a bit, Golden Dome being more humid than other caves because of its thick basalt insulation. This microclimate gives rise to bacteria that repels water. Moisture beads on the mold and reflects a golden hue when illuminated.

Next door is Hopkins Chocolate Cave, where, after considerable stooping and duck-walking, you’ll see ceilings resembling upside down Hershey’s Kisses, thanks to crusts of the lava tubes that had been repeatedly remelted and cooled into a chocolate glaze by successive lava flows.

Another thing visitors won’t see at Lava Beds are bats. Certainly, bats exist in great numbers, but the rangers stage seasonal closures of certain caves to protect bat populations. Seven caves now are closed until mid-October to ensure “ideal environments” for maternal bat colonies. Come winter, when those caves reopen, a half-dozen different caves will close depending on the bats’ hibernacula sites.

Yes, but a stray bat might occasionally dart in front of you, as happened to me in the midst of my existential crisis inside Hercules Leg. Its brown wings beat at the same rapid rhythm as my heart at that point, but the bat must have found its way to some cool, dark and dry place.

Just as I, knees aching and neck cricked, eventually emerged into the light, blinking and gasping like the day I was born.