The most unique thing about Lava Beds National Monument are its many lava tube caves, which were created by lava flows over a period of fifty thousand years from 10,000 to 60,000 years ago. As the lava flowed from the Medicine Lake volcano, the surface cooled and solidified. Underneath the surface, lava continued to flow to various areas, eventually emptying the “tube” underneath. Over the course of time, the rock cooled, cracked, and collapsed, producing openings to the surface. Today, there are over 700 lava tube caves in the National Monument, of which over twenty (20) can be explored.
One of the lesser known gems of the National Park system is Lava Beds National Monument. Established in 1925, the park is home to the largest concentration of lava tube caves in the United States. Currently, over seven hundred (700) separate caves have been discovered in the park, and over twenty of these caves are accessible to the general public. That's right: over twenty of the caves are accessible to visitors. While there are many amazing things about Lava Beds - petroglyphs, hiking trails along the Medicine Lake shield volcano, interpretive displays about the Modoc War and more, the caves are the signature attraction. Unlike many National and State Parks which discourage or limit exploration of underground features to pre-set guided tours, Lava Beds encourages exploration of its many caves. And, as a matter of fact, Rangers will "rent" flashlights (no charge with a valid Driver's License) and provide information about the conditions found in the various caves within the park. One of the easiest caves to explore in the park with an interesting geologic and cultural history is Skull Cave.
Long time readers of this blog know that I was raised on a diet of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and adventure as a child. It should therefore come as no surprise that I wanted to live in a cave during part of my childhood. But once I read The Time Machine, I developed an irrational fear of morlocks and the I-want-to-live-in-a-cave-phase was over. Even though I never lived in a cave, I know a spot where people have lived – and died in a cave: Boyden Cavern, in Sequoia /Kings Canyon National Park.
If you’re a Southern California resident, and you’re looking for a challenge that is a little more exciting than Potato Chip Rock (a/k/a Mount Woodson), the adventure you’re looking for is the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves. Since I covered this area in detail back in 2011 here, I’m not going to go into excruciating detail today, because you can read the details here. The caves are located approximately two hours outside of San Diego, and are perhaps the largest network of mud caves in the world, comprising some twenty to thirty caves.
Directions: If you are coming from San Diego, take the I-8 east to the town of Ocotillo, California. Exit the freeway, and turn onto the S-2 hearing North (Left). Follow the S-2 past the brand sparkling new wind turbines, through the border checkpoint, and into Anza-Borrego State Park. Once you are in the State Park, you will want to look for Mile Marker 43, which is also marked as the “Palm Spring” turnout (no, it is not the turnout for the town, it is the turnout for the actual Palm Spring from the Butterfield Stage Line). From this point on you will be “off-roading”.
At Pinnacles, the two main areas for spelunking are Bear Gulch, which I talked about in December, and the Balconies network of caves, which I’ll talk about today. All of the caves in Pinnacles are talus caves, which are formed over a period of time when rocks have fallen atop other rocks at the base of a cliff. In particular though, the caves at Pinnacles formed in the following manner: “…when steep, narrow canyons filled with a jumbled mass of boulders from the cliffs above. The canyons are the result of faults and fractures in the central area of volcanic rock. These shear fractures filled with gigantic toppled boulders are clear windows into the geologic wonder of the Monument.” (More information on the geology of Pinnacles here and here). In any case, both the Balconies cave and the Bear Gulch cave network provide a great spot to explore over 50 million years of geologic history over the course of a morning or afternoon.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure dome decree:/Where Alph, the sacred river, ran/Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea – Coleridge, Kubla Kahn
You might not know it from reading Coleridge’s stanzas, but Xanadu is actually in Southern Arizona. To be precise, the entrance to Xanadu is found in Benson, Arizona. Don’t believe me? It’s true. That’s where the Kartchner Caverns are found, caves that were originally named “Xanadu” by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts to protect them and keep them secret from the general public. Alright, fine – if you want to be technical, Coleridge was talking about an imaginary land, one that only existed in his mind and one that was probably fostered by a wicked opium addiction, but he might as well have been talking about the Kartchner Caverns, because they are that phantasmagorical.
Enough about Coleridge – let’s talk caves. The Kartchner Caverns are over 50,000 years old, and are some of the most well preserved limestone caves in the world. These caves are a part of the Arizona State Park system, and have an interesting human history from the late twentieth century on. As I mentioned above, the caves were discovered by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, and they were so concerned that the caves would be co-discovered or found by other parties and either ruined or despoiled, they only referred to the caves with code words. Eventually, they introduced the caves to various parties, and eventually the caves were acquired by the State Park system to be protected in perpetuity for the general public. (A more extensive history of all the secret shenanigans of Gary and Randy can be found here: http://www.explorethecaverns.com/caverns-history.html).
I recently visited the Caverns, and took the Rotunda/Throne Room tour. As the park website suggested, I booked my cave tour tickets early, and arrived early. Even though the parking lot was beginning to fill up on a sunny Sunday, the park rangers helpfully moved me to an earlier tour that had availability with no charge. The Ranger leading the earlier tour noted that my group was somewhat lucky, as it only had 13 people in it, as opposed to the usual thirty (30!). The first unique thing I noticed about the Caverns, after the informative museum and shuttle ride to the cave entrance were the massive airlock doors that you must pass through to enter the caverns. That’s right; I said doors – plural, as there are three. The state of Arizona spent over 28 million dollars to protect the caves – and their warm, moist environment from the dry environment of the desert. From what I could feel, the doors are doing a great job. The ambient temperature in the cave was roughly ten to fifteen degrees warmer than outside (it was a cold morning), and it was downright muggy.
As for the remainder of the tour, I’ll be honest: I’d prefer to explore this location or any location on my own. Now that I’ve complained, I’ll be the first to admit that the Ranger leading the hike was well versed in the different formations of the Throne Room and the Rotunda, and very knowledgeable about the history of the caverns, and the scientific processes that formed them. The tour ended with a light and music show at the infamous “Kubla Kahn” pillar – which is the largest limestone column in Arizona, which was also pretty cool.
Directions: The State Park website provides this handy web form to get you to their park: http://azstateparks.com/parks/kaca/map_driving.html
Tips: Astute readers and even first time visitors will notice that I have posted no pictures of the caverns and are probably wondering why there are no photos in this entry. Alas, the caverns do not allow photography at all. However, there are some great videos of the formations at these links, which give you an idea of what you can see: http://youtu.be/ISewwO38xs0, http://azstateparks.com/parks/kaca/index.html. It’s also important to note that portions of the caverns are closed during the year to protect the native bat population. Finally, if you’re one for conspiracy theories and or good fiction, read this link to learn how the caverns may be inhabited by a monster, and why that is the real reason why photography isn’t allowed: http://sylvestrusmaximus.tumblr.com/post/15805539951/the-creature-of-kartchner-caverns-preview.
More Information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kartchner_Caverns_State_Park, http://www.moon.com/destinations/tucson/excursions-tucson/kartchner-caverns-and-the-huachuca-mountains/sights/kartchner-caverns-state-park