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Lava Beds National Monument
Tucked in the shadow of the Cascade volcanic range, Lava Beds National Monument is a land of tranquility and solitude built on a history of turmoil and destruction.
Over thousands of years, the Medicine Lake Volcano, the most massive volcano in the Cascades, erupted hundreds of times and shaped the landscape into a geologic playground. Fluid lavas pouring from more than 200 vents formed hundreds of lava tube caves while numerous explosions created buttes and spatter cones.
The once unrelenting red-hot molten rock has since cooled, and through the ages these peaceful passages have become home to many creatures. Dozens of life forms, from microscopic bacteria to bats, both harmless and beautiful, thrive in these dark sanctuaries.
Cool, still air surrounds you in these spaces and allows for a true quiet like no other. At night, darkness persists on the surface. Far removed from sources of light pollution, stars leap into full brilliance, as billions of points of light form the ribbon of the Milky Way. Spend a night stargazing and allow your mind to wander into the infinite.
Throughout the seasons, the lava beds are bursting with life. Mule deer and cottontails abound. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks soar overhead. In spring and fall, bird watching peaks as hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl congregate along the northern edge of the monument and at the nearby Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a world-famous birding hotspot. In winter, a blanket of snow quiets the air, and small mammals, like the elusive pika, scurry out of sight. Large predators are rarely seen, but on occasion an encouraging footprint can be found.
Despite the apparent isolation of Lava Beds National Monument, people have dwelt here for millennia. For more than 10,000 years, humans have lived in the area, from ancient peoples, to the Modoc, to settlers and homesteaders. Evidence of these peoples can be found throughout the monument, such as ancient carvings at Petroglyph Point, paintings at Symbol Bridge, and the writings and litter of early explorers like J.D. Howard.
This land was the core of Modoc culture, serving as a thriving center of food, art, spirituality, and life. Although these people are mostly absent from today's lava beds, you can find connection with them across the ages.
As peaceful as the area may be today, evidence of the Modoc War can be found. In 1872-1873, several bands of Modoc and the U.S. Army fought here in what was one of the most costly wars per person in American history and the only Indian War in which a general was killed.
At the natural lava fortress known as Captain Jack's Stronghold, the Modoc held off the army for five months in the dead of winter despite being outnumbered ten to one. A short hike and a little imagination is all it takes to step back into the shoes of those who lived and died in the stronghold. The rifles and cannons are silent now, but the battlefield remains a memorial of lives and culture lost.
Born of smoke and fire with a history of war and violence, Lava Beds National Monument is today a site of peace, solitude, and humility. Plan your adventure in this high desert wilderness!
By Patrick Taylor, lead interpreter, Lava Beds National Monument