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On the Road Through California's Stark and Cave-Riddled Lava Lands

November 18, 1990|DONNA AITKENHEAD | Aitkenhead is a free - lance writer who specializes in wilderness and outdoor articles

LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. — Cycling along the paved road, I felt as free as an eagle in flight. Suddenly a herd of deer greeted me, then bounded off across the sagebrush plains, their short tails erect, slender legs like pogo sticks. Sometimes I try to race the graceful creatures, but they remained well ahead of me.

I had moved to Lava Beds National Monument to spend the winter and part of the spring. My husband (a photographer) and I (a writer-photographer), with our Samoyed, Sam, had decided to explore this remote corner of northeast California during the off-season.

We lived in our travel-trailer at a site provided by the National Park Service, since we had volunteered to help count eagles as part of the monument's Bald Eagle Project.

Wrapped in what felt like 10 layers of clothing, I cycled around the park, navy-blue polypro head mask on under my helmet, black neoprene shoe covers on my feet.

I tried to ride when the temperature was above 35 degrees, but once it dropped to a frigid 31, causing my shoe covers to freeze solid to the pedals. I freed myself, but soon after my feet froze to the pedals once again and I decided to turn around and head for home.

I continued to ride in the coming days, but looked forward to the day when the sun would shine bright and warm. Soon it was April and a heat wave was upon us. We had 60s for highs and I was in heaven. Now I could begin my 33-mile ride through the park--for me, one of the main objectives of our stay there. Cycling and cave exploration are two of the area's favored pastimes.

In a remote corner of northeast California, Lava Beds was born centuries ago when volcanoes spewed enormous amounts of molten basaltic lava over the area. The rivers of lava cooled and hardened, creating a rugged landscape where today you can cycle, explore caves, climb cinder cones, observe wildlife and follow the steps of those who fought in the Modoc War between the Modoc Indians and the U.S. Army.

Established as a National Monument on Nov. 21, 1925, Lava Beds is about 30 miles south of the town of Tulelake in Siskiyou County. Two paved roads lead to the 72-square-mile park, whose visitor center is open year-round.

I began my ride that day about 26 miles north of the town of Canby, at the junction of California Highway 139 and the Forest Service road that leads northwest from the highway to the park. Most of the route from here is rolling terrain. I suggest starting at this end, with a pickup arranged at the north end of the park.

The climbing is steeper in the other direction--north to south--but if you like that, the north entrance is located off Highway 139, about five miles south of Tulelake.

The road is fairly flat for the first 12 miles of this ride, skirting through flatlands blanketed with a rich cover of sagebrush and bitterbrush, here and there a lonely pine. In the distance are the high mountain peaks of the Cascade Range; nearby, the blunt heads of several buttes rise like a freshly baked souffle. Deer are plentiful, as well as pronghorn antelope and a variety of birds.

The road edges upward as you reach the southern boundary of the park. Winding along the base of Cougar and Caldwell buttes, the turnoff to Valentine Cave soon appears, a must-see for all spelunkers and cavers.

Just 16 miles from my starting point is the visitor center, which lends lights to cavers free of charge. Cyclists will find a bike rack and restrooms open all day, every day of the year. Inside, there is a small museum, books and other items for sale, friendly park personnel and free information about ranger-guided activities, wildlife and cave exploration.

Mushpot Cave, an extension of the visitor center, is the only lighted cave in the park. A self-guided walk explains features formed during the births of caves. At Mushpot, you'll learn to recognize lavacicles, lava benches and lava cascades.

There are 21 developed caves (safety checked and with paths cleared) available for exploration in the park, as well as more than 100 wilderness caves. Excluding Mushpot, there are 14 caves located southwest of the visitor center, off two-mile-long Cave Loop Road, each with something different to offer. Sunshine Cave will delight plant enthusiasts--a variety of plants flourish in collapse areas in which sunshine has penetrated the darkness.

At Sentenial Cave, look for the natural bridge on your right as you enter through the Upper Sentinel entrance. And notice the cave walls and ceilings in Golden Dome and Hopkins Chocolate caves.

Skull Cave can be described in many ways, but I would say it is mind-boggling. It's also a fun ride from the visitor center to the cave. Except for a short climb, it's all downhill. To reach the cave, ride, as I did, two miles north of the visitor center to Lyons Road, turn right, then cycle a little more than a mile to the end of the road. You can't miss it.

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