It’s not necessary to wait until next February to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
At Lava Beds National Monument, any day in Valentine Cave, one of the park’s most accessible lava tube caves, is Valentine’s Day.
With its relatively high ceilings and wide passages, and such features as several walk-around pillars, benches, pahoehoe floors, lava pools, and fascinating lavacicle and dripstone ceilings and walls, Valentine offers more delicious temptations than a box of mixed chocolates.
Valentine Cave was discovered on Valentine’s Day in 1933. Ross Musselman, a member of a Civilian Conservation Corps crew working at Lava Beds, saw the cave “breathing” steam during a cool morning when the temperature was 12 below.
In an interview taped by park rangers in 1961, Musselman said he and other CCC workers had seen steam rising from the juniper-sagebrush lands Feb. 12. The following day, crew foreman Roscoe McCreary, who was leaving for the night, told crew members that if the steam reappeared, they should grab lanterns and other gear and head off — presumably under a full head of steam — to try to find the source.
The next morning, Valentine’s Day, Musselman saw the steam and, as he explained in the interview, “I immediately took a lantern and ran the distance from Indian Well Cave,” which is near the present-day park headquarters and about 1½ miles from the cave. Musselman said the entrance, which was later significantly enlarged, was small and obscure.
“There was a very small opening. The breakdown had almost closed the opening the full width. What little opening there was, there was a juniper tree growing in it,” he remembered. “As I went down into the cave I was amazed, and I can’t help but say that I was really happy. ... It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.”
Visitors have echoed similar sentiments ever since.
The cave’s notable features include distinct benches that are especially well defined near its entrance. Valentine is also known for its well preserved lava flow features, including symmetrical pillars and sections of ceiling with dark patches of lava stalactites separated by white bands of water-deposited minerals.
A geology report notes the cave’s floor near its entrance features ropy pahoehoe that in places is black, glass and lustrous. Near cascades, the pahoehoe is frothy with bubbles. There are also “bathtub” ring marks, lava pools, lava cascades and short, wide-bladed lavacicles known, fittingly, as shark’s teeth along the cave’s 1,600 feet of accessible passages. In places where rainwater drips through the roof, “these phosphatic materials glow with a greenish phosphorescence when a light is played upon them.”
Lights are essential to appreciate the shapes and colors of gold-colored sulfur deposits, cauliflower-shaped corals and chocolate-hued walls. Flashlights are available on loan from the park headquarters, but experienced cavers typically bring their own headlamps and bump hats.
Wide passages make walking in Valentine relatively easy, although some stooping and duck-walking is required. There are also passages for people willing to shimmy and crawl — take along knee and elbow pads. And no matter the time of year, dress appropriately — the cave’s year-around temperature is about 55 degrees.
Geologists say Valentine is a relatively young cave, about 11,000 years old, and believe the final lava flow was a brief, highly fluid surge about 3 feet deep. As it drained out the lower end, it smoothly blanketed previous irregularities with a thin lining.
Valentine is one of the few significant caves at Lava Beds not discovered by J.D. Howard. Often regarded the “Father of Lava Beds” for his role in locating, exploring and naming caves, Howard led efforts to have the area protected as a national monument.
Despite his discovery, Musselman isn’t honored as the “Father of Valentine Cave.” He had his chance but didn’t take advantage of the opportunity, something he later regretted.
As he explained in the 1961 interview, “I was asked to name the cave, and at the time my brother workers and the supervisors advised me to attach my name to the cave. At that time I didn’t think I would be interested in any notoriety. However, since my children have grown up in Modoc County and are raising families in Modoc County, for the benefit of the grandchildren and later the great-grandchildren … I would like … if possible to have my name attached to the cave.”
Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at email@example.com or 541-880-4139.