Lava Beds National Monument
Yesterday │ Tomorrow (coming soon)
On the long stretch from the Pacific coast inland to Lava Beds National Monument, we fell prey to the usual must-see pull-offs to snap photos, making the drive that much longer but that much more enjoyable too.
The first such stop was the Smith River on Route 199. I have never seen a more pretty aquamarine in my life. Pristine river water and mini rapids meandered as far upstream as my eyes could see. The scenic byway wrapped with the river’s edge so intimately, it mesmerized me to the point I had to pull off to take a long gaze to better appreciate it.
For a bit, we were in Oregon. I stopped to gas-up. When I popped out and pumped my gas, an attendant rushed over to me and said that I can’t do that.
“$15,000 fine for pumping your own gas in Oregon!” he said, seriously.
It didn’t seem like he was pulling my leg so I could only take him at his word.
Once we were back in the land of self-serve, I noticed a peculiar topography. It looked like the hillside all along the roadway was lava rock. I pulled off of the road to take a closer look.
It was an incredible sight to see what was once a massive lava flow cooled in its tracks. It came pouring over the hill, thick, and into the valley, ground black as night. Trees burst through it around the perimeter, creating a stunning contrast. It seemed like a black frozen lake and river. We walked along it, picking up loose rock – light, hard and sharp – careful not to cut ourselves.
On our way to the motel near our Lava Beds destination, we passed similar scenes, each wondrous and beautiful. It was an hourglass deep into Earth’s geologic history.
Eventually, we were in no man’s land. And when I say no man’s land, that means only one place to stay (that we could find) and it wasn’t in any brochure, on GPS or in the Triple-A database. Somehow I found and booked it online months in advance. It was the closest (only) place I could find near the entrance to Lava Beds National Monument.
On a desolate road, the sun finally handing the sky over to the moon, we arrived. Had I knew of any other accommodations or thought we could get away with sleeping under the stars, I would have pulled out of the parking lot as soon as we pulled into it.
There was a strip of about six rooms encased in cinder block walls and a house, a.k.a. lodge, hanging on from the 1930’s or so it seemed.
When I went up to the “office” inside the old house, I was relieved that the manager’s name wasn’t Norman Bates. The live-in lady manager said she didn’t think we’d make it. I thought to myself, the night is still young.
She escorted us to our room, carrying an old, metal, square floor fan. That was our “air conditioning.”
Inside were two beds (a single and double), old carpet, cinder block walls and a bathroom occupied by a huge wolf spider. The back window was unlocked. I promptly locked it and set a booby trap consisting of things that would fall over and make lots of noise if anyone came through it that night.
“Can you help me with your son’s cot?” the nice lady asked.
I followed her to a nearby shed to retrieve the cot. This was after she offered the alternative, a mattress on the floor. Seriously, folks, I can’t make this stuff up!
Had everything not appeared to be clean, inside, we would have slept in the car for sure. But it was a long adventurous day and a bed was a bed. On the other hand, there was no television or radio and no room key if you can believe that! I mean, where ya gonna go, right? It was about that time that I started humming Hotel California by the Eagles.
After tucking the kids into bed, I sat on the concrete slab out in front of our door and noticed seven holes that had been filled. I wondered if they were bullet holes. Then I tipped back on the plastic chair and heard dead silence. Incredibly, that night just happened to be the soundest sleep I had had in years. Imagine that.
Rise. Shine. And get the heck outa here! Wait a minute! Really? There’s a Continental Breakfast included with the room rental here. Hmm, this just may be the Hotel California. Knowing there wasn’t another choice for breakfast other than our bag of trail mix, we made tracks up to the lodge.
I have to make it clear that despite all of the knocks I made against this place, it was clean. Not only that, it was exceptionally quiet and the manager was a very nice lady. Did I mention I slept like a baby? Oh, and the whole reason we picked this place was because it was just a stone’s throw from Lava Beds National Monument. Besides, it would be another long haul from here to our next stop – Yosemite.
When we entered the dining room, my mouth watered and my stomach growled. MM-mmm-MM, the cooking I smelled from the kitchen had me very excited for breakfast. I sensed a feast!
…for the three-man construction crew already seated.
The manager/bell hop/cook/waitress explained to me that our Continental Breakfast was on the shelf. The other gentlemen, who had stayed in the lodge, signed up for the breakfast works. It was further explained to me that I could not upgrade my breakfast without at least 24-hour’s notice.
So after a quick hearty bowl of cereal, a slice of toast and a banana to go, we pulled out of there and never looked back. Okay, one peek in the rearview mirror but that was it.
Quicker than you can say, “Are we there yet” or “I have to pee”, we were there and there was a port-o-pot just inside the entrance road.
I dumped my Styrofoam cup of so-called continental coffee and gazed at the glass-enclosed wooden map, outside on a gorgeous morning where the sun split the land from the sky, rising over the high desert. I had our plan of attack formulated in my head when Captain Chaos, a.k.a. my wife, threw a monkey wrench into my well-oiled machine.
“Look, Petroglyphs!” she asserted in a delightful tone full of enthusiasm.
If there is one thing that’s non-negotiable on our family vacations, it’s that if there are Petroglyphs to be seen, you betcha we’re seeing them. I knew it, the kids knew it, and you better bet she knew it.
