California Campcation: Medicine Lake and Lava Beds

I thought we were going camping. After all, the weekend had all the typical trappings of a camping trip. And then there was this moment, this moment when I was standing on the edge of a volcanic crater, breathless, fascinated, and suddenly aware that this was so much more than a camping trip. Sure, we were sleeping in a tent and cooking our meals over a campfire, but we were also, really, taking a vacation. We were in a new (to me) place, we were learning about geology and history, we were going caving. This was no mere camping weekend.

The decision to come to this particular location had been prompted by Brandon. This area of California had been the site of one of his favorite childhood trips. He had spoken about this place for literally as long as I’ve known him. So when I learned I would have a 5-day weekend because of the 4th of July, we decided that we would spend the weekend in the Modoc National Forest and Lava Beds National Monument. Of course, revisiting Brandon’s childhood memories had not always lived up to his abundant praise (cough, porcupines, cough); I honestly was not expecting much. But I love him, he wanted to go back, so we did. Spoiler alert: it was amazing.

We reserved a lakeside campsite in the Medicine Lake Campground, which had just opened up for the year. As the park ranger with whom we chatted said, “It is a little more lake front than usual.” The lake was feet higher than normal, but even so, our campsite was wonderful.

Whether we were drinking coffee by the campfire, floating in the lake, playing cards, watching the sunset cuddled up in the hammock, or simply relaxing, we enjoyed every second. Conveniences like running water and vault toilets made the campground seem practically luxurious after our recent backpacking trip.

But you know us. We could not be content with just hanging out at a campsite all weekend. This is where the “vacation” part kicked in. We spent our first full day in California at Lava Beds National Monument. I really had no idea what to expect, other than that there would be some caves. Lava Beds is accessible from Modoc National Forest along a gravel road and was about 16 miles from the campground.

Our first stop was Mammoth Crater. The crater was formed 36,000 years ago and is the volcano responsible for the lava flows that created most of the caves in the park. This is also where I realized this was so much more than a camping trip.

Our next stop was the visitor’s center. Because we did not come in the main entrance, we needed to pay the entrance fee and get cleared to enter the caves (I’ve talked about white nose syndrome and bats before, which I think says a lot about my life with Brandon).

He’s so handsome and I love him

After a this quick and scenic stop, we began exploring the caves. Not all of them, of course. There are over 700 caves in the park and over 2 dozen of them have developed entrances. That was definitely more than we could see in a day! While at the visitor’s center, we picked up a brochure with information about the developed caves. This included information on the caves’ locations, difficulty, and any special features. We started with the caves near the visitor’s center before driving Cave Loop Road, where many of the most popular caves are located. We finished our day of caving with a quick stop at Skull Cave, one of the few remaining ice caves at Lava Beds, and a hike to two caves that displayed Native American pictographs.

When I say “developed cave,” this is probably what comes to mind – a marked entrance, a way to get into the cave without using a rope, a clear path, and some type of lighting. Sure, that applied… to exactly one cave in the park. Near the visitor’s center, Mushpot is a great place to start because of all of the above. The lighting also provides the opportunity for educational information to be displayed throughout the cave.

Then there was the rest of the day, when paths and lighting were nowhere to be found. Sure, there were ladders to get into the caves when needed, but from there, we were on our own with the exception of the occasional path. And that’s what made it fun. We wandered and explored and discovered, each cave unique ensuring there was always something new to see within the light of our headlamps.

After a picnic lunch, we set out for the greatest adventure of the day – The Catacombs. Brandon could not wait to explore this, one of the largest caves in the park. The description about the cave says (and I quote) “A cave map is highly recommended for any group planning to explore the entire cave, as multiple levels and numerous side passages can be confusing. This cave is not recommended for inexperienced cavers.” Ummmm…. Cave map? No, of course not. Sense of direction? I am the girl who can get lost while listening to the GPS telling me exactly where to go. Cave experience? Hardly, unless you count the few caves I had been in near Bend. How could this possibly go wrong?

Maybe I did not have a map, a sense of direction, or adequate caving experience. But at least I had a hard hat and knee pads. I think my face says it all.
Brandon, on the other hand, could not wait to get inside the cave.

We (obviously) made it out alive, but we had very different experiences in this cave. I was stressed out and constantly worried about finding our way out. Brandon was having a great time and had no concern about taking whatever path caught his fancy.

I pretty much just followed him around, letting him choose where to go, reminding myself that we would (more than likely) be okay. Until we got here:

After crawling through on his belly, the space too small for his bag, he came back to reassure me that the cave “opened up on the other side.” Nope, not doing it. Despite his efforts at persuasion, this was as far as we went.

The rest of the day was rather less stressful as we fit as much of Lava Beds as we could into the day.

Where’s Brandon?

We had such a great day! I loved that we could start and end the day among the pine trees next to a lake and spend the time in between in the desert seeing unique geological features. Truly, it’s a fascinating place. We were just getting started. Up next, geology, history, and art. I told you this was a vacation!

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