Itineraries,  National Park Travel

How to Spend One Day in Lava Beds National Monument

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I knew it when I first spotted it on a map years ago: someday, I had to visit Lava Beds National Monument. I was standing in a visitor center near Mt. Shasta, one of the southernmost Cascade volcanoes, on a trip to explore the region. After learning about lava tube caves near Shasta, my eyes roved over the map to see it: a whole national monument dedicated to these same types of caves. Let’s GO! I thought… before realizing just how remote this particular National Park Service unit is.

While I didn’t make it to Lava Beds on that trip, or any of the other trips I took to Shasta or elsewhere in far Northern California, I can finally say I’ve been to Lava Beds National Monument. I made the trip as a detour of a planned Oregon road trip in October 2023, my last solo trip before Baby V joined our adventuring family. Like many of my favorite National Parks, Lava Beds is all about caving – specifically in lava tubes, which ties into my childhood obsession with volcanoes (thanks, Dante’s Peak!).

One Day in Lava Beds Hero

If you’re planning to Lava Beds National Monument, you might be doing something similar to what I did – a road trip, I mean, not having a baby. (Though if you are expecting, congratulations!) You might not have a ton of time to visit and wonder: what can I do on a short trip to Lava Beds National Monument? Well, dear V&V fam, I’ve got you covered. I spent most of one day at Lava Beds and knew right away it was perfect for this type of National Park resource I write. Lava Beds is a perfect road trip destination and one-day stop.

Below you’ll find what I consider to be everything you need to know to visit Lava Beds – everything I researched before my trip, everything I did while there, and all I learned from visiting. If there’s anything I missed, you can always let me know in the comments, too; I want to help you visit this remote, delightful NPS unit too. As I said at the top, let’s GO!

Lava Beds Travel Basics

One Day in Lava Beds - Entrance Sign

I personally find it helpful when I have the pesky logistics covered before I get too deep in the weeds – or should I say, in the caves – of planning to visit a national park or national monument. As such, I thought it would be helpful to start out covering some of the basics, then go spelunking into greater detail on what to do in Lava Beds and how to spend a day there. (Cave jokes, gotta love ’em!)

Where is Lava Beds National Monument?

I’m guessing that if you ended up on this page of my site, you probably already have at least a little idea of where Lava Beds National Monument is located, but just to cover it all: Lava Beds is located in north-central California near the Oregon border. It’s quite remote, and not somewhere you’d stumble across by chance – but it is located along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway that traverses the southern Cascade volcanic range.

Traveling to the Lava Beds

As Lava Beds NM is remote, you might wonder how to reach it. The short answer is “not by accident,” but here are some more specific tips:

  • If you’re traveling from the south (say from Mount Shasta or elsewhere in California), you’ll probably be coming up US-97 or CA-139, then take smaller roads and highways to reach the monument. Google Maps will be your best aid in finding the route that makes the most sense from wherever you start out.
  • If you’re traveling from the north (from Oregon), you’ll probably take something like OR-39 to CA-161 to the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway headed south. Again, it depends a lot on the exact place you’re starting, so something like Google Maps is going to be much better at giving specific directions than these general ones.

In any case, I recommend taking the time to head north of the monument to see the Lava Beds National Monument Sign along the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway – there’s another sign at the Visitor Center, but this one’s pretty iconic too.

Lava Beds Admission, Seasons & Hours

Lava Beds National Monument is open year-round, with only occasional temporary closures for snow removal; the Visitor Center is open daily with varying hours by season (it doesn’t say it online, but I expect it’s closed on typical days like Christmas and New Year’s).

You’ll need to pay admission to visit Lava Beds National Monument:

You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Lava Beds NPS website.

Things to Do at Lava Beds National Monument

I’ll be completely honest: there isn’t “a lot” to do in Lava Beds in terms of a diverse number of activities… but there is a lot to do if you like the activities that Lava Beds has to offer! Let me explain…

Caving

While it might not sound like much, the prospect of caving at Lava Beds National Monument is one of the best in the entire National Park Service system – Lava Beds is the only place I’ve been where you can go caving entirely on your own, with regard to your own abilities and comfort to do so.

Lava Beds is home to more than 800 caves in total, and 24 of those caves are open to visitors. The majority of those two dozen caves are completely natural: no lighting, no trails, nada! As you might expect they range from easy to incredibly technical, so it’s important to be honest with yourself about your caving abilities. Personally, I’m a novice, so I stuck to the easier caves! (Lava Beds NM calls them the “least challenging” caves on this page.)

