Whitney Butte in the Lava Beds National Monument - Explore! Whitney Butte in the Lava Beds National Monument - Explore!

Whitney Butte in the Lava Beds National Monument

Golddigger Trail to Whitney Butte
Whitney Butte GeologyWhitney Butte is in  Lava Beds National Monument. The monument is located near Tulelake, California, just south of the California-Oregon Border.  It is a geologic wonderland of lava flows, caves and cinder cone volcanos on the north flank of the Medicine Lake Highlands.

Whitney Butte is a cinder cone that makes a great destination for an easy day hike.  First a little background, then we’ll explore two routes to the butte.

Whitney Butte Geology

The Medicine Lake Highlands is a volcano. It is the largest volcano in the Cascade Range by volume. It is also the largest volcano in California by area.  After many eruptions over a half million years, the volcano now spans an area 22 miles from east to west and 30 miles north to south.   Various vents and lava flows continued to erupt around the main volcano until historic times.

Whitney Butte, seen in the right background above, is one of those vents that ended it’s life by creating a cinder cone.  It erupted in the middle Pleistocene (Ionian Stage, between 126 and 781 thousand years ago) sending a 30-foot thick andesite lava flow four miles to the north. It left the cinder cone that is the object of our adventure.  The map shows Whitney Butte and the geology of the area. The wide green line is the monument boundary.  The brown area (PEawb) is the Whitney Butte lava flow.  The two red stars atop Whitney Butte indicate the vents that finally tossed out cinders to create the Butte.  The green color in the lower left of the map represents the Callahan Lava Flow that we will encounter on our adventure.

Whitney Butte History

Perhaps Jerome Whitney's Sheep Camp

Jerome Whitney’s Sheep Camp

Whitney Butte is named for Jerome Whitney who was among the first three people to bring sheep to the lava beds in 1885.  He kept his sheep near Whitney Butte.  There is no surface water in the lava beds south of Tule Lake.  Whitney may have melted ice from Bearpaw Cave (Merrill Cave) to water his sheep.  He relied upon snow in the winter.

Remnants of what appears to be Whitney’s camp can still be seen on the northeast base of the butte, just off the trail.

Visiting Whitney Butte

There are three routes to Whitney Butte.  One, that can be driven with a high clearance vehicle or gravel bike, follows old roads north and west of the Monument to a point on the Monument boundary just west of Whitney Butte. We have not explored that route.  There are two hiking trails that access the butte.  They are the subject of this story.  Visitors to Lava Beds National Monument generally arrive at the north entrance near Gillam’s Camp.  Both trailheads are off of the west side of the road on the way to the visitor center.


Whitney Butte Trail

Mt Shasta from Whiney Butte Trail (telephoto)

Mt Shasta from Whitney Butte Trail (telephoto)

Whitney Butte Trail (out and back) begins at the Merrill Cave parking area and heads northwest then west to the Butte. It is a 3.3 mile (one way), open trail with very little shade.  It follows an old road that is quite obvious if you look for the windrow of rocks on each side.


Old Roads

When these original roads were built in the Lava Beds, workers simply walked along the desired route heaving stones to the side to make a passable path for the wagons that used them.  The solid rock that made the road surface was bumpy, but there was little soil or mud to impede wagon travel.



The trail is relatively flat and rocky as it passes over lava flows, around collapsed lava tube caves, and past juniper trees, sagebrush, grasses and wildflowers.  At one point there is a great view of Mount Shasta to the southwest. The trail continues around the north side of the butte to the leading face of the Callahan Lava Flow.  This face of black lava is thirty feet tall.

While the trail makes a great hike, one must get off the trail to get to the top of the butte.  The easiest route is up the northeast side.  If you walk around the butte to experience the face of the Callahan Lava Flow, highly recommended, you can also climb the west side of the butte. Choosing a route to the top involves avoiding the trees and brush, and zig-zagging as necessary up the slope.  Once on top, a rim circles the crater from which the ciders flew during Whitney Butte’s final eruptions. Views from the top extend from Mount Shasta to Crater Lake National Park.

Of particular geologic interest is the  view to the north where one can see the repeating ridges caused when the stretching surface of the earth pulled the landscape apart and dropped huge blocks on the easterly side of each crack in the surface.  These ridges are best seen in the morning light.  They exemplify the Basin and Range Province of this area.


Along the Whitney Butte Trail


Whitney Butte Trail Map and Profile

Whitney Butte Trail Map and Profile

Gold Digger Trail

Gold Digger Trailhead

Gold Digger Trailhead

Gold Digger Trail begins on the Gold Digger Pass Road, the first road to the west after passing Gillam’s Camp on the way south, toward park headquarters.  It is also an out and back trail.

According to William Samuel Brown, writing in 1945, the pass and the trail get their names not from prospectors, but from the name of a golden brown wild stallion that frequented the area in the 1880’s.  Locals tried to capture Gold Digger many times, but he always escaped them by disappearing through Gold Digger Pass, a break in the high lava rim that the old road eventually crosses.

The trailhead is a spot just off the main park road where several cars can park. It is outside the National Monument, on the Modoc National Forest. The trailhead is not signed.  Be careful not to park cars on dry grass in warm weather, to avoid a fire.

Like the Whitney Butte Trail, the Gold Digger Trail follows the remains of an old road.  It heads south, passes just west of Fleener Chimneys and finally connects to the Whitney Butte Trail after about 3.1 miles. Along the way,  the trail passes over an andesite lava flow from the middle pleistocene (PEawf on the map above), a bit of basaltic andesite (PEmen on the map above) associated with Eagle Nest Butte from the late pleistocene (tarantian stage, from 12,000 to 126,000 years ago) and the lava flow from Whitney Butte.

The vegetation is similar to that of the Whitney Butte Trail.  The surrounding terrain, particularly  on the northern end of the trail, is more rugged with a wider variety of lava formations.  The grade of the trail is a bit steeper.


Along the Gold Digger Trail


Gold Digger Trail Map and Profile

Gold Digger Trail – Map and Profile



Our video offers views from both trails and from atop Whitney Butte. A brief introduction is provided for each trail.

You can find a larger, higher resolution, version of the video on our YouTube Channel.


Brown, Frederick L. The Center of the World, The Edge of the World: A History of Lava Beds National Monument.

Brown, William S. Modoc National Forest History. 1945


All photos, video and text by Jerry Haugen ©2018 Global Creations LLC, All Rights Reserved.  Special thanks to the Klamath Basin Outdoor Group for organizing and leading these hikes.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy

Pin It on Pinterest