Lava Beds National Monument
Staffed; Currently Standing
Estimated drive time from Portland, OR.
April 8, 2022
National Historic Lookout Register.
I had a four day weekend set aside to celebrate my 30th birthday this year. My original plan was to knock off a bucket list backpack to the Enchanted Valley in the Olympic NP but the weather forecast had other plans. With severe winter weather warnings across the state of Washington and Oregon, we decided to look farther south. I had never heard of Lava Beds National Monument until the week before when I was researching other options. It ticked all the boxes for what I was looking for in an alternate plan; somewhere my partner and I hadn’t been before, a sunny weather forecast, snow free, a fire lookout, and within reasonable driving distance for an extended weekend. We left Friday morning and spent the day driving across Oregon to the California border. There are multiple routes you can take to get to Lava Beds NM, but we took HWY-39 from Klamath Falls because wanted to stop in Tulelake beforehand to see part of the Tule Lake National Monument. There is a lot of history in this area that is often overlooked in our school systems and it is worth seeing first hand. We arrived at the Lava Beds NM early afternoon and had our pick of the camp spots in the Indian Wells campground. There was some daylight left after setting up camp and we decided to visit Sheepy Ridge Overlook and Schonchin Butte L.O. for sunset. The hike up to Schonchin Butte L.O. is a short 0.7 mile trail that climbs 500′ in elevation to the top of a cinder cone. There is a signed road off the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway that you will take to get to the trailhead. It is a well maintained gravel road and drivable by any vehicle. We reached the summit just before sunset and enjoyed the lookout to ourselves. It was very windy and cold on the catwalk, but the sweeping views were worth it.
We spent the next few days checking out other points of interest in the park and drove out to see Timber Mountain L.O. as well. Lava Beds NM offers a variety of things to do from caving their developed caves or hiking along historic sites. But no matter where you go in the park there seems to be a view of Schonchin Butte. Part of the Monument was still closed during our visit due to damage from the previous years wildfires. They also close some of their caves in the winter for hibernating bats that were still in affect. If you do plan on visiting any of their caves, you will need to stop at the visitor center for a caving permit and be aware of their protocols on White-Noise Syndrome. Despite having clear skies the first three days, we woke up to snow on our last morning. We quickly packed up camp and started our long drive home. The entire state of Oregon seemed to have been blanketed in snow as well. This meant avoiding all the high passes and taking the long way home.
The cinder cone that makes up Schonchin Butte is one of many eruption sites from over 65,000 years ago on the Medicine Lake Shield Volcano. A shield volcano is a low profile volcano that is named after its resemblance to a warrior’s shield laying on the ground. These types of volcanos are formed from highly fluid lava that travels farther creating a thinner profile. The cinder cones are then made from a glassy rock filled with gas bubbles called scoria. Schonchin Butte’s large cone was developed from the initial eruption throwing scoria high in the air. The bowl shaped crater on the summit was created from trapped gasses below releasing and causing the lava to become heavier.
The lookout and trail on Schonchin Butte were built by the CCC camp stationed in Lava Beds. Construction started in 1939 and wasn’t completed until 1941. The CCC camp there contributed to making the monument what it is today. They even hand carried the needed materials to the summit which included lumber and cement. I couldn’t find specific information on the type of fire lookout since California designs are slightly different than Oregon, but it resembles a flat top R-6. The doorstep on the lookout has a date of 8/26/42 which is noted as the day it was installed. The elevation is also on the doorstep at 5,293′ but was later found to be 5,302′ by modern technology. Over the years the lookout has been updated and changed, but the physical structure has remained the same. The most recent renovations took place in June/July of 1994. The lookout is still staffed every summer from June to September, but the rangers no longer live in the lookout.