If you’re also a novice, there are some caves I consider essential having now visited Lava Beds myself:

  • Mushpot – This is the only lighted, paved cave in the monument, and gives an introduction to cave geology and safe exploration.
  • Valentine Cave – This is a good second cave and one for those with less foot agility; the floor is relatively smooth (as are the walls), but it gives you a deeper path to walk and a real sense of the how caves can be quite labyrithine.
  • Skull Cave – This cave has it all: fascinating formations, different levels, and the skeletal remains of humans and animals who wandered in during the colder winter months (hence the name). If you explore far enough, you’ll find a year-round ice floor on the lower level of the cave.

If you have only one day in Lava Beds, you could also visit Heppe Ice Cave, Big Painted Cave, and Symbol Bridge Cave. Despite their geographic proximity, each cave is quite unique in terms of formation and use throughout human history.

In any case, you’ll have to visit the Visitor Center as your first stop in Lava Beds, and they can help you choose which cave(s) you want to explore based on your ability and preparedness.

Hiking

While you might think that all the fun happens below ground at Lava Beds, there are some pretty interesting hiking trails on the surface too. The Lava Beds NPS site lists 14 trails within the National Monument, ranging from 0.4 miles in length (Heppe Cave Trail) to 9.4 miles (Lyons Trail); most trails are one-way, so keep that in mind when planning.

Due to being pregnant during my visit, I didn’t head out on any hiking trails, but here are the ones that caught my eye and seemed reasonable with my normal physical ability (for a return trip!):

  • Petroglyph Point Trail <0.1mi one-way, minimal elevation – While you might see a longer trail listed on hiking sites, it’s damaging the local ecosystem, so stick to the short flat trail for good views of evidence of early human inhabitants in the area.
  • Heppe Cave Trail – 0.4mi one-way, minimal elevation – This short trail works its way through semi-forested areas (relatively speaking) before offering a fantastic view of a collapsed lava tube.
  • Schonchin Butte Trail0.7mi one-way, 500ft of steady elevation gain – One of the best trails for elevation, this one takes you to the top of a cinder cone with sweeping views of the lava field all around.
  • Black Crater Trail – 0.3mi one-way, minimal elevation – This trail is a spur of the 1.1-mile Thomas-Wright Battlefield Trail which takes you to view a “spatter cone” and tree molds created by lava flowing around the forest when it erupted.
  • Three Sisters Trail – 8.7mi one-way, 400 ft of elevation change – If I were going to do a full-day hike, I’d combine this trail with the Missing Link and Bunchgrass trails to do a full 10-miler through the seemingly desolate land of the Monument.

As you can see, there’s a surprising diversity to the hikes you can do at Lava Beds; it’s more about knowing your own abilities and how much time you have.

Stargazing

One Day in Lava Beds - Stargazing
Photo courtesy of the NPS

Because of its remote location, Lava Beds National Monument is a fantastic spot for stargazing, though you won’t see it listed as one of the main things to do in Lava Beds. This is mostly because there are no formal stargazing activities in the monument; ranger-guided tours are more focused on geology, history, vulcanology, biology, and caving.

That said, you can definitely go stargazing on your own if you decide to spend a night at the one campground in Lava Beds National Monument, Indian Well. I recommend using a star finder app (I prefer Night Sky) to help you understand what you’re seeing – trust me, there will be a lot of stars if my nights of stargazing at somewhat nearby Mt. Shasta are any indication!

One Day in Lava Beds Itinerary

At this point, you might feel totally ready to put together your own one-day itinerary for Lava Beds National Monument – after all, there’s not that much to do, right? Well, as mentioned, you’ve got 24 caves and 14 hiking trails to choose from, for a start! Putting together a good itinerary, especially for first-time visitors and less-experienced cavers, can feel overwhelming with all those options. Below is what I suggest for one day in Lava Beds if that sounds like you.

Start at the Visitor Center

If you want to go caving at Lava Bed National Monument – which, of course you do, that’s the #1 thing to do and why you’re visiting – you must stop at the Visitor Center first during your trip. There, you can pay your admission fee and receive a free caving permit.

The ranger will give you a quick safety talk and brief you on the risks of white-nose syndrome for local bats (to make sure you don’t have an unfortunate impact on the local population), ensure you’re properly prepared, and help you choose caves to visit if you need assistance choosing. These caving permits must be displayed at all times when you’re out exploring the monument.

The Visitor Center also hosts a small museum that’s worth a look, plus a gift shop (another essential stop for national park souvenirs!). It’s also the only place to refill your water bottle (important as it’s very hot and dry in this part of Northern California), and has the best bathroom facilities in the park. You can also rent an extra flashlight for your visit a the Visitor Center; they recommend having three sources of light with you in the park, so this is a good backup backup option.

