Lava Beds and Tule Lake

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September 1, 2023: Lava Beds

After visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park and the spectacular Burney Falls, I drove east down CA 299 Despite being the warmest and driest month of the year, the weather was unseasonably cold and rainy- nearly 30 degrees F below average. Perhaps this was related to the hurricane which blew through California and Nevada the last weekend and delayed the start of Burning Man. 

Within minutes of leaving the falls, the landscape shifted from a lush forest to semi-arid hills to flat plains used for farming. I passed briefly through Lassen County before reaching the oh-so-elusive Modoc County which occupies the northeastern corner of the state of California. 

Modoc County is shockingly empty. The towns are sparse and most do not have enough people to support businesses. As a result, finding a place to get food was very difficult. In the town of Adin, the only restaurant in a 45-minute radius was closed for the holiday weekend, but luckily there was a century-old market open that made deli sandwiches.   

After another 90-minutes of driving north, I reached an austere grassland dotted with burned out trees. 

Here in the middle of nowhere are two RV campgrounds directly next to each other that offer tent camping. One is named the Hawk´s Nest and the other is named the Eagle´s Nest. I can only imagine the anger of the first person to open their camp when the second guy moved in. 

For $20, I secured a tent spot in the Hawk´s Nest and continued 15 minutes north to reach the southern entrance of Lava Beds National Monument, California´s most remote National Park Service Unit.   

Lava Beds protects the volcanic landscape formed from the ancient Medicine Lake shield volcano. 24 lava tubes are open for public exploration.  

The Park Service does not offer guided tours of any of the lava tubes; rather, they provide helmets and flashlights to explore on your own. The only requirement to explore the caves is to purchase a permit and place it on your car´s rearview mirror. 

The lava tubes are rated on a Green Circle, Blue Square, Black Diamond scale – just like skiing. A green rating means you can walk through the cave standing up. A blue rating means there are places where you will need to duck. A black rating means you will need to crawl. 

The Park Service illuminates just a single lava tube: Mushpot. Rangers recommend trying this one as a warmup because it is right next to the visitor center and is short. 

Most of the rest of the lava tubes are along the 3-mile Cave Loop Road. Based on the recommendations of rangers, I started at Sentinel Cave, a beginner cave. This one is 1 kilometer long but has two entrances meaning you can walk straight through the cave and not have to backtrack. 

As this was my first real cave of the day, I was quite nervous as I raised my light and walked into the black realm of Hades.

Entrance to Sentinel Cave

Walking solo through an unlit cave, especially a lava tube, is terrifying. If you get lost, there is nobody to help you and because the lava rock is so dark, it is difficult to see the way with my weak flashlight. Luckily, lava tubes are generally a straight line. 

The walk through the Sentinel Cave took only about 15 minutes, probably because I moved quickly out of fear. Luckily the path was very clear with the only questionably dangerous spot being a bridge over a chasm too deep for my flashlight to penetrate – the abyss. 

As I walked out of the darkness, I breathed a big sigh of relief. 

I then drove to my next cave, the Golden Dome: a blue-rated cave. The ladder dropped me off in the middle of the lava tube with the ability to go up and down the tube. I started with the downhill direction. 

The cave twisted and turned. There were a few forks along the way, which I made note of my direction. At the very bottom of the cave was the namesake golden dome. Here both water and hydrophobic bacteria are present on the ceiling, causing the water to bead and light from flashlights to reflect in a unique way that creates the golden color. 

The namesake Golden Dome

Despite having taken note of the turns, I got confused and ultimately lost in the cave for 10 heart-racing minutes (the bottom of the cave is a figure eight). Eventually, I found my way back to the ladder. 

I probably would have called it quits then, but right then I noticed a 15-person Mormon family starting to explore the upper end of the cave. They road tripped together in a giant van from Idaho. I followed them to the upper end of the cave where the children went through a crawl space and encouraged me to follow. I made it through, but quickly realized that my lanky body is not made for caving. 

My final blue-rated cave was the very short Sunshine Cave. 

Sunshine Cave

For my final cave of the day, I drove to the Skull Cave. This lava tube was far larger than the others – it must have been 40 feet tall. The cave is actually 3 levels tall. At the back of the entry level was a metal staircase leading to the middle level. From a platform, we were able to look through a barred doorway into the lowest level of the cave which has a floor of ice! 

The massive Skull Cave

Still with time, I took a 2-mile hike to see some mediocre pictographs. 

Then, I drove to the northern end of the park to a very different attraction: Captain Jack´s Stronghold, a historic remnant of the Modoc War. 

The Modoc are a tribe that historically lived in and around the Lava Beds. In 1864, amidst the US Civil War, the US government forced the Modoc as well as their historic rivals the Klamath onto a reservation in Oregon. Kintpuash (also known as Captain Jack) did not want to stay on the reservation and in 1870, led 200 warriors to return to their historic lands, claiming that the Klamath were harassing the Modoc, and that the US did not provide adequate food per the treaty. Captain Jack took shelter in the lava beds on what was then the south shore of Tule Lake as the US government began its attack. 

Despite numerous attempts, the US government could not defeat Captain Jack and the Modoc, who hid in fortified lava tubes. The Modoc even killed a general, ERS Canby. Eventually in May 1973, the US was successful, and Captain Jack was captured. Soon after, Captain Jack and his lieutenants were hung. 

The fight of the Modoc scared the American people. After the war, the public wanted the government to further suppress the Native Americans and take a harder stance against them. 

Captain Jack´s Stronghold, as it is now  known, is accessible on a 1-mile hike. The gloominess of the weather matching the somberness of the site and I got rained on the entire way.

