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Ice formations in Crystal Ice Cave evoke feelings of awe and wonder. [Photo by Dave Bunnell / Courtesy National Park Service]

Cave of ice

TULELAKE, CALIF. — Crystal Ice Cave is one of the most spectacular places at Lava Beds National Monument — a place steeped in mystery, magic and ice — but few visitors ever see it.

It's seldom seen because the cave is locked year-around to protect its fragile ice features. Visitors — just six at a time — are allowed inside on ranger-guided tours Saturdays, usually between December and March.

Patrick Taylor, Lava Beds chief interpreter, says access is limited because heat generated by too many visitors could change the cave's delicate balance and cause the ice and delicate crystal formations to melt.

I've visited Crystal Cave several times, but this year's features — from a wall of dagger-like ice needles to its broader-than-usual frozen waterfall — are unusually spectacular because of abundant winter rain and snow. Just like ear-to-ear grinning first-timers bedazzled by the sights, I'm always equally awed.

Our tour group scrambled through the fragile subterranean fantasy land of ice-formed stalactites, stalagmites, columns, curtains, ice hoodoos and, most dramatically, frozen waterfalls. There's an unusual abundance of oddly formed ice blocks — some resembling spears, modernistic sculptures, crystalline horns, jagged daggers and upright torpedoes, also often called smurfs — and, as the cave's name implies, zillions of hexagonal, or six-sided crystals.

Exploring Crystal isn't for everyone. It's a challenging and strenuous experience. Entering includes down-climbing ice-slick rocks to its gated, locked entrance, descending an often icy ladder. Then, with the aid of ropes, sliding or backing down a 50-foot, slippery, steep, ice-cube surface. There's also a tiny crawl-through passage.

Once inside, the route meanders through segments of the multilevel cave, which drops about 150 feet below the surface. Although it's only 960 feet long, Crystal Cave's intermittently connected levels make the cave's total length about 1,800 feet, a distance the tours don't cover.

After a series of ice-sculpted delights are two frozen waterfalls, including the cave's most eye-popping feature, a 15-foot tall waterfall-like ice column. It takes some serious shimmying around its bottom, which has widened in recent years, to a room with an ice floor and more weirdly wonderful shaped ice blocks.

Like many of the most-visited caves at Lava Beds, Crystal was named by J.D. Howard, the "Father of Lava Beds" and its most celebrated explorer. The name stems from the crystals found in some of the cave's subterranean corridors, passages and rooms.

During the early years after Lava Beds' discovery, the cave's features were threatened when a bootlegger used Crystal's ice to make whiskey. Howard chased him out.

Limiting the numbers who get in is an ongoing concern. Taylor, who had led a tour a week earlier, was startled by changes in the ice formations. He led our group on an impromptu loop through a section of the cave he hadn't previously explored. And for the first time, during his fourth winter at the park, he was surprised to see water lightly flowing into the cave and down through its passages.

He told about one of the cave's no-longer-accessible features, the Red Ice Room, which closed in the 1990s when it was no longer possible to wriggle through its entrance. Before it closed, I was among the lucky ones who squeezed through the then chest-high entrance into a 20-by-20-foot room. Inside was a ceiling resplendent with googolplex ice formations, mostly delicate hexagons, plus others shaped like fanned, scalloped shells.

The Red Ice Room is closed, but Crystal is stuffed with other delights, including oddly shaped ice blocks shaped in ever-changing configurations that challenge a viewer's imagination — one with the likeness of a dolphin, others formed like modernistic sculptures and crystalline horns. Fascinating, too, are blocks of ice with spidery tracks of trapped air bubbles where the ice has slowly flowed downhill, and the Crystal Ballroom's copious twinkling ice formations.

In colorful contrast are occasionally exposed red cinders from eruptions that predate the 30,000- to 60,000-year-old lava flows from Mammoth Crater that created Crystal Cave and most of the park's700-plus other lava tubes.

Over the years, rocks have shifted through one vertical passage, possibly from the cave's ongoing battle with the laws of gravity or perhaps because of weakening caused by the series of Klamath Basin earthquakes.

While humans are infrequent visitors, pack rats have made nests in the cave's oblique darkness. Although Crystal Cave has only one passage large enough for humans, it's believed the small rodents slip through even teenier squeeze holes.

The lack of a second large opening is a reason why Crystal Cave exists. As Taylor explained, as cold air settles, it creates subfreezing temperatures in the cave's deepest areas. If more than one large cave opening existed, the resulting circulation would naturally flush out the cold air.

While other Lava Beds caves contain ice, Crystal is unique because of its volume and large, always dynamic, continually changing ice features.

Magical things happen in Crystal Cave.

— Reach Lee Juillerat at juilleratlee1@gmail.com or 541-880-4139.

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