Bear Gultch Cave & Reservoir in Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park is home to not one, but two unique caves; both of which are made by cave-ins and not by lava flow like most of the California caves are made by. I got a chance to explore Balconies Cave a couple of years ago but finally got to check off Bear Gulch Cave in 2016. This cave and hike are amazing; you really need to experience it for yourself. Here is all the information.

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Details

  • Cost: $15 to enter the park
  • Length: 2 miles
  • Elevation: 400 feet
  • Bring a flashlight

Getting There

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The hike to Bear Gulch Cave is accessed from the East entrance to the park (no roads through the park). After paying your fee, you will enter the park and head to the Bear Gulch day use area. There are two small parking lots you can start from, so if one is full then try the other. This post is from the one the road dead ends on.

When is the Cave Open?

You can see the current status of the cave here. Do note that it is closed for a few months out of the year so check before you go.

The Trail

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The trail to Bear Gulch starts from the parking lot, and there is a bathroom here if you need it before heading out.

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The trail proceeds up a gradual incline, and it is shaded, so that makes it much more pleasant on hot days.

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As you head up you will start to notice the change in the scenery around you, with the trees making way for large rocks.

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At about the quarter mile marker you will get to a small tunnel. I thought this was the start of the cave, but it is just a ten-foot tunnel, and you come out on the other side.

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The trail continues its gradual climb, and you pass splits that take you around the cave when it isn’t open.

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When you get to the cave entrance, you will see a massive rock in front of you and a sign that reminds you that you need a flashlight. I highly recommend you bring one as the iPhone light is not as bright as you would think in pitch darkness.

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The cave bends around, in and out of light before you hit the staircase.

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The stairs allow you to climb up and through the cave, you will be using them for most of the path through the cave.

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Each section of stairs you climb give you better views of the cave entrance behind you and an appreciation for the size of the cave. As you get near the top, there is one long staircase which is pretty narrow since the rock itself intrudes on the path. At the top, you will be in pitch darkness as you make your way over a series of rocks and to a split in the trail.

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One way takes you to the upper section, which was closed when I came and the other takes you out.

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The trail out does require you to get down on your knees to get under a large rock. You then come out of the metal door and climb a set of stone stairs out of the cave.

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It is a little crazy at the end but just take your time, and I am sure you will be okay.

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The trail then passes the Monolith (rock in the above picture) which is a very popular spot for climbing.

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You then enter a cave like area where you will be ducking under rocks as you proceed down to the bottom. The bottom has a little water in it, letting you know you are close to the reservoir. This section was also really cool with the massive rock that was sitting there creating the opening for the door (above photo).

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Outside of this bottom area, you will see a set of stairs carved into the rock on the right-hand side. You will want to climb these, utilizing the handrail, and make your way out of the cave section to the reservoir.

Bear Gulch Reservoir

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While the reservoir is not that big on its own, it is still a beautiful thing to find in this sparse desert known as Pinnacles National Park.

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I grabbed a seat on a rock and just sat and enjoyed it for a few minutes as I was one of the only people here. This is a great spot to bring some food and have a picnic as well.

After taking your time to explore the reservoir you can head back the way you came or continue on the Rim Trail to the High Peaks. If you want to do that, then read on in this post, if not, leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of the cave.

Lava Beds National Monument Guide: Caves, Buttes & Lava Fields

Lava Beds National Monument is the best park you have never been to. It is so far up in the Northeast part of California that it took me five years to finally make it, but I am glad I did. The monument itself has over 46,000 acres and on that property, it features more than 700 caves. Only 20 or so are easily accessed, but even if you don’t like caving, the park has hiking trails, history and more to get you excited. If it takes you five years to make it there like it took me, use this guide to find some of the park’s best attractions.

Caves

Of course, the reason to go is to explore the caves, and the five below are the best that I saw during my visit. Each one has something unique that sets it apart from the others, so don’t just visit one while you are there.

Skull Cave

Sentinel Cave

Sunshine Cave

Mushpot Cave

Golden Dome Cave

Hiking

Not to be outdone by the caves, there are a couple great hiking trails here. I have only got a chance to check out one, but it was great and provided amazing views.

Schonchin Butte

Lava Fields

While driving through the park, you will reach one particular part that is especially amazing for viewing lava fields, Devils Homestead Flow. This overlook provides a view of lava rock that goes almost as far as the eye can see. You can see it below.

Visitors Center

The park visitor center has information about the area and maps which show you how long each cave is. It is worth stopping by just for this, but if you forgot a hard hat or a flashlight, they were even checking them out from the visitors center if you left an ID.

Highlight Video

This short video shows some of the highlights from my time exploring the park.

Food & Gas

Unfortunately, there are no places for food or gas in the park, so make sure to bring in what you need.

Where to Stay

There is a campground in the park right next to the visitor’s center. Other than that there is nowhere else to stay in the park.

