8 Unique Adventures in Lava Beds National Monument

Look around the Lava Beds National Monument, and you’ll see a half-million years of history in every direction. Scores of eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have left the region with more than 700 caves. You’ll also find Native American rock art sites and historic Modoc War battlefields among the volcano-scarred landscape. Nearly a century after President Calvin Coolidge established the Lava Beds National Monument, the region features a variety of hiking trails that bring visitors up close to that rocky history.

But even with so many underground attractions, Lava Beds National Monument poses a few above-ground risks. Pets and bicycles aren’t allowed on trails, and visitors should carry plenty of water, watch for rattlesnakes, wear sunscreen, and prepare for sudden weather shifts.

And before entering any of the Lava Beds’ many caves, visitors must be screened for white-nose syndrome; if you’re using boots or gear that have been in other caves since 2006, leave those at home. Doing so helps stop the spread of a fungal disease that can be deadly to bats. So once you’ve filled your water bottle, slathered on the sunscreen, and checked your head-lamp batteries, here are eight unique adventures for enjoying Lava Beds National Monument.

1. Merrill Ice Cave

Distance and difficulty:.25 mile round-trip/easy

Why do this hike? Here you can enjoy some of the easiest access to caves in the Lava Beds National Monument. A short, paved path leads to an 80-foot staircase that descends into Merrill Ice Cave, one of the only caves in the monument that hosts perennial ice. The Merrill Ice Cave has had ice for more than 10,000 years, and while the ice deposits are dramatically lower than in the past, they remain a striking sight.

2. Valentine Cave

Distance and difficulty:.3 mile round-trip/easy

Why do this hike? Even if you’re nervous about hiking into a cave, no visit to the Lava Beds is complete without at least one cave tour. For many, Valentine Cave offers one of the largest, most accessible caves in the monument. And Valentine Cave delivers all the hallmarks of a true cave experience—complete with smooth walls, wide paths, pillars, pools, and hidden passages.

3. Sentinel Cave

Distance and difficulty:.6 mile round-trip/easy

Why do this hike? This is one of the most popular caves in the monument. Sentinel Cave is the main artery through the monument’s lava loop, with well-maintained paths and markings that showcase the various lava flows that led to the cave’s formation. Aside from a few rocky stairs just inside the cave, most of the path is flat and immersed in complete darkness.

4. Heppe Cave Trail:

Distance and Difficulty:.8-mile round-trip/easy

Why do this hike? Take this quick and easy hike for spectacular views of a large lava tube collapse. For added adventure, head into the Heppe Ice Cave, where you might spot seasonal ice formations and access to other striking features. After a short descent into the cave, the lava tube opens up to about 170 feet wide, providing passage to several formations, including the 35-foot Heppe Chimney and 350-foot-long Heppe Bridge Cave.

5. Schonchin Butte Trail

Distance and difficulty: 1.5 miles round-trip/easy-moderate

Why do this hike? If you’re looking for a little aboveground fun, enjoy sweeping views from atop Schonchin Butte. The trail up Schonchin Butte climbs 500 feet to the top of a cinder cone, where you’ll find a fire lookout that was built nearly a century ago by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Enjoy the panoramic views of the monument and surrounding basin. (There’s precious little shade along this trail, so consider hiking in the early morning or close to sunset at the height of summer.)

6. Captain Jack’s Stronghold Trail


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Distance and difficulty: 4 miles round-trip/easy-moderate

Why do this hike? The Modoc War, waged between 1872 and 1873, saw the Modoc Indians battling the U.S. Army over what the Modocs saw as mistreatment by the U.S. government. The Modocs spent late 1872 and early 1873 in the present-day Lava Beds National Monument, fending off forces six times their size. The war eventually ended in the spring of 1873 with the defeat of the Modocs; several Modoc fighters were captured and exiled to a reservation in Oklahoma. Captain Jack’s Stronghold Trail—named for a Modoc leader (also known as Kientpoos and Kintpuash)—travels through the area where the Modocs fended off Army soldiers in late 1872 and early 1873. Two self-guided interpretive trails pass through this and other sites from the Modoc War.

7. Big Nasty Trail

Distance and difficulty: 2 miles round-trip/easy-moderate

Why do this hike? This hike is worth your time for many reasons, not the least of which is the fanciful name. The path is named for the brush-covered lava flows north of the trail (apparently, someone once called these flows “big” and “nasty”) and cuts through a scattered forest of ponderosa pine. Along the way, keep an eye out for pika—small, gerbil-like animals known for their distinctive, plush toy-like squeaks—scurrying between the rocks. Along the way, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of Lava Beds and the Modoc National Forest, all from one of the area’s best spots for watching the sunset.

8. Three Sisters Trail

Distance and difficulty: 8.7 miles round-trip/moderate-difficult

Why do this hike? Get away from the road and into the wilderness on this trek, which leaves the national monument at one point and enters the surrounding Modoc National Forest. Along the mostly level path, you’ll encounter stray patches of juniper trees, rocky lava flows, views of three cinder cones (the “sisters” for which this trail is named), backcountry lava caves, collapsed lava tube trenches, and more.