Go prepared! - Caving Checklist
Overview: Lava Beds National Monument is the largest know concentration of lava tube caves in the continental U.S. The visitor center sells detailed maps for some of the more complicated developed caves and for some of the more than four hundred other undeveloped caves available in the monument for more advanced cavers. Sentinel Cave is one of the few developed caves which has two entrances and can be done as a loop. If you stay on the developed trail it can be an easy family adventure. Sentinel can also be an intermediate or advanced experience if you venture off on one of the many alternative routes which are not marked or on the main trail. A detailed map would be highly recommended for bushwhacking this cave. This report documents the developed trail starting at the upper trailhead coming out the lower trailhead and looping around above ground. Loaner flashlights are available for free at the visitor center and you should check for closures, or warnings for your destination.
Hike: From the upper trailhead parking area it is a short trail to a bed of basalt where a tube has obviously collapsed. Crossing the basalt is a little challenging and gloves would be a great asset to have on any equipment list. There is a natural arch behind you as you descend down stone stairs which has resisted the tube collapse on both sides of it. The trail is obvious as it negotiates several large boulders near the entrance. At 3280 feet long this cave is a joy. The tube with the main trail is cavernous with high ceilings the entire length. Soon a deep crevasse is spanned by a metal walkway with handrails. This is the first of many similar crossings. The beam from a standard flashlight can not find the bottom of that crevasse. This cave is huge and differs greatly from some of the tube only type beginner caves. The trail descends then ascends with the use of metal platforms and stairs at several locations over ledges, cliffs and other obstacles. The darkness is disorienting in regards to time, distance and direction. Every turn offers something new and exciting and the experience feels like a journey to the center of the earth. Eventually there is a peak of daylight ahead. Exiting the cave is easy enough and the path circles around to the right and back to the road. Once at the road a short walk to the left down the road will get you back to the upper trailhead.
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WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.