FAQ

Where do I get a map?

You will receive a map with information on the park when you enter. Visit the Visitor’s Center for more information on the caves themselves.



How much does it cost?

Current price is $15 but I always spring for the year pass to all the National Parks which is $80.



What if I forget a flashlight?

Without a flashlight you will not be able to enjoy the park, as the phone flashlight does not cut it. You can usually check one out from the Visitor’s Center though if it is open and they have some available.



Additional Information

My friend Chris wrote a great post about his favorite caves here and check out the NPS site for more info.

Now it is your turn, what did I leave off this list that you love exploring in Lava Beds National Monument? Be sure to leave them in the comments so that others can find them as well.

Sentinel Cave: The Longest Easy Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

As the longest of the nonextreme caves in Lava Beds National Monument, Sentinel Cave is an amazing experience for anyone who isn’t afraid of a little darkness. This cave has you hiking in the dark for about 15-20 minutes and over 3,280 feet. It’s pretty surreal when you do it and make sure to bring a flashlight, here is all the information.

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Details

  • 3,280 feet plus a .25 mile back to your car
  • Must have a good flashlight, preferably for all group members
  • Located in the cave loop

Getting There

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Sentinel Cave is in the Cave Loop right next to the Visitors Center with many of the other popular caves. The parking is easily marked, but since it is not a loop you will need to park at the upper or lower entrance. I recommend the lower as it gets the quarter mile hike to the entrance out of the way in the beginning, and then you walk downhill when you exit the cave at the end.

The Trail

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Starting from the lower lot you will be walking along a paved trail for a quarter mile.

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This trail is flat and easy to follow. At the end of it, you will reach the entrance to Lower Sentinel Cave.

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This entrance has rough rock stairs that you will be walking to get into the cave.

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About 40 feet from the entrance you are pretty much in darkness the rest of the 3,200 feet.

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The only time this is not the case is when you see a small section where the light shines through a hole in the roof.

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The cave has a better-maintained path than many of the others but it is still rough in parts, and you will need to climb over some larger rocks.

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Towards the middle of the cave, there is an area with metal bars that keeps you from falling into a giant hole in the cave floor.

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Continuing on, there is a metal bridge that takes you across a small chasm you wouldn’t be able to cross easily without it.

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I turned my flashlight off while in this cave, and it was pitch black and silent which was crazy.

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After that, I finally saw a light which noted the exit of the path.

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From here you will climb out on more rough stairs and then take the trail to the road and back down to where you parked.

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All in all, this was one of the most fun caves in the park, I mean how often can you walk for 20 minutes in a cave and exit the other end? Be sure to check it out when you are at the park and read more about the Lava Beds National Monument itself here.

Sentinel Cave: The Longest Easy Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

As the longest of the nonextreme caves in Lava Beds National Monument, Sentinel Cave is an amazing experience for anyone who isn’t afraid of a little darkness. This cave has you hiking in the dark for about 15-20 minutes and over 3,280 feet. It’s pretty surreal when you do it and make sure to bring a flashlight, here is all the information.

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Details

  • 3,280 feet plus a .25 mile back to your car
  • Must have a good flashlight, preferably for all group members
  • Located in the cave loop

Getting There

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Sentinel Cave is in the Cave Loop right next to the Visitors Center with many of the other popular caves. The parking is easily marked, but since it is not a loop you will need to park at the upper or lower entrance. I recommend the lower as it gets the quarter mile hike to the entrance out of the way in the beginning, and then you walk downhill when you exit the cave at the end.

The Trail

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Starting from the lower lot you will be walking along a paved trail for a quarter mile.

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This trail is flat and easy to follow. At the end of it, you will reach the entrance to Lower Sentinel Cave.

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This entrance has rough rock stairs that you will be walking to get into the cave.

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About 40 feet from the entrance you are pretty much in darkness the rest of the 3,200 feet.

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The only time this is not the case is when you see a small section where the light shines through a hole in the roof.

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The cave has a better-maintained path than many of the others but it is still rough in parts, and you will need to climb over some larger rocks.

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Towards the middle of the cave, there is an area with metal bars that keeps you from falling into a giant hole in the cave floor.

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Continuing on, there is a metal bridge that takes you across a small chasm you wouldn’t be able to cross easily without it.

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I turned my flashlight off while in this cave, and it was pitch black and silent which was crazy.

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After that, I finally saw a light which noted the exit of the path.

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From here you will climb out on more rough stairs and then take the trail to the road and back down to where you parked.

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All in all, this was one of the most fun caves in the park, I mean how often can you walk for 20 minutes in a cave and exit the other end? Be sure to check it out when you are at the park and read more about the Lava Beds National Monument itself here.