But I tried to talk her down from the ledge anyway. After all, the entire game plan for staying at the Hotel California was to be up and caving at the crack of dawn – no commute! And to add insult to injury, the Petroglyphs were nearly 10 miles THE OTHER WAY! I did the math. That means 20 miles plus a mile hike there and back, not to mention the time to take at least 39 photos.
Long story short, I lost the battle but it wasn’t for the lack of effort.
Our site seeing detour also took in Jackrabbits, a rodent of some sort, quail and a pelican. Then, finally, the visitor center. We grabbed a map, talked to a ranger and bought an extra flashlight and spare batteries. Now it was time to go caving.
The park was like nothing we’d ever seen. On the surface, it was nothing more than endless high desert nothingness all the way to the base of the mountains, which were way in the distance. But beneath the desert floor were more than 700 caves, according to the brochure. And dozens waited for explorers like us – completely unprepared and raring to get lost. Well, we did have flashlights and water so I guess we were somewhat prepared.
The choices were overwhelming. We had time to probably see a half dozen or so lava tube caves. They had names like Blue Grotto, Golden Dome, Catacombs, Labyrinth and Skull Cave. The most wonderful thing about this experience was that we were left on our own. Once you left the visitor center, you were free to go wherever your heart’s desire. No guides, no lights, no nothing, just you and a pitch black subterranean adventure. We didn’t see another soul anywhere for the longest time.
Our fist lava tube split into two directions. It was treacherous to navigate. If you have never walked on top of lava rock before, it has no give what-so-ever and it is extremely porous so it catches your footgear with the slightest graze. That said, we stumbled down this tunnel and that like a pack of drunken sailors.
When I convinced everyone to turn off their flashlights and zip their lips, the silence was deafening and the darkness blinding.
It was “Wa-a-a-a-a-ay cool!” to quote a Tween.
I became brazen in my quest for excitement and pried my body through tight crevices or slid down lava tubes that were sure to lead to the bowels of a monster’s lair. The caves began to echo with, “Don’t go in there Dad!”, “You’re on your own!”, “Let’s get out of this one!”, “What’s that sound?”, “BATS!”, “I’m scared!” and “Wow! Check that out!”
Everyone looked at the ceiling. It was “Golden Dome Cave.” I delighted in telling the kids that the golden glow was due to glowing bacteria. It wasn’t a joke.
Once we felt like we “did” a tube, we’d bail and drive to another. Some had discreet entries. If you were 15 yards from it, you wouldn’t know it was there until you were right on top of it. You definitely had to pay attention or you could fall into a hole. There were different levels of difficulty. Some had secure metal ladders descending into a cavern and others required climbing over boulders and rubble to get inside.
Only one time during all of our spelunking did we see other people. It was a family of four and they were wearing bicycle helmets. It looked kind of humorous. The self-conscious father of that family apologized for the “goofy get up” as they passed. But goofy was worth it I’d soon find out. I later hit my head so hard on a stalactite that I saw stars underground. Another mishap was when I was using my video camera’s night vision mode to see where I was going when I slipped on wet rock and slid down an incline. As I lay at the bottom gathering my senses I heard my son say, “Don’t go that way. I think we lost Dad.”
Thanks for the concern.
Skull Cave was enormous. The mouth opened with wonderful rock teeth that had shiny tones to it. It looked like giant gray swirled marbles. It had a flat walkway carved into the side so we walked, and walked and walked. It was a while before the daylight dissipated and that was after the huge tunnel curved. As I looked back, I thought of ants in a dinosaur’s world. Then there was a metal stair system that plunged to a ridiculous depth. It got very cold very fast. So cold, at the bottom, we discovered the ice floor, which was gated and out of reach.
When we left, I felt like a kid throwing a tantrum, “Do we have to go?” I wanted to keep on exploring. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time.
This wasn’t your ordinary national park or monument. It had hardly any visitors and it was in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the southbound road we took, leaving the park, was listed as unpaved. But it did have blacktop at one time. Now, it was very old crumbly blacktop. Imagine it was an airstrip that had been bombed. And I mean carpet bombed! We were going under 15 miles per hour, snaking around depressions and mounds of loose, pulverized blacktop chunks. I kept thinking about the time this was costing us and the power drive still ahead to get to Yosemite.
Once we found our way back to modern roads, we talked about adding in a spontaneous stop despite being behind schedule. As soon as the words “ghost town” were uttered, we all got excited.
Now, “ghost town” to me and my nine-year-old son meant tumble-weed, saloon doors and a “High Noon!” atmosphere.
This place was none of that.
My wife and daughter loved the remnants of the old gold rush town. My son and I sulked, mildly impressed.
“Can we go yet?” – “How ‘bout now?”
Looking back, it was a neat pit stop that didn’t detour much from the planned route. The town of Shasta, California dated back to 1878. Most of the buildings were red brick ruins. In retrospect, it was worth the 30 minutes stay.
The approach to Yosemite had magic in the air on this late night drive. There was a calming that overcame my wife and me as the kids were sound to sleep in the back and had been for quite some time. Finally, at around 10pm, we were as close to Yosemite’s official park entrance as you can get and still have lodging.
What a difference a night makes!
We went from rags to riches in 24-hours. The room had it all; fireplace, Jacuzzi, bar, fridge, balcony and much more. When I opened the sliding glass doors, paradise rang in my ears. We overlooked a canyon with roaring rapids right under our feet. Crack the wine, pull up a chair, romance was in the air.
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!
Tomorrow: Yosemite (Coming Soon)