Posted by: GeekHiker | August 10, 2011

Lost In The Dark

“Don’t panic. Take a deep breath. KEEP CALM.”

Keeping calm was actually the second thought that went through my head.  It followed on the heels of sheer panic, which is what happens when you’re deep underground in a lava tube, with only a flashlight in otherwise pitch blackness, and you realized that the path you’re trying to get out on is not the path you came in on.

I’d read about it before, sure, but nothing matches the feeling of being in that moment and trying to quash the natural instinct to turn 180 and backtrack as fast as possible without thinking.

I’d come to Lava Beds National Monument, my first detour from the otherwise relentless plainness of the interstate on the drive north towards Oregon.  Located in the northwest corner of California, it feels a world away from the rest of the state.  To some degree, in fact, it is: Lava Beds and the high desert that surround it are more a part of the Great Basin than the landforms of California proper.

I arrived in mid-afternoon, setting up camp in the mostly empty campground.  The air was clear, the vistas wide, and the campground had running water and nice restrooms.  I set up my tent and headed to the visitor center to find out where to go.

Lava Beds 02
Campsite at Lava Beds, including a picnic table made partially of lava…

The first stop at the Visitor Center is to get “certified” that you’re okay to enter the caves.  Colonies of bats live in the caves at Lava Beds and the National Park Service is determined to keep White Nose Syndrome, which has decimated colonies of bats on the East Coast, out of the park and away from the local population.  So, before going into any of the caves, you have to report to a volunteer that you haven’t been in any east coast caves in over six months, and in return you’re handed a tag to put in your car so that the rangers know that you, and the local bats, are safe.

Following my approval to tramp through the caves, I toured the Visitor Center, which has informative displays on the history, geology, flora and fauna of the area.  Next to that, behind windows overlooking the plains to the east, is a nice gift shop with many books and pamphlets for sale. Although tempted by a few, I decided I had too many books already and not to buy more (a decision I would later regret).  It’s also a good place to talk to the rangers, find out which caves are open and closed, and which ones you should (or, more importantly, should not) try to explore based on your experience and ability.

Leaving the Visitor Center, I started out in Mushpot Cave, the only lighted cave in the park, which provides a good introduction to the features to be found while tramping around underground.  Lava Beds is made up of a series of lava tubs set down by multiple volcanic eruptions over the millennia.  Like most caves, they’re pitch-black and the air temperature inside stays relatively mild and constant throughout the year even if, outside, the ground is roasting or covered in snow.  Mushpot is a fine teaser, with information signs and spotlights highlighting various features, but clambering back to the surface, I my thirst for a “real” cave was palpable.

I spent the remainder of the evening and most of the next morning exploring some of the other lava tubes, looking into Valentine, Sunshine and Skull Cave.  Each was different and unique: Valentine, originating from a different lava flow than others in the park, having smooth walls and a distinctive “subway” feel; Sunshine with its roof-falls, allowing vegetation to grow down into the cave from the surface; and Skull Cave, where cold air descends and becomes trapped, creating a permanent ice floor at the bottom of the cave.

Lava Beds 05
Looking at the entrance of Valentine Cave: sunlight and a bit of light-painting on the cave walls

Lava Beds 01
In the belly of the beast: inside Valentine Cave

Lava Beds is one of the largest groupings of lava caves in North America.  I tended to stick to only the “easy” or “moderate” caves, eschewing the idea of becoming hopelessly lost or stuck in one of the “advanced” caves.  Not to worry, though: for the cave neophyte, there are caves so large (such as Skull) that claustrophobia is a near-impossibility.  Available for sale in the gift shop is a book containing descriptions and maps of most of the caves in the park, another re-assurance that you might like when adventuring underground.

In fact, it was that very book that I’d looked at at the Visitor Center when I first stopped there, but decided I didn’t need, a decision I would regret that very afternoon.

Leaving my car in the visitor center parking lot (the cave loop road is closed at 5:00), I walked up to Golden Dome Cave.  I clambered down the ladder, one flashlight in hand and a backup in pocket, and a bicycle helmet on my head (the poor-man’s excuse for a caving helmet).  I first explored downstream, looking for but unable to see the “golden dome” ceiling (named for a colorful bacteria the grows in the water droplets on the ceiling), so I returned to the cave entrance and decided to explore the upstream portion of the tube before returning to camp.

The upstream section of the cave got lower and lower, and once I hit a section that would have required crawling on all fours, I decided it was time to call it a day.  I turned around and started to head back downstream.  Within a few minutes I had reached a very tight section that would have required squeezing through on my stomach… and realized that I hadn’t come through any section like that on my way in.  I was lost.

Not a comfortable feeling when caving solo.

I took my deep breath, turned around, and slowly retraced my steps back to the point where, unbeknownst to me coming in, the cave had split into two tunnels.  I’d followed the opposite wall down from the one I came in on, right into a different branch of the lava tube.  I turned back down the other tunnel (making careful mental notes of my surroundings), and crawled downstream again.  A few minutes later, I clambered back up the ladder to the warm desert evening.

And breathed a sigh of relief.

Lava Beds 03
Emerging into sunlight: evening clouds over the high desert

The very next morning, before I went to explore the other caves, the first thing I did was stop at the Visitor Center to purchase the book with the cave maps.  The perfect souvenir of my time underground.

Lava Beds 04
Sunrise at Lava Beds

Lava Beds National MonumentVisited: August 08-09, 2011Website:


  1. Good stuff. I think you just gave me the urge to do some extreme caving.

  2. Omigoodness, good on you for staying so calm!! I felt a surge of sympathetic panic for you when I read this! This was really cool Big G. Glad you’re having this adventure!

  3. Please tell me you’re informing someone (park ranger, campsite staff) of where you’re going so that someone can send a rescue if you fail to return!

  4. I went spelunking once in Oregon and was having heart palpitations the entire time. I would have totally freaked if I’d gotten lost. I’m glad you made it out okay! Very cool pictures.

  5. I would have freaked out …. if I would even go in the cave. I’m a little too cautious for caves.

  6. That Valentine Cave pic is rad! It’s as if it were under water. I am not a big fan of dark caves, and will never venture into one alone. Good for you to keep it calm!

  7. Wow. I’m sitting here admiring your bravery – I’d be freaking out. In a BIG way. I’m not a big fan of dark, tight, secluded, or underground.

  8. […] exactly, that late last night I went in an actually re-wrote a post from last year.  (It’s this one, for those interested, and if you think it’s any good or have suggestions for […]

  9. […] ago that I barely even remember now?  Lately I’ve been pondering sending them a pdf copy of Lost In The Dark, just to see how they might react to my travel […]

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