Sunshine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

Sunshine Cave is unique in Lava Beds National Monument as it is one of the few caves that has cave-ins that let in the light. There are a couple of others in the park that have this but what sets Sunshine Cave apart is how big the cave in is and that the light coming through has allowed plants to grow in the cave itself. It’s a short cave, but it’s awesome. Here is all the information.

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Details

  • 466 feet
  • Need a good flashlight

Getting There

Sunshine Cave is located at the top of Cave Loop which starts from the visitor center. There is a small parking turnout next to it, but it isn’t super popular so it shouldn’t be full.

The Cave

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From the parking lot, it is about 20 feet up a small dirt trail to the start of the cave. The cave has a short entry staircase which is not as intense looking as the other cave entries are.

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Upon entering, you will need your flashlight as this cave has uneven ground and some areas where you need to watch your head.

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The cave is a relatively straight shot though, and you get to the first sunshine area in about 5 minutes.

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This area is pretty with the light, but the hole is fairly small, so it’s not as impressive as the second one. The next section is dark, and there is a place where you will need to bend over before getting into the second sunlight area.

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This one is big, and it is where the plants are growing in the light. It was hard to take great photos here because the lighting was harsh but it was much more beautiful in real life. From here you can head down a metal staircase and explore the back of the cave if you so desire, but it is pretty narrow back there and I didn’t find much to see.

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This is and out and back cave, so when you are done, you will head back the way you came. What’s nice about this cave is that it is less popular so there is a good chance you will have it all to yourself when you are there. Let me know what you think about this cave in the comments and check out more spots to explore in the area in this post.

Sunshine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

Sunshine Cave is unique in Lava Beds National Monument as it is one of the few caves that has cave-ins that let in the light. There are a couple of others in the park that have this but what sets Sunshine Cave apart is how big the cave in is and that the light coming through has allowed plants to grow in the cave itself. It’s a short cave, but it’s awesome. Here is all the information.

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Details

  • 466 feet
  • Need a good flashlight

Getting There

Sunshine Cave is located at the top of Cave Loop which starts from the visitor center. There is a small parking turnout next to it, but it isn’t super popular so it shouldn’t be full.

The Cave

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From the parking lot, it is about 20 feet up a small dirt trail to the start of the cave. The cave has a short entry staircase which is not as intense looking as the other cave entries are.

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Upon entering, you will need your flashlight as this cave has uneven ground and some areas where you need to watch your head.

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The cave is a relatively straight shot though, and you get to the first sunshine area in about 5 minutes.

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This area is pretty with the light, but the hole is fairly small, so it’s not as impressive as the second one. The next section is dark, and there is a place where you will need to bend over before getting into the second sunlight area.

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This one is big, and it is where the plants are growing in the light. It was hard to take great photos here because the lighting was harsh but it was much more beautiful in real life. From here you can head down a metal staircase and explore the back of the cave if you so desire, but it is pretty narrow back there and I didn’t find much to see.

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This is and out and back cave, so when you are done, you will head back the way you came. What’s nice about this cave is that it is less popular so there is a good chance you will have it all to yourself when you are there. Let me know what you think about this cave in the comments and check out more spots to explore in the area in this post.

Golden Dome Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

Golden Dome Cave is a great lava tube in Lava Beds National Monument if you are feeling adventurous and want to do some more legit caving. This cave has a less defined trail and some areas which require you to bend over to get through, so it feels more intense than many of the other entry level caves in the park. That being said it is a great cave to see as it has unique yellow ceilings from the bacteria that becomes this way from light reflecting off the water in the cave. Here is all the information so you can check it out.

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Details

  • 2,229 feet
  • Must have a flashlight
  • Not recommended for beginners, or at least do a few other caves in the park first

Getting There

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Golden Dome Cave is one of the first caves you will reach when leaving the visitors center on Cave Loop. There is a parking pullout right near the entrance.

The Cave

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The cave is about 10 feet from where you park so you can’t miss it. The entry to this cave is more intense than the others I did. It has a very steep staircase and rocks that get really close to the staircase, requiring you to hug the stairwell since the opening is so narrow.

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Once you drop into the cave, you can go one of two directions, but the left of the staircase is the central area. This cave has a very rough floor so make sure you bring your flashlight and are paying attention.

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As you proceed back, it goes through a series of splits which can be a little scary but just note which way you went and it is pretty much just a figure 8 so you will be going around in a circle more than getting lost if you forget your way.

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I can honestly say that I am not sure if there is one particular section that qualifies as the golden dome here. I explored for a while and saw a lot of the yellow ceiling which was really cool but without markers, I had a hard time finding an exact section I thought fit the bill.

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The cave has a lot of places you will be ducking under as well, which makes it seem more intense and gets your adrenaline going. The good thing is that it’s popular and if you feel lost there is usually other people near you can ask or follow.

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We did find one section near the end that had a lot of the vibrant yellow on the ceiling which was cool. After exploring for about 20 minutes, we connected with another group and headed to the exit.

