Tun­nel vi­sions in a Calif. desert park

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY LAURA RAN­DALL

At Lava Beds Na­tional Mon­u­ment, the floors come in three tex­tures: ropy, cau­li­flower and clinker. They lurk in a bizarre net­work of caves with names like Mush­pot and Her­cules Leg, cre­ated by an­cient vol­ca­noes.

It’s a long drive past scorched earth and sage­brush to the Lava Beds visi­tors cen­ter, and it wasn’t un­til my fam­ily and I en­tered its buzzy warmth that we re­al­ized what we were in for in this re­mote cor­ner of north­east Cal­i­for­nia. Flash­lights, hel­mets and knee pads lined the front counter, and free maps list­ing the caves open to the public cat­e­go­rized them us­ing “must duck,” “must duck­walk” and “must crawl.” These were not your fa­mil­iar sta­lac­tited rip­ping lime­stone cav­erns: These were carved by flows of lava that erupted from the nearby Medicine Lake vol­cano in­ter­mit­tently over the past 500,000 years.

For my two young sons, Jack and Theo, spelunking at Lava Beds — “Should we visit the cave with the ice floor first, or the one with the lavaci­cles?” — was an oth­er­worldly high­light of a road trip that show­cased a part of their home state they knew al­most noth­ing about.

Skip­ping the pop­u­lar coastal jour­ney up Route 1, my hus­band, John, and I opted in­stead to drive In­ter­state 5 north of Sacra­mento last spring to ex­plore this other part of Cal­i­for­nia. We found our­selves in a ge­o­log­i­cally di­verse uni­verse marked by vol­ca­noes, vast wildlife pre­serves and the largest of the in­tern­ment camps in the Amer­i­can West that in­car­cer­ated Ja­panese Amer­i­cans dur­ing World War II. It was colder and darker than what we were used to in Los An­ge­les, and a re­minder that Cal­i­for­nia is a big, com­pli­cated state (com­plete with a 40-year se­ces­sion cam­paign, still go­ing strong, to carve off part of the north and put it in a 51st state, Jef­fer­son).

Lava Beds, on more than 47,000 acres near the Ore­gon bor­der, is per­haps the state’s big­gest un­sung Na­tional Park Ser­vice site. Last year, the mon­u­ment drew about 140,000 visi­tors, said Pa­trick Tyler, the chief of visi­tor ser­vices. ( Yosemite Na­tional Park gets an an­nual av­er­age of 4 mil­lion.) But Lava Beds is a pop­u­lar pit stop for trav­el­ers shut­tling be­tween Lassen Vol­canic Na­tional Park and Crater Lake, about 90 miles to the north, and it of­ten draws re­turn visi­tors, Tyler said.

“In the con­ti­nen­tal U.S., this area has the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of lava tube caves,” he noted. The caves were formed when outer lay­ers of flow­ing lava be­gan to cool and cre­ate a kind of shell, while the molten lava be­neath kept mov­ing. When the vol­canic erup­tion stopped, the river of lava would drain, leav­ing be­hind long tubu­lar spa­ces, with their dis­tinc­tive ropy (smooth), cau­li­flower (bumpy) or clinker ( jagged and bro­ken) in­te­rior sur­faces.

So far, 800 caves have been dis­cov­ered at Lava Beds, with about 200 deemed safe for ex­plo­ration. The long­est and most chal­leng­ing, Cat­a­combs, ex­tends 1.3 miles, and has a ceil­ing that rarely ex­ceeds three feet. Af­ter por­ing over a map, we headed for the loop be­hind the visi­tor cen­ter, which is lined with 11 caves of vary­ing dif­fi­culty. Like most new­bies, we started at Mush­pot cave, which has a lighted, smooth trail and in­ter­pre­tive signs. Af­ter a few more easy caves that in­volved min­i­mal stoop­ing, we were ready to tackle Golden Dome, a halfmile lava tube ac­ces­si­ble only by lad­der with an en­trance that rangers ac­cu­rately call “headache rock.” We wad­dled, flash­lights in hand, in semi-dark­ness to the sparkly ceil­ing that gave the cave its name; Jack said it re­minded him of Harry Pot­ter mak­ing his way along the un­even un­der­ground pas­sage to the vil­lage of Hogsmeade. We learned later that the gold shim­mer is caused by wa­ter droplets that bead up on harm­less bac­te­ria that coat the up­per sur­faces of the cave.

The boys would have been happy to visit dozens more lava tubes, but we dragged them away from the Cave Loop to ex­plore other high­lights of the park, in­clud­ing a wall of heav­ily weath­ered rock pet­ro­glyphs be­lieved to come from the Modoc In­dian tribe, who lived in the area un­til con­flict with white set­tlers drove them to re­set­tle in Ok­la­homa.

