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Posts Tagged ‘Alturas’

Where were we?  Ah, yes, leaving the June Lake Loop, heading north on the 395, and overnighting in Alturas.   It’s an exhausted old town, the kind of place with lots of charity and thrift shops on the main drag, empty storefronts, mean stray dogs — just a clapped out place.  We parked at the south end of town next to a green, pretty little park behind the Veterans Memorial Building, and I took a walk to stretch my legs.  Monday night, 6PM, and it was all locked up tighter than a drum, except one Mexican restaurant and a liquor store.  A lot of small town America is having a hard time, and Alturas is no exception.

Anyhow, next morning we took the 299 to 139 north.  There was a notation on the map:  Lava Beds National Monument.  We hung a left into the south end of the park, and had no idea how astonished we were going to be.  Some of the road looked like a patchwork quilt of repairs, and the drive was long and slow, but it was worth it.

My favorite cave photo

The entire area is a huge 600 square mile dormant shield volcano with a long, tumultuous history that left the place riddled with lava caves.  There are handouts that group the caves into easy, medium and difficult, maps to get you to the caves, maps of the interiors of the tricky caves — Labyrinth or Catacombs, anyone?  Not me, baby!   Cave Loop Road alone has over a dozen caves; there are more than two hundred in the area.

We joined about a dozen other people and Sara, our ranger guide, for a tour of the Sentinel cave, an easy cave (meaning no crawling on hands and knees, lots of headroom, etc).  Sara was great , an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide who explained what we were walking through and what we were looking at.  We all had flashlights, and needed them:

Sentinel Cave’s flowing lava had carved tunnels, long shelves alongside us, balconies above us; rooms where ceilings had caved in, letting light in from the surface; and in one area, we looked down through a hole in the floor, revealing another tunnel underneath — our floor was the ceiling of the tunnel below us.  In fact, we had been walking (carefully, using our lights) on lumpy rubble of a ceiling that had fallen eons ago.  It cleared, and then we were walking on the frozen ropy flow of lava that had solidified, called pahoehoe lava.  It reminded me of icing on a cupcake, swirled in patterns with the edge of a knife.  If the curves of the flow look like a smile, you’re heading back the way the lava came in.  If the curves look like a frown, you’re following the flow.

The other kind of lava is a’a, Hawaitan for “ouch!”  It’s spiky, rough, clumpy stuff.

A'a lava field - don't try walking on it barefoot!

Sara told us a funny story about how much the early cave explorers hated the cave rats. They’re pretty cute, she says — big ears, furry tails — but the men would wake up and discover their shiny pocket watches and little bits of equipment were missing, replaced by stones and sticks the rats swapped for them in the night.  Decades later, the rangers looked with dismay at the rubbish tourists had left everywhere in the caves — gum wrappers, cigarette packs — and they had an idea.  They left piles of lovely little sticks in front of the caves, which quickly vanished; then, the sticks reappeared in the nooks and crannies of the caves where the trash had been.  The little rats cleaned all the rubbish out of the caves, which is something humans could have never accomplished.

J.D. Howard, who popularized the caves, wrote this one's name in blue

Many caves have ladders, etc., to help you get around:

Watch your step...

It was 55 degrees in Sentinel Cave.  I suspect the area aboveground is hotter than hell in the summer, but September was a great time to visit.

By the way, we exited past the north entrance kiosk and followed the sign that said “Klamath Falls.”  The road took us through pretty agricultural land in the Tule Lake area and ended at a T-junction that said 161; no east, west, Klamath Falls this way, nothing.  Hang a right for Klamath Falls and — next stop — stunning Crater Lake…

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