Lava Beds

I became aware of Lava Beds National Monument quite by accident during the summer of 2011. A few weeks previously, I had been thinking about the possibility of riding the motorcycle up Route 395 and tracing the red line north on the map when I noticed the green splotch of National Monument just below the Oregon border. I’d never heard of the place before. The map is courtesy of and Copyright by DeLorme.

I did some quick research on the federal site at Lava Beds National Monument. It appeared that it might be a good destination. I’d ride up through Cajon Pass, then take Rte. 395 north for approximately 600 miles before turning northwest for the final 70 mile stretch into Tulelake, CA.

Along that 600 mile stretch of US Route 395 is the Mojave Desert, the Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes, Mono Lake where the road borders the shore close enough to make out the tufa formations, the long winding road through the canyon of the West Walker River, then a slice of Nevada through Gardnerville, Carson City, and Reno, then California again, through the foothills into Susanville. A fine ride if the weather is right.

Above Left, a view of Mono Lake from Route 395 in the north. Above Center, a view of Tule Lake from the Lava Beds National Monument. Above Right, Farmland in Oregon viewed from Route 161, State Line Road.

On the first day of the ride the air temperatures held in the high eighties, cooling by ten degrees in the higher elevations around Mammoth Lakes.  It was perfect t-shirt weather all the way into Nevada. We’ve had unseasonably cool temperatures, even in the deserts this summer. Anything under 100 F seems cool to me. One hundred degrees seems to be the temperature where I get uncomfortable on the motorcycle. At that temperature or higher it seems that no amount of speed makes me any cooler.

The second day was an easy three hundred miles to Tulelake, the town nearest to the Lava Beds. There isn’t much in Tulelake. Recommended by the cook at a burger joint in the downtown area, I found lodging for two nights at the Ellis Motel, three miles north of town, and a couple miles south of the Oregon border.

The motel was quiet and the bed just firm enough, so I slept in until 6:00 am (which is late for me), then rode toward the Lava Beds a couple hours later. I’d been warned about deer by Mike Harmon who had a pickup truck versus deer encounter in the area. The motel desk clerk also informed me that Hill Road, which runs south to the entrance of Lava Beds, was thick with deer.

I rode slowly on Hill Road, letting the bike “putt” along in second or third gear. It turned out to be a good speed for that road, since I saw a dozen deer on the roadway and shoulders before I got to the Monument. If on the road, the deer would typically move away when I began downshifting to slow the bike. Oddly, at one point I was riding at 20 MPH around a slight curve when two fauns (nearly half-grown, but still spotted) broke out of the brush on the right shoulder, and sprinted down the shoulder, racing along beside me for a couple hundred feet.

Though the Lava Beds was my official destination, the big draw is the lava caves. I didn’t give that quite enough thought before starting the trip. I don’t like caves. I don’t have a paralyzing fear of them, but I’m not particularly comfortable in them. When I looked into the entrance of the cave shown in the photo in this post, I processed the boneheadedness of being there in 1/4 of a second. I did managed to coax myself down into the entrance of the cave. And no. After six decades on the planet, I’m still not comfortable being in a hole in the ground.

But my mild aversion to holes in the ground didn’t invalidate my destination. There was plenty for me to look at, particularly the large number of broken, jagged lava flows, which were quite different from the very smooth flows of the Amboy Crater, which I’m familiar with.

Above Left, hills near Route 97. Above Center, West Walker River. Above Right, hills south of Susanville, California.

Destinations are just aiming points. Often, the rides to and from a particular place are more satisfying than the destination itself. For example, my next projected “big ride” will probably be to Carhenge, near Alliance, Nebraska. Carhenge is interesting enough, but certainly not enough to justify riding halfway across the continent. For me, the attraction is all of the places I could ride through on the way to and from that destination.