For a million years the volcano has spewed forth lava, gases, and cinders, creating what seems to be an inhospitable landscape. Yet the youngest cinder cones - 1,000 years old - are covered by vegetation that provides food and shelter for wildlife.
A Hidden World
This area of northern California has a history of volcanism. The legacy of those times - and it should not be assumed that all volcanic activity is a thing of the past - is all around. Cinder cones, shield volcanoes, stratovolcanoes, lava tubes, both Pahoehoe (smooth and ropy) and Aa (rough and clinker-like) lava, spatter cones, and chimneys are all a part of this legacy. Perhaps one of the most striking volcanic features in Lava Beds is the phenomenon of lava tube caves.
Lava tubes are not particularly unusual in a volcanic area nor is their formation difficult to explain or understand. Nearly 200 caves have been counted within the monument making this formation an especially prominent feature.
When lava pours from a volcano it is hot, about 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. The outer edges and surface of the flow cool rapidly, however, and begin to slow down and harden. This outside layer acts as an insulating material while the rest of the flow beneath it remains hot and fast-moving. The flow continues on, somewhat like a river that keeps flowing even though the surface has frozen over. When the eruption stops and the river of lava drains, a tunnel or tube (the outer shell) is left. Lava tubes can lie atop one another, the result of subsequent flows. Many of the tubes here were formed about 30,000 years ago after an eruption at Mammoth Crater on the southern boundary.
Sometimes portions of a tube's roof may collapse as it cools. These openings allow plants, animals, and precipitation to enter and create a world of life within. A few of the tubes are ice caves; rain collects in them and the air temperature remains constantly below freezing. Even when temperatures outside reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, lava is such a good insulator that the air remains below freezing and ice formations can be found year round.
Many of the caves were first explored and named by J.D. Howard, a local miller. The names he painted on the walls are still visible in most of the caves. In many of the caves, trails have been laid out and ladders installed to make access easy. Many of these caves lie off Cave Loop Road, southwest of the visitor center. Mushpot Cave, an extension of the visitor center is the only cave in which lights have been installed.
The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.
A photo album for this park can be found here.For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.
Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.
Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
W.W. Norton and Company.
9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout
The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!
Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.
For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.
The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.
A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.
NPS Geology and Soils PartnersAssociation of American State Geologists
Geological Society of America
Natural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
U.S. Geological Survey
Currently, we do not have a listing for any park-specific geology education programs or activities.
General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.