One of the most unique environments on earth exists in a seldom-visited corner of northern California. Lava Beds National Monument is home to over 700 caves, some of which are full of rare ice formations or play home to solitary biomes like this fern cave. They also allowed a tribe of Indians to make one of the last stands against the American government. Here's how you can visit.
There's two main caves that draw intrepid adventurers: Crystal and Fern Caves.
Photo: Michael McCullough
Crystal Cave is open for a single tour of six people on Saturdays running from January to March. Tours can only be booked up to three weeks in advance and reservations are, "very competitive." To make one, you'll need to call the visitor center at 8:30am, the day reservations become available.
And, you'll need to be fit and provide your own spelunking equipment which hasn't been used in a cave east of the Rockies. Visitors, "must use upper body strength to ascend a sheer, 50-foot long sloped ice floor on a rope, must be able to crawl through a tight hole, and have enough fitness and coordination to negotiate loose, boulder-strewn floors and icy patches safely," says the National Park Service.
Sound like a lot of hassle? Ice formations like these are unique to this cave, alone.
Fern Cave is similarly restricted to one tour per day for size people, but only open June through September. It was formed 25,000 years ago by a lava flow. At some point, an 8x10-foot hole in its roof collapsed, allowing air and light in and making possible its unique environment. While outside temperatures can range from -40 to 100 degrees (F), the cave remains a constant 45-55 degrees year round and its air remains moist. This is what enables the ferns that give it its name to grow.
Inside, you'll find mortar and pestals, petroglyphs and other signs of the native americans who used to live inside.
Lava Beds National Monument was once home to the Modoc people. Theirs is a more complicated story than can be told here, but a band of 52 warriors managed to use their knowledge of the caves and surrounding area to hold the US Army at bay for nearly a year, spanning 1872 and '73. Battlegrounds from the Modoc War are preserved throughout the monument.
Those can be visited year-round, as can most of the remaining 700+ caves.