One of the most intriguing adventure opportunities in the Mojave National Preserve is exploring an underground lava tube. This is a self-guided expedition, so your safety is in your own hands. But for the reasonably prepared, it’s neither risky nor difficult.
A lava tube looks like a cave, but instead of being hollowed out by water, it was formed when flowing lava cooled and hardened on top, while the lava beneath ran out, leaving a tunnel of rock.
This lava tube is part of Cinder Cone National Natural Landmark, designated in 1973, an area that includes more than thirty conical mounds and hardened lava flows spread over fifty-seven square miles. The first eruptions occurred nearly eight million years ago, while others were as recent as 10,000 years. Still remaining are cinder cones about 150-to-500 feet high, and 1,300-to-3,000 feet wide.
The parking area is fairly large, but circular, so when you park, pull over completely to the side so other visitors can circle around and out.
From here just walk north on the rocky jeep road for about 300 yards. Look for a ten-foot-long section of rocks placed by human hands along the right side of the road, as well as some four-foot metal poles. This is where to look for the well-worn spur path that heads uphill toward a small cinder cone. There isn’t too much vegetation in this area except some creosote and yucca.
It only takes a minute or so to walk this side trail to the main entrance, but go slow and look on your left, just a couple of yards off the trail, for some small openings that lead into the tube. If you miss them don’t worry, as on your return you will know where to find them. Just after these you will see your entry point, a segment of the tube that collapsed at some point.
When I first visited the lava tube years ago there was a unsecured and flimsy ladder to aid you in getting down inside but now there are some sturdy metal stairs. The staircase reduces one’s sense of adventure, but also minimizes actual peril, which those with children will appreciate.
Once down the stairs, head left and carefully climb down the rocky, uneven slope. At first it will look like you can only go about twenty feet, but once you turn on your headlamp and look closely, you will see the passage continues. You will have to bend down for a few yards and duck-walk to get through the narrow opening; if you’re especially tall you may even have to crawl. But once you’re through this area the tube becomes less confining, with a fairly flat floor about as big as a small bedroom’s, but ceilings fifteen or twenty feet high. And it’s sunlit, thanks to a natural skylight in the roof.
Bring a headlamp or flashlight and wear long pants to crawl into the tube. The access road is suitable for regular passenger vehicles with good off-road tires, except during or after rain.
From Pahrump take NV-372 west (which turns into CA-178 at the Calif. boundary) for about 19 miles to Shoshone, California.
Go left onto CA-127 and drive for 55 miles to Baker, California.
From Baker drive 21 miles south on Kelbaker Road and go left onto Aiken Mine Road.
Follow the gravel road about 4.1 miles, staying left at the signed fork near the second corral, to the circular parking area which serves as the trailhead.
Deborah Wall is the author of “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States,” “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide,” and co-author of “Access For All, Touring the Southwest with Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.