Friday, January 28, 2011

Introduction to Caving in Northern California's Lava Tubes

Caving; a sport for the insane
Caving is about as crazy as it gets. It can be cold, damp, dark and very, very tight. Caving is truly a sport for those with nerves of steel. For some of you, I'm sure this unique type of challenge is appealing! If you've never thought about doing it, well here's a couple of insights to caving in Northern California.

Introduction to Caving in Lava Beds National Monument

As mentioned earlier in my introduction to Lava Beds NM, caving is the popular and primary sport of the park. Fortunately, the National Park Service makes it easy and accessible to even a first time caver. (Disclaimer: caving is dangerous) In fact, the service will rent you a high powered flashlight for free and even give you solid directions to each marked cave. OF COURSE, you need to purchase the cave maps before going. Its only two dollars! From the visitor center, the "Cave Loop Road" will take you to the marked caves of the park.
The Northern California lava beds are full of caving opportunities
Caving Essentials

     -Light sources
     -Extra light sources (I always bring three just in case)
     -Batteries and extra batteries
     -A very reliable cave map (can be purchased at the visitors center)
     -A very reliable compass
     -SMALL backpack that can fit through tight spaces
     -Warm clothing, even in the summer
     -Knee pads
     -Water, food, snacks ect.

The good news about caving in Lava Beds is that most lava tubes are lateral as opposed to vertical. This allows the caver to move relatively easily through most of the caves and no technical gear is needed. There are lava tubes in the park that are not formally mapped and do require more extensive experience, but the rangers usually avoid telling you their whereabouts.

Easy-ER Caves

If you have never done caving, I would recommend heading over to Mushpot Cave which is right behind the visitors center. Its well lighted and provides the visitor with a good idea of what lava tubes are like.
After the entrance, there is no light!
Personally, I found Sentinel Cave to be my favorite of the easier caves. Its a good 3,280ft long and there's plenty of space to move about. Unlike many other caves, no ducking or slithering is required; its simply a hike through a cave. I elected to walk to the very middle and turn my light off for a while. True darkness is nearly impossible to experience outside of a cave. It was a nerve-racking experience at first- your eyes try to adjust to the dark, but there is absolutely no illumination. However, I came to enjoy this aspect of caving; we hikers often overly rely on our vision for guidance but caving forces you to put full trust in a map and compass. I do believe caving has made me a better navigator. Sentinel Cave also has the advantage of two entrances, so if you get too scared, its pretty easy to get out.

Tighter sections in Juniper Cave
Hercules Leg Cave and Juniper Cave together form a two entrance cave that is around 4,200ft long. This is a more difficult cave, requiring some duck-walking and scrambling. I did get a little disoriented right at the start because there are several side passages. The advantage of this cave is that there are many holes where light shines through which adds a nice break into the caving experience. This is considered a more difficult cave and good orienteering skills are essential. I used this cave as a good preparation for the 6,900ft (one way) behemouth known eerily as The Catacombs.

Stay tuned for a guide to the longest lava tube in California!
Read. Plan. Get Out There!

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