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Lava Beds National Monument

324 miles NE of San Francisco; 50 miles NE of Mount Shasta

Lava Beds takes a while to grow on you. It's a seemingly desolate place with high plateaus, cinder cones, and hills covered with lava cinders, sagebrush, and twisted junipers. Miles of land just like it cover most of this corner of California. So why, asks the first-time visitor, is this a national monument? The answer lies underground.

The earth here is like Swiss cheese, so porous in places that it actually makes a hollow sound. When lava pours from a shield volcano, it doesn't cool all at once; the outer edges cool first and the core keeps flowing, forming underground tunnels like a giant pipeline system.

More than 330 lava-tube caves lace the earth at Lava Beds -- caves open to the public to explore on their own or with park rangers. Whereas most caves fuel visitors' fear of getting lost within their huge chambers, multiple entrances, and bizarre topography, these tunnels are simple and relatively easy to follow. Once inside, you'll feel that this would be a great place for a game of hide-and-seek.

Getting There -- The best access to the park is from Hwy. 139, 4 miles south of Tulelake.

Visitor Information -- Call the Lava Beds National Monument (tel. 530/667-8100; www.nps.gov/labe) for information on ranger-led hikes, cave trips, and campfire programs. The visitor center is at the southern end of the park.

Entry Fees -- The entry fee is $10 per vehicle for 7 days, $5 per bike or walk-in, and $10 a day for camping.

When to Go -- Park elevations range from 4,000 to 5,700 feet, and this part of California can get cold any time of year. Summer is the best time to visit, with average temperatures in the 70s (20s Celsius); winter temperatures plunge down to about 40°F (4°C) in the day and as low as 20°F (-7°C) by night. Summer is also the best time to participate in ranger-led hikes, cave trips, and campfire programs.

Exploring the Park

A hike to Schonchin Butte (.75 mile each way) will give you a good perspective on the stark beauty of the monument and nearby Tule Lake Valley. Wildlife lovers should keep their eyes peeled for such terrestrial animals as mule deer, coyote, marmots, and squirrels, while watching overhead for bald eagles, 24 species of hawks, and enormous flocks of ducks and geese headed to the Klamath Basin, one of the largest waterfowl wintering grounds in the Lower 48. Sometimes the sky goes dark with ducks and geese during the peak migrations.

The caves at Lava Beds are open to the public with little restriction. All you need to see most of them are a good flashlight or headlamp, sturdy walking shoes, and a sense of adventure. Many of the caves are entered by ladders or stairs, or by holes in the side of a hill. Once inside, walk far enough to round a corner, and then shut off your light -- a chilling experience, to say the least.

One-way Cave Loop Road, just southwest of the visitor center, is where you'll find many of the best cave hikes. About 15 lava tubes have been marked and made accessible. Two are ice caves, where the air temperature remains below freezing year-round and ice crystals form on the walls. If exploring on your own gives you the creeps, check out Mushpot Cave. Almost adjacent to the visitor center, this cave has been outfitted with lights and a smooth walkway; you'll have plenty of company.

Hardened spelunkers will find enough remote and relatively unexplored caves to keep themselves busy. Many caves require specialized climbing gear.

Aboveground, several trails crisscross the monument. The longest of these, the Lyons Trail (8.25 miles one-way), spans the wildest part of the monument, where you are likely to see plenty of animals. The Whitney Butte Trail (3 miles one-way) leads from Merrill Cave along the shoulder of 5,000-foot Whitney Butte to the edge of the Callahan Lava Flow and monument boundary.

Picnicking, Camping & Accommodations

The 43-unit Indian Well Campground, near the visitor center, has spaces for tents and small RVs year-round, with water available only during the summer. The rest of the year, you'll have to carry water from the nearby visitor center. Two picnic grounds, Fleener Chimneys and Captain Jacks Stronghold, have tables but no water; open fires are prohibited.

The monument grounds have no hotels or lodges, but many services are available in nearby Tulelake and Klamath Falls. For more information, call or write Lava Beds National Monument, 1 Indian Well Headquarters, Tulelake, CA 96134 (tel. 530/667-8100; www.nps.gov/labe).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.