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Subway Cave—Lava Tube, Lassen National Forest

A 1/3 mile long lava tube known as Subway Cave is not far from Lassen Volcanic National Park but within Lassen National Forest.

Subway Cave is an easily accessible—stairs but no elevator—and popular destination about 15 miles from the northern entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park. It is 1/4 mile north of the junction of CA State Routes 44 and 89.
You’ll want to have flashlights for everyone in your party, sturdy shoes and possibly light jackets as the temperature in the cave is typically about 46°. Several informational exhibits, picnic tables and rest rooms are near the entrance.
A campground, Cave Campground, is directly across Highway 89 from Subway Cave with 46 overnight camping sites. Hat Creek fishing access with free day use parking are available from the campground.
Whether you are a geologist, spelunker or a vacationing family wanting to beat the summer heat with a no-cost, quick, easy and educational side trip you are bound to enjoy a visit to Subway Cave.


Subway Cave lava tube photos

A concrete stairway with guardrails into a hole in the ground and cave entrance

The entrance to Subway Cave is through a hole in the cave roof caused by a collapsed section of the lava tube.


View up the stairs and out of a cave entrance

Whoever named Subway Cave’s various features had a dramatic flair.
The entrance, for instance, is surrounded by collapse rubble and is known as Devil’s Doorway.
There are no lights in the lava tube so even this far in you would be in almost complete darkness.
Experimentation with a tripod mounted DSLR, multiple flashes and/or a flashlight allowed me to make these images.


A small sign-map mounted on a rock in a cave

You can’t miss the small sign boards on bright yellow posts with maps identifying features as you walk through the cave.


A small sign board with a map of Subway Cave

The map boards are all similar to the above photo. This particular sign was on the trail from the exit back to the entrance.
I include it here so that you can follow our progress through Subway Cave.
Before we continue though, a brief explanation of how this lava tube came to be.


A graphic explaining the formation of a lava tube

The graphic above, part of a sign at the parking lot/picnic area, explains how lava tubes are formed. This particular tube, along with hundreds of others, was formed about 20,000 years ago when a river of lava, known as the Hat Creek Flow, crawled northward for about 16 miles near the town of Old Station, California.


A cave interior fades to darkness

Turning away from the cave entrance/Devil’s Doorway we pass through Stubtoe Hall. It would be very easy to trip here, especially if you had no light or failed to watch carefully where you were going.


Low ceiling lava tube-cave interior

The next section of the trail through Subway Cave is called Wind Tunnel. It may be that the narrowness of this section causes any breeze passing through the relatively short tunnel to be particularly noticeable.


A barely discernable room through a dark opening in a cave

If you have been following along on the map you know the next named feature of the cave is a small side room, off to the left of the main tunnel, known as Lucifer’s Cul-de-Sac. The entrance would be easy to miss in the dark. Entry into Lucifer’s Cul-de-Sac might be the one time you have to duck a little for those who are much over 6 feet tall.


A arched roof room in a dark cave with a flat floor

Lucifer’s Cul-de-Sac is maybe 20 feet wide, about twice the width of the entrance and with a slightly higher ceiling.


A large low ceiling section of cave with a fairly level floor.

Back in the main tunnel we quickly come to the widest section known as The Sanctum.
Several times the size of Lucifer’s Cul-de-Sac, the above photo probably only shows half the space.
The bright orange dot near the right side of the picture is the location of another map board.


A long, narrow, low section of cave with a bit of light in the bend at the end

Exiting The Sanctum you enter Lavacicle Lane and see the first hint of light from the exit—another spot
where a section of the roof of the lava tube has collapsed.


A pile of bolders below a rough section of cave roof, light in the distance

As you round a bend you can almost see the exit, but before you get there you have to walk around a large number of boulders on the right side of the cave that fell from the roof in a partial collapse. Unsurprisingly this feature is named Partial Collapse.


One end of a subterrain cave

Beyond Partial Collapse you see the feature named Rattlesnake Collapse, a rubble filled complete collapse
of the lava tube roof that serves as an exit, complete with another stairs. From here you can follow a trail above ground
back to the cave entrance or just turn around and go back through Subway Cave to where you started.
Either way will take about the same time and the only thing you will miss on the, somewhat difficult to follow, ground level trail through mostly manzanita brush is the sign I included near the beginning of this photo essay.


Previous—Bumpass Hell / Lassen Volcanic National Park


Visit more National Parks and National Monuments in the US from my National Parks page and another Photo Essay about a nearby extinct volcano and Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.
Another lava field adventure photo essay is my Craters of the Moon NM in Idaho.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson