Somewhere in the world a coyote howled and the sound skipped off the atmosphere like a radio signal from three states away.
Eventually the sound waves subliminally tickled the auditory receptors stored somewhere in my mostly empty head. How else do you explain a sudden urge to head to the desert just to hear the unmelodic high wail of a pack of canine Mariah Careys? Mrs. O’Neill and I had vacationed several years ago at Lava Beds National Monument south of Klamath Falls and each evening we were treated to a nightly Coyote Gospel Choir concert while lightning flashed in the distance. Of course, there were rattlesnakes slithering through the campground and so not uncoincidentally, Mrs. O’Neill declined to accompany me on a return visit to the monument.
There are many short and spectacular trails in the lava beds and most are readily accessible from the monument roads. However, my plan was to string together four trails for a 10.9 mile hike that would take me away from the roads and into the monument’s backcountry. The hike would be a tour de force sampler of all the geologic wonders and oddities that make this area so uniquely special.
The desert can get quite warm even in spring but winter still had a toe-hold on things as it was a nippy 40 degrees when I sallied forth on the Bunchgrass Trail, a short connector trail between the campground and the main road.
A chilly breeze was blowing and clouds provided intermittent but unnecessary shade. I’m not sure if I saw bunchgrass, but I did see a lot of sagebrush as the fragrant shrub is the dominant life form in these parts. Despite being springtime, the only flowers blooming in any quantity were dense mats of phlox growing in the rocks.
After seven-tenths of a mile and walking by conical Schonchin Butte, a right turn was made onto the Missing Link Trail which led to the Skull Cave Road, an actual road with an actual skull cave at the end of it. No skulls in the cave, though, at least that I could tell. I could have gone caving without a helmet and flashlight but abstained.
No sense becoming the proverbial Missing Link.
The lava beds are aptly named as on a nearly flat plain there is a collection of lava flows from the many small volcanoes dotting the landscape. Besides Schonchin Butte, the trail offered nice views of Crescent Butte and amusingly named Hippo Butte, a source of puerile and juvenile puns and jokes that kept me entertained as I walked. There are so many cones strewn around that the earth seemingly has goose pimples from the chilly wind.
Because of the volcanic origins, the so-called solid ground is honeycombed with lava tubes and the monument is a caving mecca for spelunkers the world over.
Many of these tubes have collapsed over the eons and thus I was treated to 10 miles of trailside cracks, pits, fissures, sinkholes and caves. Many of these pits are quite deep and it’s a good idea not to peer in from too close to the edge but it is fun to shout out “Quick, Richard, to the Bat Cave!”
Lava in all its solid states were on display and there was ample opportunity to observe solidified lava drops, flows, ripples and braids. If you like lava, then you’ll love Lava Beds National Monument.
At the four-mile mark, the trail approached the Three Sisters, a trio of nondescript cones. Well, they’d be nondescript anywhere else but since they rose out of a landscape flatter than a zombie’s EKG readout, they have the good fortune to be a prominent landmark.
Also, notable on the barren plain was a large green thing that stood about twice my height. A quick peruse through a guidebook identified the mysterious object as a juniper tree.
In this flat sagebrushy land, a tree was so rare that I was tempted to petition the California Geographic Names Commission to name the tree the Fourth Sister.
Soon after, the path left the national monument behind and crossed over into the Modoc National Forest and sure enough there were two juniper trees which, in these parts, comprise a forest.
It was midday by now, and the wind had stopped and the temperature was getting to be hot. Sagebrush, reclaiming the land as its own, had grown over the increasingly sketchy path. Disparaging comments about stunted junipers aside, I partook of what little shade there was as I followed the faint trail back across the monument boundary.
On the way back, the wind resumed, blowing in a rainstorm that was actually a welcome event. By the time I arrived at my campsite the clouds broke up and provided a spectacular sunset, a just reward for my efforts. I didn’t hear any coyotes, though, so I guess I’ll have to purchase the CD.
Richard O’Neill is a member of the Friends of the Umpqua hiking club. To read more about his adventures, visit richardhikes.com.