Hiker walking along the Whitney Butte Trail
Hiking along the Whitney Butte Trail

NPS Photo

Lava Beds Trails

Lava Beds has thirteen hiking trails. The most popular trails are short, but lead to interesting historic sites and geological features. Due to resource concerns, pets and bicycles are not permitted on any park trails, in non-developed areas, or in caves. All trails cross or enter the non-developed backcountry, while the long trails are primarily in designated wilderness areas. Carry plenty of water regardless of trail length - no surface water exists at Lava Beds. Watch for rattlesnakes and wear sunscreen and a hat in summer. Be prepared for sudden weather changes any time of year.

Visitor hiking along the Big Nasty Trail at sunset.
Visitor hikes along the Big Nasty Trail at sunset.

Short Hiking Trails

Heppe Cave Trail - 0.4 mi / 0.6 km (one-way)

Heppe Cave Trail can be found along the gravel road (FS Route 49) to Mammoth Crater. This trail begins under tall Ponderosa pines and cuts through thickets of mountain mahogany and juniper trees. As you reach the end of the trail, you will be afforded spectacular views of an enormous lava tube collapse. Continue following the trail into Heppe Ice Cave where you may have an opportunity to view seasonal ice formations.

Captain Jacks Stronghold Trail - 0.5 mi / 0.8 km (Inner), 1.5 mi / 2.4 km (Outer)

Two self-guided interpretive trails wind through the heart of the Modoc's wartime defenses. Be prepared for rough terrain! The trailheads start from the parking lot of the Stronghold in the northern area of the monument.

Gillem Bluff Trail - 0.7 mi / 1.13 km (one-way)

This trail climbs 550 feet in elevation to the top of Gillem Bluff (Sheepy Ridge) and affords sweeping views of the surrounding landscape. Access to this trailhead is from the Gillem's Camp parking lot at the northern edge of the monument.

Schonchin Butte Trail - 0.7 mi / 1.13 km (one-way)

This trail steadily climbs 500 feet in elevation to the top of a cinder cone where a fire lookout tower affords breathtaking views of the monument and surrounding basin. You can be a guest of the lookout on duty during the summer months while exploring this charming structure that is in the National Register of Historic Places. Please help stop erosion by staying on the designated trail and avoiding shortcutting switchbacks.

Missing Link Trail - 0.7 mi / 1.13 km (one-way)

Connects the Three Sisters Trail to the Bunchgrass Trail, creating a 10-mile (16 km) loop. Access to this trail is along the Bunchgrass Trail, approximately 0.5 mi (0.8 km) from the B-loop of the campground. This trail will bring you out across the street from the Symbol Bridge pullout, along Skull Cave road. From here, hike 0.1 mi (0.16 km) east, toward the Skull Cave parking lot where you can continue along the Lyons/Three Sisters Trail to complete the loop.

Symbol Bridge Trail - 0.8 mi / 1.3 km (one-way)

Winding past interesting lava tube collapses and volcanic features, this trail leads to many vivid pictographs at the bridge and entrance to Symbol Bridge Cave. Along the way, take a side trip to search for faint pictographs and secret chambers inside of Big Painted Cave. Take the Skull Cave road to the first parking area on the left side of the road for the start of this trailhead.

Bunchgrass Trail - 1.0 mi / 1.6 km (one-way)

This trail meanders through open brushlands and juniper thickets as it connects the campground to the Bunchgrass overlook. Provides access to the Missing Link Trail. The trail begins near site B-7 in the campground.

Thomas-Wright Battlefield Trail - 1.1 mi / 1.8 km (one-way)

Highlights of this trail include rich history of one of the final battles during the Modoc War, as well as fantastic examples of volcanism. Wildflower displays are spectacular in this area during the late spring and early summer. The trailhead can be accessed from a pullout along the main road.

Black Crater Trail - .0.3 mi / 0.5 km (one-way)

Start on the Thomas-Wright Battlefield trail and take a 0.3 mi (0.5 km) spur off of this trail to visit Black Crater, a large spatter cone. Along the trail look for tree molds, which are made when a living tree was burned away by fresh lava and left the imprint of its bark inside the mold.

