LAVA BEDS NATIONAL MONUMENT — What do you do when the snow isn’t tempting for cross-country or downhill skiing?
Take a hike.
And that’s just what a group of us did recently. We loaded up a couple of cars and headed to Lava Beds National Monument, where there are always places to hike, both on and off-trail.
Following Bill Van Moorhem, who’s familiarity with Lava Beds, we made our way from the parking area near Valentine Cave to Caldwell Butte. It’s a cross-country trek that gets challenging only during the final push, a 600-foot steeply uphill grunt to Caldwell’s 5,197-foot summit.
It’s worth the effort. From the summit crater are 360-degree views of other buttes within Lava Beds boundaries, including Schonchin, Bear Paw, Hippo and Hardin buttes. Big Sand Butte, a prominent battleground in the Modoc War, is south, just outside the park. Prominent, too, is the Medicine Lake shield volcano, while more distance sights include Aspen Butte and Mount Harriman in the Mountain Lakes Wilderness, Mount McLoughlin and Pelican Butte in the Sky Lakes Wilderness, and Crater Lake National Park’s Mount Scott. And, of course, dominating the vista on sunny days is Mount Shasta.
From the Valentine Cave parking area — or from pullouts on the park road closer to the hiking route — the route goes west and south around Caldwell Minor, at times following what appears to be an old road, along pumice-covered lava. The impromptu trail angles southwest, eventually flanking the base of Caldwell Butte. Temptations along the way are a series of just-waiting-to-be explored collapsed lava tubes and caves.
Frequent Caldwell Butte hikers such as Van Moorhem have plotted the least steep route up Caldwell’s west side on their GPSs. We followed fairly open, brush-free slopes, trying to dodge mountain mahogany, juniper and bitterbrush while scrambling up the sometimes slippery volcanic cinders. Each of us created our own switchback routes until reaching the rim. It was a short hike to the not-so-obvious summit, where Bill — as he’s done atop other buttes — has placed a notebook with pencil in the rocks.
U.S. Geologic Survey studies indicate Caldwell Butte’s basalt dates back 781,000 to 126,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch. The vents that spewed pyroclastic material from the craters atop Caldwell Butte and Caldwell Minor are near Caldwell Butte’s southern base.
Our lingering lunch featured west and south sights and relaxed chatter.
On full tummies we descended. Instead of dropping down a red cinder slope, we circled around the butte. Unlike some buttes in and just outside the park, Caldwell Butte’s crater doesn’t beckon exploration.
Other days we’ve gone downhill in a southeasterly direction to Caldwell Cave and the fragmented remains of the Caldwell Cabin. The butte, cave and cabin are named for Charles Jarvis Caldwell, who ran horses in what is now the park. He and his crews camped near Caldwell Cave, where they used ice to water themselves and their horses, before building the cabin.
From the 1880s to 1905, Caldwell raised Clydesdale horses and ran them on the lava to toughen their hooves before going to work on the cobblestone streets of San Francisco. On his 49th birthday, Caldwell married a 24-year-old schoolteacher. A year later, and only three weeks after the birth of his son, Caldwell died of Bright’s disease.
On other hikes that included visits to the cabin remains and cave, we entered the cave’s south end into an entrance marked with stones. Just inside, a large hole drops to a lower lava tube. Over the years the ice level has significantly dropped.
But this day we basically mimicked our uphill route in reverse until reaching the route we’d followed in. For some people, “take a hike” is a negative term. For those of us who like getting outdoors, it’s a positive way to spend a not-so-snowy day.
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.