Exploring Lava Beds National Monument
● By Jon Lewis
Story by Jon Lewis
Photos courtesy of the National Park Service
DURING THE NEXT SEVERAL WEEKS, a select group of visitors will have the opportunity to take a guided tour through Fern Cave, a 40,000-year-old subterranean feature in the Lava Beds National Monument that’s home to a unique ecosystem of plants, animals and Native American art.
The hourlong ranger-led tours are conducted once each Saturday through Sept. 21 and are limited to six people per tour. Flashlights and the ability to climb down a slanted ladder are required and photography is not allowed.
The restrictive access is not by choice, says David Curtis, a National Park Service archaeologist stationed at the 46,692-acre monument. Federal law requires Curtis to protect culturally sensitive information about Fern Cave due to its immense significance to Modoc and Klamath tribal members.
“It is a very sacred site for Modoc and Klamath people who are living today. They visit it frequently for religious purposes,” Curtis says. In addition, the centuries-old petroglyphs (carved) and pictographs (painted) within Fern Cave are extremely sensitive.
There are other reasons, besides its cultural significance, to protect Fern Cave, says Katrina Smith, a natural resource program manager. The cave is a bit of a resource-rich treasure trove that stands out amid the surrounding dry, high-desert environment.
Organic soil has made its way into the cave from its sole vertical entrance and has combined with the warm, humid microenvironment to create ideal conditions for the namesake ferns to flourish. The ferns and moisture, in turn, provide a home for Pacific tree frogs, snakes and lizards.
Fern Cave is special, but it’s far from the only attraction within the monument’s 73 square miles. More than 800 lava tubes and caves can be explored anytime without a reservation, and some 22 caves have been developed with stairs and ladders. Most caves are located along Cave Loop, a 2-mile-long road near the visitors center.
Smith says most of the caves were formed 35,000 to 40,000 years ago when lava from the Mammoth Crater on the Medicine Lake Shield Volcano formed conduits before cooling. There are a few “younger” caves, such as Valentine Cave, estimated to be 12,000 years old.
The developed caves are grouped into three categories: least challenging (higher ceilings and smoother floors); moderately challenging (low sections require stooping and floors can be rough); and most challenging, like the
Catacombs, that have portions that require crawling.
Long sleeves, pants, helmet or hard hat and closed-toe shoes or boots are recommended for the easiest caves; wear gloves and kneepads in the more difficult caves. Each person should carry a flashlight and extra batteries; three flashlights per person is ideal.
Smith says there is a lot of interest in Lava Beds’ caves as stand-ins for potential caves on the moon and Mars. “There are some very cool microorganisms that reside within lava tubes that don’t exist anywhere,” Smith says. Scientists searching for life on Mars believe microbes from lava tube ice could survive on the red planet.
Larger animals make their home in and among the caves as well, Smith says. Lava Beds is one of the lowest-elevation sites for the small rabbit-like pika (“they live here because they can find refuge in the rocks,” Smith says) and visitors also may see badgers, marmots, raptors, migratory birds and mule deer, “and every once in a while, a pronghorn will run through the northern end of the park.”
And then there are the bats: 15 species of bats are present in the park and Smith helps organize “bat chat” talks and evening programs featuring bat detectors and an ultrasonic microphone that allows visitors to see different bat species in real time.
To help prevent the spread of a fatal condition in bats called white-nose syndrome, Lava Beds visitors are subjected to a simple screening process to ensure they are not unwittingly bringing the fungus responsible for white-nose syndrome into otherwise disease-free caves.
Lava Beds also is well known for its carefully catalogued remnants from the Modoc War of 1872-73, which was the only major Indian war in California. The conflict began when Kintpuash, a Modoc chief who later became known as Captain Jack, led a band of about 60 warriors in an effort to reclaim their ancestral lands near Tule Lake after they were removed to a reservation in Oregon.
The Modoc took refuge in a lava fortress that was later named Captain Jack’s Stronghold and is now open to visitors. “A lot of our archaeology sites go back a few thousand years and we’ve dated artifacts from 6,000 to 9,000 years old,” Curtis says. “A lot of what we have goes back to precontact with Euro-Americans, to the native Modoc and their ancestors. There are village sites, hunting camps and the tools they left behind. Mostly a lot of obsidian, which was the most common tool stone.”
Petroglyph Point, which is separate from Lava Beds but managed by the National Park Service, is one of the largest sites of rock art in North America. The hundreds of petroglyphs adorning the craggy feature are 3,000 to 6,000 years old, Curtis says. The formation used to be on the shoreline of Tule Lake and it is believed Native Americans would paddle out and create their art. •