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Rocks in the Callahan Flow at Lava Beds National Monument form a horse's head. Or is it a dragon's head?

Exploring faces and shapes in the Callahan Flow

Sometimes going with the flow is best way.

Over the years, hikes to Whitney Butte have led me and others near the Callahan Flow, a visually foreboding, massive frozen river of basaltic andesite. Usually the hike, either from a trailhead by the Merrill Cave parking lot or another trailhead off Gold Digger Pass, features a cross-country climb up the butte, where the expansive, 360-degree view includes the Callahan Flow’s seemingly endless black sea of lava.

The trail ends at the lava flow, which extends in and outside the park boundaries. According to the U.S. Geologic Survey, the flow was created by an eruption from Cinder Butte, just west of the park. It’s believed the activity happened about 1,100 years ago, a period when eruptions had a higher proportion of andesite, a dark, fine-grained, brown or grayish volcanic rock that is intermediate in composition between rhyolite and basalt. According to the USGS, the Callahan Flow is the most recent of 30 lava flows at Lava Beds.

While from a distance the flow appears smooth, up close it’s a jumble of rocks, stacks of rocks piled willy-nilly. Up close, rocks that appear devilish black from most of the trail are softer in tone, but also more daunting. There’s no easy way onto or across.

While others waited, my long-suppressed curiosity was satisfied by climbing hand-over-hand, seeking the least steep route over the fractured flow, some rocks the size of basketballs, others erratic forms the size of dwarfs from horror flicks.

What were the views from the top of a small section of the flow? Mostly, more and more basaltic andesite. Long sections of the flow curled south, sometimes framed and shaped by hills and buttes in and outside the park. According to geologic reports, the Callahan Flow covers 23.7 square kilometers, or more than 9 square miles, over 5,773 acres. From the top of the rocks I climbed, it seems much larger.

Up close, some rocks were colored and freckled with muted green lichen. In some cracks in the lava, flowers and ragged bushes pushed through, seeking sunlight and moisture. It didn’t take much of an imagination to see rocks in the shapes and faces of creatures and critters, including one formation that from one angle is a distinct head of horse, and from another the head of a dragon.

Later we climbed to Whitney Butte’s summit. It’s one of the region’s many cinder cones — steep, conical hills created by fragmented rock that oozed from a volcanic vent. At an elevation of 4,890 feet, it’s not the tallest in the Lava Beds, but its isolated location — 3.3 miles from the Merrill Cave trailhead and 4.4 miles from the Gold Digger Pass starting point — results in a sweeping panoramic view. The obvious sights include Mount Shasta, Mount Dome, Schonchin Butte, Tule Lake and more, but this day the focus was the Callahan Lava Flow.

It’s from Whitney that the Callahan Flow seems endless, a frozen black river of twisted, impenetrable rock that reaches out with gigantic fingers clawing out across a desolate landscape of bunchgrass, bitterbrush, sagebrush, mountain mahogany and scattered junipers.

Unknown is the origin of the flow’s name. Records from J.D. Howard, the “Father of Lava Beds, don’t mention the Callahan Flow.

David Curtis, Lava Beds’ archaeologist, speculates it might be named for M.B. Callahan, who settled in the region and opened a hotel at the base of Craggy Peak in 1851. He notes a small Siskiyou County community south of Fort Jones and west-southwest of Weed is named Callahan, which at one time was the last stop on the stage line from Yreka. Callahan served as one of the first trustees of the newly incorporated town of Yreka in 1857 and was also an honorary member of Yreka’s first fire engine company.

“My guess,” Curtis believes, “is that being a prominent figure of his day, his name may have been lent to the volcanic feature.”

However it got its name, the Callahan Flow lives up to the USGS description, which defines lava flows as “streams of molten rock that pour or ooze from an erupting vent ... Lava flows move slowly enough to outrun them, but they will destroy everything in their path.”

Paths from the Merrill Cave, Gold Digger Pass and elsewhere lead to the Callahan Flow, but there’s no easy way across. The Callahan Flow is a place that can be climbed and explored for those willing to go with flow.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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