Big Nasty Trail - 2.0 mi / 3.2 km loop trial

The Big Nasty Trail is a fantastic loop trail that is named after a brush-covered formation of rough lava rock. Sweeping views of Lava Beds and the Modoc National Forest can be seen from here, and the trail is a fantastic spot to view the sunset. From the Mammoth Crater/Hidden Valley pullout, the trail starts just before the upper overlook and follows the crater rim before heading west toward Ponderosa pine forests.

Petroglyph Point Trail

This very short trail begins on the east side of the Petroglyph Point just beyond the bulletin board on the dirt road. The trailhead parking lot is on top of a short rise across from the trail entrance. Hike to the top to enjoy an impressive view of the basin and the Medicine Lake volcano.

Please do not hike to the edge of the cliff to avoid disturbing nesting birds such as prairie falcons, red-tailed hawks, and owls. Please do not attempt to hike to the top from the west side of Petroglyph Point! A social trail there has caused severe erosion and passes too close to nesting sites.

Hiking along the Three Sisters Trail
Visitor hikes near rim of collapsed lava tube trench along the Three Sisters Trail

NPS Photo

Long Hiking Trails

Whitney Butte Trail - 3.3 mi / 5.3 km (one-way)

From the Merrill Cave parking area to the western boundary of the monument, this trail crosses the wilderness in an east-west direction, curving around Whitney Butte. Enjoy an impressive view of Mount Shasta and the Callahan Lava Flow.

Three Sisters Trail - 8.7 mi / 14.0 km (one-way)

This trail follows a series of collapsed lava tube trenches as it meanders through a juniper and sagebrush wilderness area. You can easily turn this trail into a 10 mi (16 km) loop by connecting to the Missing Link and Bunchgrass trails. Trailhead can be accessed from the A-loop of the campground.

Lyons Trail - 9.4 mi / 15.2 km (one-way)

Enjoy a dynamic landscape and changing views as you traverse much of the park along this north to south trail. A former monument road, the Lyons Trail crosses into park wilderness and affords ample opportunities for wildlife viewing and big skies. Lyons trail has two access points, The northern trailhead for Lyons trail is located near Hospital Rock while the southern trailhead is located at the skull cave parking area.

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Special Concerns in Wilderness Areas

On October 13, 1972, 27,970 acres (11,319 hectares) of the Lava Beds backcountry were designated as wilderness. Pets, bicycles, hunting, and motorized vehicles are not permitted in wilderness areas.

No person may camp in a non-developed or wilderness area with a group size of more than twelve, including horses and pack animals.

Due to the dry nature of Lava Beds, especially in summer, open fires are not allowed at any time in the backcountry. Gas stoves are permitted. Other restrictions may apply during extreme fire conditions: please check with a ranger.

Camping in or within 50 yards (46 meters) of caves or in the vicinity of chimneys is not permitted. Camping within 0.25 miles (0.4 km) of roads, trailheads, and parking areas is also prohibited.

Check at the visitor center for current weather information. Carry first aid supplies and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Off-trail hiking is not recommended, as lava terrain is very rough.

Please remember to leave no trace! If you pack it in, pack it out. Leave what you find. All historic and prehistoric objects, plants, animals, and rocks are protected. Please store your food securely and do not share your lunch with any wild animals.


Horse Regulations

  • Horses and pack animals are only permitted on the Three Sisters, Lyons and Whitney Butte trails. All wilderness rules apply to horse and rider.
  • Ride at a slow pace; the terrain is rough.
  • Horse riders should carry plenty of water. Summer days are hot and there is no surface water for animals to drink from.
  • Leg protectors are recommended for horses and riders. Be alert for rattlesnakes on the trail.
  • Horses should be sprayed completely, especially on the legs, with fly and tick spray.

Last updated: January 21, 2024

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P.O. Box 1240
Tulelake, CA 96134


530 667-8113

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