Lava Beds National Monument

The history of the Lava Beds National Monument -- a beautiful and desolate place -- is turbulent, both in geologic and human terms. Hardly had this rugged, northern California landscape cooled from a million years of volcanic activity when it was stained with the spilled blood of those who had learned to make a living here.

Evidence of the geologic violence can be seen everywhere here in the form of spatter and cinder cones, lava flows, and chimneys. Perhaps the most spectacular remnants are the lava tubes, formed when the cooler surface layer of a lava flow solidified while the lava beneath remained fluid, eventually draining out when the eruption stopped. Formed over 30,000 years ago, these tubes run for thousands of feet. Nearly 200 of them are open for exploration by visitors. Lamps are provided by the Park Service (warm clothing and protective head gear is also recommended).

Lava Beds National Monument
©National Park Service
The lava tubes at the Lava Beds National Monument run for
thousands of feet; many of them are open to visitors.

In the thousand years since the last cinder cones were formed, vegetation has grown, from grasslands at lower altitudes (4,000 feet) to ponderosa pines at higher elevations (the highest point in the monument is 5,529 feet).

The abundance of game and fish, along with the shelter provided by the rugged rock formations, made this a place for human habitation as well. For centuries this area was home to the Modoc Indians, who used the reeds (tules) that grew around Tule Lake to make baskets, boats, and homes.

The arrival of European settlers in the 1850s marked the beginning of the end for the Modoc way of life. In 1864, they were relocated to Oregon. After a few months, the Modocs began returning to their homeland in numbers that continued to increase. In 1872, the U.S. Army was ordered to return the Modocs to the reservation. This time fighting broke out, and the Modocs used the caves and fissures of the jagged landscape to their advantage, holding out for five months before succumbing to a much-enlarged army force in 1873.

A Sad Betrayal

When a wave of gold-seekers swept over California in the mid-1800s, the Modocs, based along the shores of Tule Lake, resisted the intruders. Then a new chief, Kintpuash, pursued peace with the settlers. After a period of imperfect harmony, though, the settlers pushed for the removal of the Modocs to a reservation in Oregon, where they were forced to share scarce rations with their traditional enemies. Eventually they returned to their ancestral land. The second attempt to remove them resulted in a war in which the Modocs held off the U.S. Army for five months. Betrayal by a few tribe members finally enabled the Army to capture Kintpuash. He and three others were hanged, and the remaining 153 Modocs were again removed from the Lava Beds, this time for good.

Lava Beds National Monument Information

Address: California Hwy 161 and Hill Rd.
Telephone: 530/667-8100
Hours of Operation: Open daily, 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., with extended hours during the summer; closed Christmas Day
Admission: $10 per vehicle

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Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.