This is a fun cave to explore, but I would recommend you make it one of the last ones you do as the other caves will help give you a taste of what to expect before diving into the medium level caves like Golden Dome. Check out some of my other favorite caves spots to explore in the park here.

Mushpot Cave: Lava Beds National Monument Beginner Cave

Mushpot Cave is the perfect place to start in Lava Beds National Monument. It is an introductory cave which has interpretive signs and is lit, so you don’t need a flashlight. While it’s not as impressive as the others, it is a good way to get excited about the area.

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Details

  • 770 feet
  • Paved path
  • Don’t need a flashlight

Getting There

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Mushpot Cave is located about a quarter mile walk from the visitor center. You can park at the visitor center lot then make your way down the trail to the entrance of the cave.

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The path down to the cave has a lot of fun signs and exhibits to see as well.

The Cave

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After getting to the entrance, you will be taking a metal staircase down into the cave itself.

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From here you will be walking along the paved, and well-lit path as you explore the cave.

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The interpretative signs along the way are an excellent way to learn more about the area and caves in general.

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They also warn you when you get to the one part of the cave that you need to duck to get through.

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In the middle of the cave, there is a set of seats which I am guessing is for ranger lead programs.

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When you reach the end, you will see a sign that notes this and tells you to walk back the way you came and out of the cave.

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Mushpot is a nice intro cave because it is 700 feet which is not short and because it gives you an understanding of what you will see in the rest of the park, albeit on a much larger scale.

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If you are ready for something more, then check out my post on my favorite caves and attractions in the park here.

Schonchin Butte Fire Lookout in Lava Beds National Monument

Schonchin Butte is one of the best ways to get a birds eye view of Lava Beds National Monument. While most trails go underground in the park, this trail goes straight up to the top of Schonchin Butte and to the fire lookout that sits on the lava rock at the top. Here is all the information so you can check it out.

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Details

  • 1.7 miles round trip
  • 500 feet of elevation

Getting There

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Schonchin Butte is located in the middle of the park, about 5 miles from the visitors center. There are signs to note the road you turn on, and you can see the butte from most of the park. The road you turn on is dirt, but it was well maintained when I went. There is a parking lot at the end and a pit toilet.

The Hike

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Leaving from the parking lot you will start heading up on a dirt trail. About 100 feet in you will reach a register if you want to sign it before or after your hike.

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The hike continues uphill, and it is short and steep the whole time. It does have long switchbacks though which help with the elevation gain.

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The trail also has a decent amount of shade, which was more then I anticipated when I went and which is nice to rest under.

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About two-thirds of the way up there is a few benches you can rest on if you need to.

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After a few more switchbacks you will see the fire lookout above. What’s crazy about it is that it sits on top of a ton of lava rock which is super unique and which I am sure made building it hard.

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The last 25 feet or so are steps that take you up the lava rock and to the lookout.

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When I went, the lookout was open, and there was a ranger up there telling us about the history and answering questions.

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Each direction provided even better views of the surrounding park and its lava fields.

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Also, if it is a clear day you should be able to see Mt Shasta in the distance as well.

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I peaked my head in the lookout room through the window, but it wasn’t open when I went.

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After looking around for a little while and taking in the views, I headed back down the trail and on to the caves. To read about my favorite ones in the park, check out this post.

Skull Cave in Lava Beds National Monument

Skull Cave is easily the most popular lava tube in Lava Beds National Monument and for good reason, it is awe inspiring. When you walk to the edge and see the massive mouth of the cave opening in front of you, you will not soon forget it. The unusual thing about the cave is that it is not that long, so it is a great way to get your barrings underground in a park full of caves. Here is all the information.

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Details

  • 580 feet long
  • Need a flashlight

Getting There

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Skull Cave is located about 2 miles north of the visitors center, a little bit off the main road. There are signs for it and it is popular so it is easy to find. There is a parking lot right near the entrance.

The Cave

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The cave entrance is located about 25 feet from where you park. When you get to it, you will immediately be blown away by how amazing it is. The mouth of the cave is probably 60 feet tall and just as wide. It literally feels like it is engulfing you.

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You can get an idea of the size in the above photo with my wife for perspective.

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Heading down into the cave you will be walking on stone steps and making your way around to the path on the right. This cave stays lit for much longer as it has such a large opening, making it easier to manage without a flashlight but you will certainly need one at the end.

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The end of the cave is a large set of two staircases that takes you down about 50 feet to another level of the cave below.

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You can walk on metal grating around the back of this area where you will be able to see icicles hanging from the ceiling of the cave, since it is so cold.

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From here you can look around with your light a little more or head back out the way you came in.

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This is a fantastic cave and one you must visit at Lava Beds National Monument. Read more about what you can do in Lava Beds National Monument in this post.