Lava Beds is also the site of the Modoc War of 1872-1873, one of the last In­dian bat­tles in the con­ti­nen­tal United States and the only one in which a U.S. gen­eral was killed. To­day, visi­tors can stomp around the fortress of craters and boul­ders mark­ing Cap­tain Jack’s Strong­hold, where the In­dian chief known as Cap­tain Jack and 50 of his tribes­men held off the U.S. Army for more than five months be­fore sur­ren­der­ing.

Not far from this nat­u­ral fortress is the Tule Lake Unit of World War II Valor in the Pa­cific Na­tional Mon­u­ment, one of 10 “war re­lo­ca­tion cen­ters.” Lit­tle is left of the fa­cil­ity, whose pris­on­ers in­cluded TV ac­tors Ge­orge Takei of “Star Trek” and Pat Morita of “Happy Days” and their fam­i­lies. Sur­rounded by a fore­bod­ing land­scape that made es­cape im­pos­si­ble, it be­came a high-se­cu­rity seg­re­ga­tion cen­ter in 1943 for the “no-no’s”— those Ja­panese Amer­i­cans who an­swered no or re­fused to an­swer two key ques­tions on a U.S. gov­ern­ment loy­alty ques­tion­naire. At its peak, the cen­ter held 18,800 in­ternees; it closed in March 1946.

There’s a small year-round mu­seum with his­tor­i­cal ex­hibits at the Tule­lake-Butte County Fair­grounds, and the Na­tional Park Ser­vice leads car­a­van tours from here in sum­mer out to the in­tern­ment camp, about five miles away. (Pri­vate tours can also be ar­ranged in ad­vance.) It in­cludes what’s left of the com­plex: ware­houses, a paint shop, and a con­crete jail build­ing with six cells that held up to 100 pris­on­ers at a time. Con­di­tions dur­ing the war were dis­mal, with tem­per­a­tures hit­ting triple dig­its in sum­mer and be­low freez­ing in win­ter, noted Ken­neth Doutt, a park ranger at the mon­u­ment.

“Big dust storms would come in from the High Sier­ras, and dust would blow up in the cracks of the floor­boards of the rooms peo­ple were held in,” he said. “It per­me­ated ev­ery as­pect of their lives, get­ting in their cloth­ing, their bed­sheets, their be­long­ings.”

We didn’t ex­pe­ri­ence any dust storms in early April, but we got a sense of the bone-chill­ing wind and des­o­la­tion on our brief tour through town. Boarded-up store­fronts line the pedes­trian-free main street, while a lone bed-and­break­fast, Fe’s, caters to bird­ers and other trav­el­ers with homey folksi­ness.

The land­scape at the Lower Kla­math Na­tional Wildlife Refuge, a few miles west, was a lit­tle more scenic and kid-friendly. Des­ig­nated by Theodore Roo­sevelt in 1908 as the na­tion’s first wa­ter­fowl refuge, it’s set on a 47,000-acre spread of wet­lands and grassy mead­ows that at­tracts an es­ti­mated 80 per­cent of birds mi­grat­ing on the Pa­cific Fly­way each year, in­clud­ing bald ea­gles.

We fol­lowed the 10-mile auto tour around Lower Kla­math Lake and walked down planked paths to photo blinds, watch­ing from a dis­tance as egrets, pel­i­cans and count­less small birds nosed around the lake’s perime­ter. Though the refuge is strug­gling with drought-in­duced is­sues just like ev­ery other habi­tat in the state, there was some­thing about the frol­ick­ing birds and open bod­ies of shim­mer­ing wa­ter that nour­ished our wa­ter-de­prived South­ern Cal­i­for­nia souls.

On the way back down the I-5, we were treated to daz­zling views of Mount Shasta, which was blind­ingly white af­ter an un­ex­pected April snow­storm. A long drive back to Los An­ge­les lay ahead of us, but we broke it up with an overnight stop in Red­ding, a com­mer­cial thor­ough­fare packed with food and lodg­ing op­tions.

It was a strik­ing con­trast to sleepy Tule Lake, and it pro­vided one more ex­pe­ri­ence that’s hard to find at home: a good lo­cal meal. We found Kent’s Meats, an old­fash­ioned gro­cer and butcher with a sand­wich counter, on the out­skirts of town, pass­ing signs for home­made beef jerky and the oc­ca­sional “Welcome to Jef­fer­son, the 51st State.”

When we pulled up, the park­ing-lot bar­be­cue that Kent’s puts on ev­ery Fri­day was in full swing. Jack and I joined the throngs of peo­ple lined up for hefty, horseradish-smeared tri­tip sand­wiches, while John and Theo browsed the huge se­lec­tion of house-smoked ba­con and ham. Off in the dis­tance, Mount Shasta’s white peak glis­tened, and just be­yond it, an ex­tra­or­di­nary swath of Cal­i­for­nia that we wouldn’t soon for­get.

LAURA RAN­DALL

Visi­tors pre­pare to duck into a cave at Lava Bed­sNa­tion­alMon­u­ment, carved by flows of lava from a nearby vol­cano eons ago.

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