The Lava Beds FAQ

This is just a medium-sized list of common questions the first time visitor to the monument might have. This faq contains unofficial answers to questions that my friends and I have asked at one point or another during our visits to the park. The only qualification I have to correctly answer these questions is that I've been to the park many times and I've done a lot of things there. For real official answers to any questions you might have, talk to a fully qualified park ranger.

Where is it?
The monument is located in northern California, about 45 miles south of Klamath Falls, Oregon. When driving there, try to steer clear of the logging roads that enter the park from the southwest. You can easily get lost, and would probably save time by taking the long way around on the main roads.

When should I plan to go there?
Well, any time, I guess. The caves are all about 55 degrees (F) inside all year around (except the ice caves). During the winter, the park gets some snow which is supposed to lead to the interesting effect of steaming caves. A drawback to going in the winter is that some of the services are disabled during the winter (running water in the campground, campfire talks, etc.) However, it is less crowded during this time of year.

How much does it cost?
I can't keep up with inflation, so I'll just point you straight to the official Lava Beds fees page. Additionally, it's $4 for a helmet, and $4.50 for the Lava Beds Caves booklet.

Where is the nearest town/gas/food?
The nearest town is Newell, which you can get to by heading out the northern park entrance. There is a mini-mart there with (expensive) gas, ice, and a considerable amount of food. The nearest town with a supermarket is Tulelake, just north of Newell. There is also a bank with an ATM. There is no gas, however (at least none that we could find.) Also, you can get 64 oz. fountain sodas at the Tulelake supermarket. :-) In addition, there is a small gas stop on the way into the park from the southeast entrance. However, last time we went there they would only give three gallons of gas.

How many camp sites are there?
40 units. One is a handicapped site.

Are there any RV hookups?
No. Why not camp in a tent? Ok, there is room at about a quarter of the camp sites for monster RVs, but there aren't any hookups.

Is there running water?
Yes. However, from September 15 to May 15 water is only available at the visitor center and not in the campground.

Are there showers?
We wish. You can get pretty dirty in those caves. You can give yourself a sponge bath in the privacy of the outdoor faucet, though. :-) But, hey, getting dirty goes hand in hand with camping, right? Some of the faucets are threaded, so we bring along a one-meter section of garden hose that we can use to wash hair with.

Is there hot running water?
Nope. You should have asked that before you asked about the showers, huh.

Is all the information in this faq accurate?
Probably not. But I'm drinking milk!

Is there a phone number I can call for more information?
Ah, in the good old days before the Park Service even had a website, my page was really that much more useful. But here, now, I can defer to the official NPS Lava Beds contact information.

What is the weather like?
I feel I can best answer this question if I copy it straight out of the brochure. "The park ranges in elevation fro 4,000 to 5,700 feet, and at these heights cold weather is possible any time of the year. Snow has been recorded in nearly all months. In the winter daily high temperatures average around 40 degrees F; lows are 20 degrees F. Fog is frequent throughout the winter. Summers are moderate with daytime highs averaging from 75 degrees to 80 degrees F and lows around 50 degrees F. Precipitation during the summer averages 1.25 inches or less per month." In other words, be ready for rain or worse no matter what time of year it is. Also, bring plenty of warm clothes.

What else should I bring?
Bring what you need for whatever you want to do! If you want to go caving, bring a flashlight, some fairly heavy duty gloves, good shoes, and dirty caving clothes. There's also hiking to be found there.

Is that all I need to bring when I go caving?
No. You should have gloves, two lights per person, a helmet, protective clothes that are warm enough, and possibly knee and elbow protection. (I never have the latter, and pay for it some time or another...) Purists will tell you to bring at least three lights per person. I only ever bring two for myself, since most tubes are quite short.

What do you mean by "protective clothes that are warm"?
For me, that means I cave in jeans and a T-shirt. All that crawling around is hard work, and I heat up fast. If you're only going to do the walking thing, and no real exertion, then perhaps you should wear a coat or a sweater, or whatever you normally wear in 55 degree weather. Also keep in mind that the cave walls, floors, and ceiling are generally pretty rough so you'll want to cover any body parts that you don't want scratched.

What are "good shoes"?
Personally, I like $20 tennis shoes because I can tear them to shreds without hurting my pocketbook. They are light, not bulky, and offer enough protection that I am not hurt in the caves. The only area they don't cover is that of ankle support, but I have yet to twist an ankle on the very uneven footing the floor has to offer. (Knock on wood.) The official recommendation is that you wear some kind of hiking boots.

Where am I supposed to get a helmet?
It's true that most people probably don't have caving helmets just sitting idle around their houses. You can go two ways on this: you can buy an expensive real life caving helmet for a lot of money, or you can opt for the $3 Lava Beds National Monument special (which plainly states under the bill "Not to be used as a protective device.") We, of course, being seasoned Lava Beds cavers, always opt for the $3 special. These can be picked up at the visitor center in the colors of white, orange, and yellow, and have the very cool Lava Beds logo printed on the front.