Memorial to the Modoc

For dinner, I ate at the only restaurant within 30 minutes of my campground: a Mexican restaurant also named Captain Jack´s Stronghold. The food was fine. 

By this point, the sun was close to setting so I headed back to the Hawk´s Nest to get my tent ready. The forecast claimed all the rain was gone, but doubts remained. Sure enough, as soon as I got settled into my tent, the rain began to fall. Water filled the hole in my rain fly but luckily the tent did not soak through.  

September 2, 2023: Tule Lake 

I woke up dry and cold at 7:00. After packing up, I drove 15 minutes to the brand-new visitor center for Tule Lake National Monument. My tour was not until 9:30, I hung out in the car until 9 and then spent the final 30 minutes inside the microscopic visitor center reading the exhibits. 

At 9:30, Ranger Danny, 11 other tourists and I met on the picnic benches outside the visitor center to begin the 2-hour tour. 

Ranger Danny had a clipboard with large photos to explain the history of the Japanese internment camp that once stood here. 

After Pearl Harbor, the American government and citizenry were afraid that the people of Japanese ancestry (of which 2/3 were born in the US and were American citizens) would aid Japan and sabotage the American war effort from within. The decision was made to evacuate everybody of Japanese ancestry living in California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, and Alaska, about 127,000 people (interestingly Hawaii which was over 1/3 Japanese was unaffected). According to Executive Order 9066, people were given 2 days to leave their homes. They were only allowed to own what they could carry, so people sold their homes and businesses for pennies on the dollar. 

The people of Japanese ancestry then reported to gathering points where trains took them to 10 different War Relocation Centers (known colloquially as internment camps) in remote parts of the US. Tule Lake, a drained lake now used for farmland, was chosen as one of these sites.  

While the Japanese were incarcerated in the camp, they were not tortured or killed like in the Nazi concentration camps in Europe. They were fed and lived in bunk houses with their families. Some people had jobs to maintain the camp such as cooks. The kids even played baseball against the neighboring towns. The biggest problem in the camp, besides being trapped against their will for years, was the acute lack of bathrooms. While this was far from an ideal setting and a true travesty of American values, the people made the most of their time here and built strong communities. 

The story of Tule Lake takes a drastic turn from the other 9 camps in late 1943 when the War Relocation Authority issued a questionnaire to assess the loyalty of the residents of the camps. The questionnaire had dozens of questions, but only two were relevant. Question 27 asked “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, whenever ordered?” and Question 28 asked “ Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America and faithfully defend the United States from any or all attack by foreign or domestic forces, and foreswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor, or any other foreign government, power, or organization?”. 

Answering “Yes” to both questions meant you were “loyal” to the United States, while answering “No” to either question meant you were “disloyal”. The problem is that the questions were not relevant to every person. For example, an 80-year-old grandmother is unlikely to be willing and able to serve in combat duty and the second generation Nisei who were born in the US never had any allegiance to the Japanese emperor and therefore cannot foreswear an oath they never made. 9 of the camps changed the questions to more simply ask if they were loyal to the US. Tule Lake kept the question as is. While across all the camps, about 90% of respondents answered Yes to both questions, only 60% of respondents in Tule Lake responded Yes, Yes. 

Based on the survey, the US Government decided to turn Tule Lake into a Segregation Center that would house all the “disloyal” people of Japanese ancestry. Everybody who said No to either Question 27 or 28 was sent to Tule Lake and the “loyal” people in Tule Lake were allowed to transfer to a different camp. Tule Lake´s population swelled to 18,000 and more effort was spent to guard the population. 

As a result of the changes, the people in Tule Lake became angrier at the US government. To protest, they started taking up Japanese cultural activities and regularly confronting the army. 

The US government responded by commissioning the construction of a prison…within the prison to house the ringleaders and by declaring martial law. The army regularly conducted searches of the barracks, restricted employment and implemented a curfew. 

In 1944, the US government gave US citizens held in the camps the opportunity to renounce their American citizenship and move to Japan. Due to the poor conditions at Tule Lake, 98% of those who renounced their citizenship were held at Tule Lake. Those that did go to Japan were treated as shameful traitors by the Japanese people and mostly lived lives impoverished on the streets. 

At the end of the war, the camp residents were allowed to leave, but since they all sold away their homes, businesses and possessions, there was little to go back to. Additionally, there was still lots of anti-Japanese hatred. Because Tule Lake had the connotation of being disloyal to the US, most people who were interned here hid their stories and there was little effort to preserve the camp. The only building that survived intact is the prison due to its superior concrete construction. The barracks have all been dismantled but they live on in the form of windows and walls in houses all over the area. 

The NPS tour goes into the prison, which still has original pencil graffiti! 

After the tour, I continued got lunch in Klamath Falls before starting the drive back to Redding for the flight home. 

Final Thoughts:

Both Lava Beds and Tule Lake were spectacular, albeit in very different ways.

Lava Beds is one of the most adventurous parks in the entire National Park Service system. It honestly is shocking/amazing that they will let you wander these lava tubes unaccompanied. While scary – mainly because I was traveling alone- I had a wonderful time. 

Even though Tule Lake has very little material history left, the tour was one of the best I´ve taken due to the strong storytelling skills of Ranger Danny. Everybody in the US should know about this! Tours only operate Thursday-Sunday between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so make sure to plan accordingly. Also, call the park to make your reservation instead of going on the website. 

If you plan it right, you can easily visit both sites in a day, starting with Tule Lake and then Lava Beds. Klamath Falls in Oregon is the best staging ground due to the availability of restaurants and hotels. 


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