Into the Abyss – Cave-hopping at Lava Beds National Monument

Exploring lava caves can be exciting if the queasiness of being in the dark and tight places are overcome. Armed with flashlights  and childlike excitement, we ventured out and explored many of the caves at the Lava Beds National Monument.  The caves found here were created by flows of smooth lava 10,500 to 65,000 years ago and we visited this fantastic underground world on our own.

The Lava Beds National Monument was established in 1925 to preserve the unique geological, natural and historical features of the local landscape. There are over 700 lava tube caves, the greatest concentration in North America, occupying over 46,000 acres of volcanic terrain.

Lava Beds Landscape
Glimpse of Lava Beds Landscape

On our first morning, we arrived at the Visitor’s Center and were screened to determine if we had been to any caves east of the Rockies (we had not).  The reason is that a disease called White Nose can be transmitted to other caves to the west, and this disease has apparently killed millions of bats by interrupting their hibernation habits.  After the screening we were given a nice cave map to use for planning our trip around the Cave Loop and began our exploration.  To the Batcave, Robin!

ScreeningPass Requirement
ScreeningPass Requirement

Tools of Cave Hopping
Tools of Cave Hopping

Cave Loop Map
Cave Loop Map

The caves are categorized from least challenging (caves with high ceiling and smooth floors); moderately challenging (may involve stooping through low sections) to most challenging (crawling with helmets and kneepads required).  There were also developed caves where stairs and platforms are built for easy access and trails to guide to the entrance of each cave. Caves are well marked and some required stooping at the main passage.  What we loved about this experience was that the caves are unlighted and folks are on their own to explore as they wish. Since we didn’t feel like crawling around on our bellies, we stuck with the easy and moderate caves, then walked as far as we could into the challenging ones.

Formations made of lava, calcite and ice, yes ice – were observed at Skull Cave.  There are several “types” of caves – some with smooth floors, walls and ceilings – others very rough and rocky.  Each one was formed by the type of rock and other conditions present at the time of the lava flows.

Lichen on lava
Lichen on lava

Pictographs at Symbol Cave,Steve believes this was the first version of Google Calendar
Pictographs at Symbol Cave,Steve believes this was the first version of Google Calendar.

Inside Cave
Formations inside Cave

Catacomb Cave
Catacomb Cave, this one was huge and one most likely to get lost in.

Cave hopping can be a workout – some required a walk of up to a half mile to the entrance, then stairs throughout the cave plus some bending and walking on uneven floors.  This was a great experience, much cooler than we had thought it would be.  Once you learn how the tubes were formed and walk through the various sizes, twists and turns, you realize yet again how fantastic the natural processes are.  We spent two full days exploring caves and hiking other areas of the park, then another day checking out other natural attractions in the area – to be detailed soon.

Steve had never been in caves like these before and was practically running around each one like a little kid!.  This is a must-do if you are ever in the area!




  1. I’ve visited Cave of the Winds in Colorado Springs a few times and that’s about all the caving I care to do. It’s a guided one and a half hour tour. I’m not sure I would be comfortable on our own with flashlights. Glad you guys had fun!

    • We enjoyed it especially Steve, the one with the childlike excitement. 🙂 It was actually our third cave outing in addition to Moaning Cavern in CA and Oregon Cave Monument. Here it is a little different as we made it more like a hike.

  2. Very nice! Adventurous! I don’t mind the workout at all. 😀 Thank you for the share. I hope you don’t mind me putting this to my bucket list.

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