Explore Mushpot Cave

A short walk from the Visitor Center, Mushpot Cave is worth visiting even if you’re an expert at caving – to me, it felt like the “one thing you must do” to have really seen Lava Beds.

Mushpot Cave is 770 feet long, and paved and lighted the entire way. Along the walk, you’ll see tons of different lava formations as well as signs explaining them and the different zones of the cave and other advice for safely caving during your visit.

This cave is kid-friendly for sure, and doesn’t require additional light. (I brought mine anyway because you never know when the power might go out!)

Head to Skull and/or Valentine Caves

After exploring Mushpot, you might be ready to head out and dive deep below the surface of the earth; even if you’re a pretty accomplished caver, I’d still check out Skull Cave or Valentine Cave – they’re both so interesting!

As mentioned above, Skull Cave is so named for the skeletal remains of both humans and animals that were found in the cave by early explorers. It’s a wide-mouthed multi-level cave that’s actually quite short in length, just 580 feet long. But, it has incredible dynamic lava features and several sets of stairs to bring you – unlike the animals – safely to the lower level.

Down there, you’ll find a year-round ice floor; historically, this was used as an ice rink! I enjoyed Skull Cave a lot and wanted to go to the lower level but was a bit weak at stairs due to being five months pregnant at the time – this is a cave that’s on my must-return list.

Valentine Cave is entirely different than Skull Cave, which is why they both make my list of caves to visit even if you only have one day in Lava Beds. Valentine Cave is low and narrower than Skull Cave; the walls and floor are relatively smooth, and it’s punctuated by a series of wide columns that make you feel like you’re in a maze.

Sound moves very strangely through the cave, which you’ll notice if anyone else is exploring at the same time you are. I didn’t make it all the way to the end of this 1,635-foot-long cave because I was on my own and am a bit afraid of the dark… but it could easily be done if you feel confident and safe to do so!

Discover Other Caving Opportunities

Now that you’ve done three of the most commonly visited and relatively easy caves, you can definitely explore others that either offer different features or are more technical to explore. Rather than list all 21 other caves, I recommend the following:

  • If you’re out at Skull Cave, make a stop along that road to explore Big Painted Cave (266 feet long, “least challenging”) and Symbol Bridge Cave (148 feet long, “least challenging”). Both of these caves require a walk to reach but are easy to explore and have cool evidence of human use, including pictographs.
  • Turn onto the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway (instead of Road 10, which is what the Visitor Center is located on) and hike out to Heppe Cave. Inside this 170-foot cave, you’ll find a pond in the summer or an ice floor in the winter. This is a cave I wish I’d had time to visit during my short trip.
  • Along Cave Loop Road, you can find another 15 caves to visit, ranging from a few of the less challenging ones (Ovis and Paradise Alleys) to the most technical ones like Hopkins Chocolate. This is also where you can find some of the longest caves, like the 3,280-foot-long Sentinal, which can be accessed from Upper Sentinal and Lower Sentinal entrances. Some caves along the Cave Loop Road (like Sentinal) are closed though, so be sure to check online and again with a Ranger before you head to these spots.

Where to Stay Near Lava Beds

Okay, now that I’ve covered just about everything else you need to know to visit Lava Beds National Monument, there’s one last important detail: where to stay!

Now you might not choose to stay the night in Lava Beds, and that’s okay; it’s important to remember that this national monument is relatively far from any tourism infrastructure, so you’re looking at a 45- to 60-minute drive (at minimum) to reach a good place to stay the night – if you don’t stay in Lava Bed itself. (The campground, not the caves!)

I’ve already mentioned there’s just one campground in Lava Beds; it’s open year-round and costs just $10 per night. If you have the necessary supplies with you, it’s a great overnight option for visiting the monument for a full day or longer.

If you’re more of a sleep-in-a-real-bed-with-running-water kind of traveler (as I typically am!), you’ll need to look a bit further afield. There are a few small, independent hotels on the California side of the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway north of Lava Beds National Monument; Winema Historic Lodge is your best bet (though very no-frills) and they’re also home to the nearest restaurant to the monument.

I’d actually recommend planning to stay up in Klamath Falls, Oregon, if you have the time and it makes sense for your direction of travel (before or after your Lava Beds visit). It’s a 50-minute drive and there are dozens of accommodation options in Klamath Falls. I stayed at the Running Y Resort during my recent Southern Oregon road trip (which included my dip down into California to visit Lava Beds), but there are seriously tons of options for any style or budget.

Have any other questions about how to plan your trip or spend one day at Lava Beds National Monument? Let me know in the comments so I can help!

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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