Selected caves and lava-tube systems in and near Lava Beds National Monument, California

Bulletin 1673

, , and



Lava Beds National Monument (fig. 1) lies on the north slope of the huge Medicine Lake shield (fig. 2), a complex volcanic edifice of greater volume than the steep-sided Mount Shasta volcanic cone, which towers as a snowclad land mark 40 mi southwest of the monument (fig. 3).

Much of the north and south flanks of the Medicine Lake shield were built from molten lava transmitted through lava tubes. These tubes formed beneath the congealing surface of basalt flows in somewhat the same way that a brook may continue to flow beneath a cover of its own winter ice. As molten lava emerges from a vent and flows downslope, congealing lava from the top and sides of the central channel often forms a bridge over the lava stream. The sticking together of bits of lava spatter and fragile lava crusts strengthens the bridge in the manner that thin crusts of floating ice raft together to cover a brook during early stages of a winter freeze. Eruption of basalt lava, however, is a much more violent and spasmodic process than the steady gathering of water that feeds a brook. If liquid lava stops rising from its source deep within the earth, the still-molten lava moving beneath the crusted-over top of a lava flow will continue to drain downhill and may ultimately leave an open lavatube cave-often large enough for people to walk through. It is rare, however, to find such a simple scenario recorded intact among the hundreds of lava-tube caves in the monument. Even before the top and walls of a lava flow have time to cool during a pause in lava supply, a new and violent eruption of lava may refill the open tube, overflow its upper end, and spread a new lava flow beside or on top of the first flow. Even if the original tube is large enough to contain the renewed supply of lava, this tube must deliver the new lava beyond the end of its original flow and thus the lava field extends farther and farther downslope. If the gradient of flow flattens, the tube may subdivide into a number of smaller distributaries, which spread laterally over the more gently sloping ground. 

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Selected caves and lava-tube systems in and near Lava Beds National Monument, California
Series title:
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Government Printing Office
ix, 102 p.; 6 Plates: 41.40 x 49.12 inches or smaller
United States
Other Geospatial:
Lava Beds National Monument
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):