Too often when we visit a National Park or a National Monument, it seems like the story is always the same: once, this beautiful land belonged to Native Americans and then, the settlers came, tried to shoo them away and ended up killing them all because they resisted. Now, you can enjoy this gorgeous pristine nature that we protect and interpret for your enjoyment... So the truth about this place is that the Modoc Indians lived on this rugged land for over 10,000 years and they moved freely across *their* homeland until we forcibly removed them. They called it "the land of burnt-out fires". Tule Lake and the lava beds were then, and are still today, the center of their world.
I couldn't help but cringe when in the Visitor Center video, you see park rangers pronouncing a speech in front of a crowd of Modoc to honor their presence on this land...
I'll tell you about the Lava caves instead (there are over 700 lava tube caves in the park!), because they are not controversial and they were pretty cool!
I had never been inside a lava tube before and it was fascinating... We are talking about eruptions that happened 30 to 40,000 years ago! Lava tubes form when streams of hot, flowing lava start to cool. The center of the stream stays hot and continues to flow as the outside begins to cool and harden. The hot lava drains out, leaving a pipe-like cave. There are even multilevel caves created by multiple eruptions that ended up stacking caves on top of one another.
There is a lot to see in the park and I wished we had planned more time there. The caves are listed by least challenging (high ceilings, smoother floors) to most challenging (involving crawling, helmets, kneepads and gloves, as well as a detailed map to not get lost!). Must visit caves are Skull Cave, Golden Dome and Sunshine Cave (the best to take pictures since there are some sky lights. If you are up for a more challenging exploration, going from Helcules Leg Cave to Juniper Cave sounds like a great plan.
We found a great (free!) camping spot only 10 minutes from the National Monument entrance. I have reviewed it here.