Will the helmet make me look intelligent?
Not to the non-caver. But to the "I've experienced a head-bash" individual, you'd look dumb not having one.

I don't want to wear the helmet.
Ok, but first you must listen to me. Examine the plastic shell of the helmet. See that it is fairly thick. Now, pound the helmet against a pointed rock until your punch a hole through the plastic. Then, hit your head against the rock with the same amount of force. This should give you a good idea as to why the helmets are so important. Nearly all of us have managed to get 1 cm holes punched in the foreheads of the helmets at one time or another because we stood up too quickly and didn't watch for the lavacles. Our group has probably been saved from very expensive brain surgery by these $3 helmets on at least 5 occasions. Even the slightest bump of your bare head on the ceiling can leave you bruised and bleeding. Don't be foolish. If you have to duck while you're in a cave, you should have a helmet. Is your skull's integrity worth three bucks?

I still don't want to wear the dorky helmet.
Fine. It's your skull, not mine. Yes, I've seen falling rocks in caves.

Do I really need to bring two lights per person?
Yes. Well, ok, you got us. We have not always brought two lights per person. But we always had at least 3 extra lights that were not in use until some of the primary lights had gone out. You should have two lights per person. What we do is we buy the little 2 AA lights for a couple bucks and throw those in the caving pack. We then go to the visitor center and borrow real lantern battery powered lights for our primary light sources. I always have two light sources; it's some of my more macho friends who don't bother. They do, however, tend to carry extra bulbs and batteries.

You can get lights at the visitor center?
Yup. And, get this, it's free! Well, I say it's free, but it's really our taxpayer dollars, isn't it. There is a donation box to help pay for lights, and I suggest you drop in a buck to ease the burden of those of us who bring our own lights. You can borrow the lights all day from 9 am to 4:30 pm and go anywhere you want with them. Have your drivers license and license plate number handy when borrowing the lights, and remember the numbers of your lights if you plan to get more the next day. Above all, be sure to return your lights by 4:30 pm (or whatever time they say--it varies depending on the time of year) or the rangers will presume you lost or injured and will start searching for you. They will be quite displeased to find that you've accidentally left the lights in your trunk or have just "lost track of time."

C'mon, do lights really break that often?
Yes. In The Catacombs, there is a room which we lovingly call "The Light Eater". We continually lose lights in this room, and sometimes some of us have had to make our way out by the lights of others. Being stuck in a cave with no light is not a pleasant thought.

Are there any bathrooms in the caves?
No way. What do you think this is? Carlsbad? Remember to drink some water before you go caving, but don't drink too much. For longer (say, 3 hour) caving expeditions, I would suggest taking a small canteen with you and drinking only in moderation. Don't pee in the caves. It's not polite. Remember to visit the restrooms at the visitor center before you head up cave loop road.

So I guess there's not a lot of food in the caves either.
Correct. Bring your own. Better still, eat before you go in. We find that eating a good breakfast, followed by about 3 hours of heavy duty caving, can make even the most simple lunch very satisfying.

Can I litter in the caves?
Hell no. Forget it. And be nice cavers and clean up the little messes that others so inconsiderately leave behind. Be an example of cleanliness to others. No one likes to see cigarette butts and old fruit juice boxes lying around. We even find them in the farthest reaches of the caves. You'd think such hard-core cavers would have better sense than to leave trash laying around like that.

What does "Cave Softly" mean?
I'm glad you asked. In a nutshell, it means, respect the cave by not munging it up, writing in it, leaving trash in it, eating in it, smoking in it, peeing in it, or smashing it up. Other people will appreciate it, and you'll earn good karma. Explore and appreciate the beauty of this weird place. If you really want to scratch your name on something, go find a culvert pipe in LA or something.

So, In other words, don't change the cave at all. Not even a little bit. Ideally, you would float down the cave without your feet ever touching the floor, and you would not even disturb the airflow of the tube. Ok, so that's pretty much impossible, but you can do your best. Don't litter!! Don't disturb any bats--if you see any, just leave. Don't touch any mineral formations you see growing anyplace. Don't touch the ice formations. Don't throw rocks. Don't write on the walls with anything. Don't smash anything. "What can I do, then?" you're asking. Well, you can do this to change the caves: pack out any litter you find within them. Report any weird things you see to the rangers at the visitor center (we once found a traffic cone someone had placed in Sentinel!) They may be your caves, but they're mine, too. Don't mess them up! Cave softly!

There are bats in the caves?
Yes! And they get in your hair and chew your eyes out!! No really, they don't do any of that. They're actually extremely harmless. I'm not kidding when I say that your computer keyboard is far more hazardous to your well-being than these bats will ever be. If you're still scared of them, you might as well run screaming from your computer terminal right now.

Is there anything I can do to protect myself from the bats?
I told you, they're not at all dangerous.

