Exploring a Lava Tube

There are several underground lava tubes in our region, including a small one which is fairly easy to access in the 1.6 million-acre Mojave National Preserve. The location is only a couple of hours south of Las Vegas. Furthermore, this is a good adventure for just about any age, as the tube is neither extremely confining nor totally dark.

Lava tubes resemble caves but are formed in a different way, when the top of an active lava flow cools and hardens while the interior lava, still hot liquid, runs out, forming a tunnel. Unlike some others in our area, this one is safe and fairly easy to enter.

Hiker descending into the lava tube
Photo by Deborah Wall

The tube is located within the Cinder Cone National Natural Landmark, which encompasses 57 square miles of conical mounds and hardened lava. Some volcanic eruptions in this area occurred nearly eight million years in the past; the most recent ones about ten thousand years ago.

From the parking area you will notice a well-worn jeep trail. which you will follow afoot for about 300 yards. Look for the spur trail on your right which takes you, in just a minute or so, to the tube’s entrance.

The National Park Service has installed metal stairs to get down into the tube, a much safer arrangement than the rickety ladder they replaced. Once down the stairs, head left on the uneven and rocky surface. At first you might think you can only go 20 feet or so, but donning your headlamp, you will see there is a narrow passageway. To travel through this you will either have to duck very low, or crawl. But you’ll only have to do so for about ten feet.

Once through that you will enter an open room with lava ceiling perhaps 15-20 feet above a rather level floor. Depending on the time of day you are visiting, you will also see at least a small beam of light from a natural opening in the roof.

The lava tube trailhead is located at 3,560 feet elevation. Its gravel access road is usually drivable by a passenger car, unless during or after a rain, but be sure to have off-road tires as it is rocky in areas.

Directions: From the Mojave National Preserve’s visitor center at Kelso Depot, take Kelbaker Road northwest as if going to Baker, Calif. Drive about 15 miles looking for the wide sandy parking area on your right, which marks the start of Aiken Mine Road. Follow this gravel road for about 4.1 miles, staying left at the signed fork near the second corral.

Deborah Wall

Deborah Wall

Deborah Wall is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in both adventure travel and family excursions. She is the author of "Base Camp Las Vegas: 101 Hikes in the Southwest (2017)." A lifelong hiker, she has been a ski racer and has taught skiing and sailing. A former television producer and news anchor, she also worked as a model for skiing and outdoor publications. Ms. Wall's other books include "Access for All: Touring the Southwest with Limited Mobility" (2014), "Base Camp Las Vegas", (2010), and "Great Hikes: A Cerca Country Guide" (2004). She has a Nevada Press Association award for excellence and writes periodic columns about little-known hiking routes in the Southwest and tips for taking fun and safe trips.

3 thoughts to “Exploring a Lava Tube”

  1. Mojave National Preserve remains an agreeably underused destination. This lava tube is only one of its unusual attractions. Close at hand lie one of the world’s largest stands of Joshua trees, and a remarkably well-restored railroad station that serves not only as an adventure in history but also as the park headquarters.

  2. Several of the other gem attractions of Mojave National Preserve are covered in Deborah Wall’s new and expanded edition of “Base Camp Las Vegas.” Lots of great places in that book a person wouldn’t otherwise hear about until he or she had been rattling around the desert a long time. I had been backroading this region nearly 40 years and many were new to me.

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