Medicine Lake Highlands
Photo © Calvin Farris
Medicine Lake Highlands is one of North America's most unique geological areas. It lies within the volcanic caldera of the Medicine Lake shield volcano, a sleeping giant, which is the largest volcano in the Cascade Range. Medicine Lake Highland’s volcanic area exceeds 200 square miles in Modoc and Siskiyou counties and encompasses portions of three National Forests including Modoc, Klamath and Shasta-Trinity. Over the last half-million years, volcanic eruptions on the Medicine Lake shield volcano have created a rugged landscape dotted with diverse volcanic features including more than 700 lava tube caves. Some of the most popular features include Glass Mountain, Burnt Lava Flow, Medicine Lake Glass Flow and Undertakers Crater. Another feature, Medicine Lake, has no known outlets yet the water remains clean and clear.
Lava flows off the flanks of the Medicine Lake shield volcano extend in every direction for over 30 miles. The jumbled, rugged plains of broken rock are interspersed with timbered hills and buttes. The Giant Crater, Tilted Rocks, and Burnt Lava Flows are examples of very recent flows, presenting a vast panorama or stark, unvegetated lava fields. Basalt flows on the north and south flanks of the volcano contain lava tubes that have collapsed in numerous places. These collapses give access to the lava tube caves that are a prime attraction for visitors to Lava Beds National Monument, located on the north flank of Medicine Lake shield volcano.
The Medicine Lake Highlands were formed with the development of a broad shield volcano. The center block collapsed along fractured lines, creating an enclosed basin or caldera, 6 miles long by 4 miles wide. Lava then squeezed up the fracture lines forming rim volcanoes. The volcanoes discharged lava onto the caldera floor and down the outer edges of the original lake highlands. Visitors can see most of the rim volcanoes, including Mt. Hoffman, Medicine Mountain, Badger Peak, Grouse Hill, Red Shale Butte, Glass Mountain, and Lyons Peak.
Medicine Lake Highlands is also an area of moderately sloping to steep mountains. Vegetation consists of sugar pine, red and white fir and at higher elevations lodgepole pine with an understory of bitterbrush, manzanita and snowbrush. Snow usually closes the Medicine Lake area from mid-November through mid-June. During this time, an average of 10 feet of snow restricts access to over-the-snow vehicles and cross country skiers. The Doorknob Snowmobile Park, located one and a half miles south of Lava Beds National Monument, features a paved parking lot, warming hut and rest rooms. Groomed trails lead to Medicine Lake and three other Snow Parks on neighboring National Forests. The combined total of the trails in all three forests is over 200 miles.
Obsidian and pumice abound in the highlands and have been used by people through the ages. The area evidences thousands of years of Native American use. Glass Mountain was used as an obsidian quarry. Obsidian was prized for making sharp-edged tools, and was a popular trade item to other tribes from as far away as 100 miles.
In the 1960s, NASA astronauts trained for future moon landings in the pumice fields of the highlands. Pumice has been quarried here for building materials and, more recently, used in creating the "stone washed" look of denim.
Recreation opportunities include 4 campgrounds at Medicine Lake, boat launch, fishing, swim beach, picnic area, winter sports at Door Knob Snow Park and the Lava Beds National Monument just ½ hour north. There are restrooms at the Medicine Lake day use area and campgrounds.
Please Note: Collecting obsidian anywhere in the Medicine Lake Highlands is prohibited by law. The Modoc National Forest has 4 obsidian mines on the east side of the forest where it is legal to collect obsidian with a free collection permit.
Most of these features are easily visited. The Geologic Special Interest Area near Giant Crater is accessible on Forest Road #43N11 just two miles off the Medicine Lake Road (49). This area features spatter cones, lava flows and lava tubes. The land ranges from rugged lava flows, barren of most vegetation, to thickly timbered mountain peaks. Small lakes, such as little Medicine Lake, Bullseye, and Blanche, are set among the trees and the view from the higher peaks and cinder cones is breathtaking. One word of caution however… the roads are good, but there are NO services after you leave Highway 89.
Click here for a map to the area.
There are over 22 developed caves and over, 700 discovered caves within Lava Beds National Monument.
When caving it is recommend that you wear appropriate safety gear includinglong sleeves,long pants, closed-toed shoes or boots, gloves, knee pads and helmets.
It is also recommended that everyone in your group has at least 1 flashlight. Flashlights can be checked out from the visitor center, for free, from 8:30am to 4:30pm. Helmets, gloves, kneepads, cave maps and flashlights can be purchased at the visitor center, but you are always welcome to bring your own.