Can I go see the cute little bats?
No. Leave them alone. If you're there in the summer, the bats are engaged in maternal activities in several of the caves. These caves are usually closed off for the bats' protection! If you're caught in one of these caves, you can be slapped a hefty fine you won't soon forget (or you'll earn some really bad karma--I forget which.) Before exploring any of the unmarked caves in the Labyrinth Loop, you should check with a ranger to make sure that cave is ok. Disturbing these bats can lead to their deaths. Please respect them. For more information about bats and how wonderful they really are, try connecting to the Bat Conservation International homepage.

Any other creepy-crawlies?
Yeah, there are rodents in the caves. But they're small, and I've only ever seen one. Scared the hell out of me, too. It was huge! Nearly 7 cm long! :-) There are ground squirrels running around outside. Rattlesnakes, too.

Yup. They like to curl up under the rocks around the entrances to the caves where it's nice and cool. Fortunately, these snakes are fairly passive and will usually give you warning when you get to close. I've only ever seen one snake and that was near the entrance to Valentine Cave. Just be cautious and give the snakes a wide berth. Also, don't poke your hands and feet below rocks and look before you leap into places where snakes might be resting. Don't ever kill the rattlesnakes, or any other creatures in the park for that matter. If a rattlesnake is spotted in an area where it might be dangerous to other visitors, you should inform a ranger who will have the snake moved to a safer location.

Any diseases?
What a bizarre question. As a matter of fact, you can get what is called "Lyme Disease" from deer ticks that hide out in the underbrush. You should wear long socks and pants while traipsing through the brush and examine your arms and legs for ticks afterwards. The ticks can be as small as a poppy seed, so look carefully. Have your S.O. examine your body, you know, all over.

What if I find a tick on my body?
Remove it carefully with tweezers by gently but firmly grasping it by the head and pulling straight out. Then put it in a plastic bag and take it to your doctor who will determine if the tick was actually carrying the disease. If it was, the doctor will probably opt to put you on antibiotics for some time. One of the rangers (who has the disease) recommended that you not wait for the results of the tests to return, but that you demand antibiotics on the spot, just to be sure. Once the disease has set in, there's no getting rid of it. The secondary symptoms are treatable with medication, however.

Any other signs of Lyme Disease?
About 3/4 of the people who contract the disease will get a circular bruise (a "bullseye") on the site where they were bitten. Check out The Lyme Disease information at the CDC for more complete information.

Next you'll tell me they have the plague.
Yes, they do have that there. The so-called "Black Death". Some of the rodents carry it, although during the last few years I've been there, the ground squirrel population has been rather low. Technically, the disease is carried by the fleas of the rodents. Don't play with the ground squirrels or around their homes. Also, don't keep your food where they can get it.

Where should I keep my food?
The squirrels can get it if it's not locked up. They can get it if it's inside your tent. Ground squirrels have no qualms about chewing holes in the side of your closed tent to get at bread that has been safely wrapped in two layers of plastic bags. Keep the food sealed in your ice chest or locked in your car.

Is there firewood there?
Probably. The restrictions about wood gathering have changed since years past. Currently, you can gather wood on 100 meters of either side of Mammoth Crater Road between the quarry (about 0.2 km from the main park road) and the Heppe Cave trailhead.

Can we have campfires?
Usually. And then only in the designated fire areas. Last time we were there, fires were allowed only if you have no other way to cook your food. At the time, there had been no rain for two months and there was an extreme fire danger. Again, call ahead for the current rules concerning fires in the park.

Where are the nearest video games?
At the gas station in Newell. They have a pool table, too!

Are there places to hike?
Yes. There are many trails that lead around the park for trips from a few minutes to days. Additionally, there is a fine trail which leads up Schonchin Butte for fine views of the surrounding country. A map of the park and all it's trails is available for free at the visitor center.

Are there places to swim?
The nearest lake is Tule Lake which, I've heard, has 10 meters of guano at the bottom. It's more of a wildlife preserve, actually. Don't swim there.

Instead, head southwest out of the park, stopping by Mammoth Crater, and run on up to Medicine Lake. It's chilly, but it's clean and refreshing for sure! (Summer only, unless you have a snow mobile.)

Does Tule Lake smell nice?
I used to say "never", but it's been just fine lately.

What is the top secret fastest way to the Newell gas station?
You head out the northeast park entrance, make a left at the stop sign, cross the railroad tracks, and make a right onto the dirt road as if you were heading to the petroglyph section. Continue past petroglyph cliff, up over the rise, and make a left onto the paved road heading north. This road will eventually curve to the right, cross some railroad tracks, and come to a stop sign. Hang a left, and the gas station is a couple hundred yards up on the right. You can't miss it. Don't forget to play the awesome video games while you're there!

Where are all the good caves at?
Well, you know, I would tell you, but I'd be lynched by all the people on alt.caving. I found them, and you can, too, if you really want to know. Here are my favorites that are marked from the road: Valentine Cave (at the base of Caldwell Butte, off the main road), Catacombs, and Sentinel Cave (both on Cave Loop Road.)

Will I have a good time?
Undoubtedly! Plan it into your next vacation today!

Copyright © 1994-2004 Brian "Beej" Hall <>