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Lava Beds, Lava Tubes, Modoc War 

click to enlarge The spacious entrance chamber of Valentine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument. Its jagged lava floor was covered with pumice in the 1930s.

Photo by Barry Evans

The spacious entrance chamber of Valentine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument. Its jagged lava floor was covered with pumice in the 1930s.

A geological hotspot deep underground in the northeast corner of California has been sending molten rock to the surface for over half a million years. It's a reminder that we live out our brief lives on a geologically active planet that counts the passing of time in millennia, not months and years. Medicine Lake volcano, situated above the hotspot, is a gradually sloping shield volcano, gently erupting and oozing hot basalt lava, unlike more "traditional" cone-shaped steep volcanoes like Shasta, 100 miles to the west. Shasta is a stratovolcano, which arrived, in alternate sudden and violent eruptions of lava and ash, into an otherwise placid landscape.

Because Medicine Lake volcano oozed (rather than erupted) hot — 2,000 degrees F — lava, what visitors to the area see today is a rugged moonscape of fantastic basalt shapes, including some 500 lava tubes, or caves. Since 1925, 46,000 acres of this wild country has been protected within Lava Beds National Monument. 

When hot lava flows down a shield volcano's gentle slopes, it cools and begins to solidify: first the lava in contact with the ground, later the sides and top. In the case of Medicine Lake, as the deep lava "river" thickened and froze in place, the well-insulated inner material, still liquid, continued flowing, finally emptying out and leaving a hollow tube. The tube-caves of Lava Beds vary greatly in length and diameter. Short — 500 feet long — Mushpot Cave, a couple of minutes walk from the monument's excellent visitor center, is where most people start their caving adventure, since it's lit, has explanatory signs and you can walk its length upright. Mushpot contrasts with the other 26 other visitable caves, most of which require stooping, "duck-walking" and even crawling. (If you don't already have one, the $8 helmets sold at the visitor center are a must.) We got lost in Catacombs Cave, which is well over a mile long and only allows regular walking for the first 800 feet, after which the ceiling narrows down to 3 feet or less. (Bring knee and elbow pads.)

Compared with the geological history of Lava Beds, the record of human activity here only goes back a few thousand years. Predecessors of the Modoc people arrived in the area some 7,000 years ago, establishing themselves on the shores of Tule Lake, where fishing and hunting provided sustenance. When white fur traders and prospectors arrived in the mid-1800s via the Oregon Trail, some saw the land around Tule Lake, with its rich soil, as prime farming country. (Tule Lake is now mostly drained and its old bed farmed.) Inevitably, clashes occurred, culminating in the Modoc War of 1872-1873.

For five winter months, 58 Modoc warriors, led by "Captain Jack" Keintpoos, held out against 1,000 U.S. troops, sheltering in the lava caves adjacent to Tule Lake. By the time the Modocs surrendered, beaten by hunger and thirst, they'd killed 47 army troops, losing only six of their own men. Charged with war crimes by the army, Captain Jack was hanged, while two other Modoc warriors were sentenced to life imprisonment in Alcatraz. Today the Modoc Nation, remnants of the original Modoc tribe, is scattered. Most of the survivors of the war were shunted to a small reservation in Oklahoma, where many died, while others are now living in Shasta and Klamath counties in California. 

After researching the poignant history of the Modocs and their terrible suffering at the hands of white invaders, our second visit to the Monument was even more surreal that before. This time, as we hiked the rugged landscape and explored the caves, we were very aware of being deep within traditional Modoc country. Do visit Lava Beds National Monument if you haven't already — it's well worth the long drive — but, while you're there, please respect its checkered history.

Barry Evans (he/him, is regularly gobsmacked by the geography and history of Northern California.

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About The Author

Barry Evans

Barry Evans

Barry Evans lives in Old Town Eureka with his girlfriend (and wife) Louisa Rogers, several kayaks and bikes, and a stuffed gorilla named “Nameless.” A recovering civil engineer, he is the author of two McGraw-Hill popular science books and has taught science and history. His Field Notes anthologies are available... more

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