Highway 1

Highway 1
Traveling Highway 1

Thursday, March 5, 2020

03-04 to 03-05 2020 Over the Mountain for the Lava and the Birds

When we had the apartments in Klamath Falls, our journeys over the mountain were simple.  Load up the car and plan to stay in the extra apartment when we had to handle Klamath Basin business.  Now that the apartments are sold, it is all different. 

Mo had her taxes done in Klamath Falls for a couple of decades, and was reluctant to switch accountants with such a complex issue as selling the apartments.  She made an appointment with her tax lady and said, “Where should we stay when we go to Klamath Falls?”  We rolled that one around a bit, thinking that maybe the weather would be good enough to take the kayaks and dip into our favorite kayak waters.  Sometimes we have paddled this early in the year, and other times the Basin is covered with snow until May. 

Big Meadow near the summit of the High Lakes Pass.

The meadow is still covered in snow, but thin enough that the snowmobiles that frequent this area are banned for the time being.

Mattie wanted to go run on the snowy meadow

Things looked good until just a couple of days before our planned trip when snow and rain were predicted and the morning temperatures in the 20’s made both of us shiver. We decided to skip the kayaks.  Still, the motorhome was the best plan for the two evenings we planned to be away.  Who wants to stay in an expensive hotel when we have our own bed and nice clean COVID 19 virus free bathroom!  But where to park?!  WalMart?  We had no clue if they still allowed overnighting in the parking lot, but the KOA in town is terribly crowded and probably expensive as well.  We didn’t bother looking it up because Mo searched around a bit on AllStays and found reviews for the Kla-Mo-Ya Casino, just 20 minutes north of town.  Of course!  The parking lot there is huge.  We have visited the casino many times over the years but never had a reason to camp since we lived nearby. Paul and Nina stayed there and wrote up a great review of the place, with photos, which I didn’t bother to take.  We parked in the northern end where they parked but had no intrusive truckers join us to keep us awake. 

After settling in we unhooked the car and drove into town to meet with Mo’s accountant.  The warmish afternoon actually called for an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbins nearby before we traveled back north to our overnight spot. Once back home in the MoHo, we enjoyed supper in and never bothered to go to the casino.  Why take a chance on public spaces where people are touching everything and eating in a public restaurant.  Better to stay home in our own space.

Our original plan was to camp two nights at Kla-Mo-Ya, but the accountant said there was no need for Mo to stay around, she could mail the final papers to Grants Pass.  Hmmm.  What to do?

Even though we decided to skip taking the kayaks, it didn’t mean we couldn’t go find the birds.  The Klamath Basin is on the Pacific Flyway and I have been watching photos from Basin birders of the thousands of birds that rest in the refuge waters on their way north. 

I was craving open skies and distant views, and most of the camps in the local mountains are either in a dark hole, or closed for the season, or high enough in the mountains that they are still snowed in.  As we rolled around possibilities, I said, “I am hungry again for desert!”.  Suddenly we both thought of the perfect open desert landscape, with a beautiful campground that is open all year long.

Lava Beds National Monument is just 40 miles or so south of Klamath Falls, and on the southern edge of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge where we planned to spend the day.  It was easy to decide to pack up the MoHo and travel south to the Monument with the idea that we could settle in with the rig and then return to the refuge for an afternoon of birding.

It was a beautiful drive, with temperatures in the high 50’s and gorgeous blue skies.  We were thrilled when we drove into the campground to discover it was completely empty.  It isn’t a big campground and the A loop was the only loop open, but no matter, we had our choice of the best campsite there.  None of the sites are particularly big and for some reason the one way road is opposite the direction it should be for parking a motorhome along each campsite.  When the LEO checked in with us she mentioned that they were considering expanding the campground to include space for bigger rigs, and I suggested that it would be a simple fix to just change the direction of the one way road.

The silence was what struck me first, and then the view from our spot, north the many miles across the refuge toward Klamath Falls.  The MoHo was parked on level asphalt, with the campfire and picnic table just a few steps away.  I turned to Mo and said, “I don’t want to leave.  How do you feel about us skipping the drive back to the refuge and just sitting here all afternoon with this silence and this view?”  Mo agreed completely, and we opened the doors to feel the slight breeze, set up our chairs, and wished we had brought firewood.

I drove back up to the visitor center on the off chance that they might have some and was told that we could either drive 18 miles one way to Tionesta, 30 miles the other way toward Tulelake, or maybe the corner store on StateLine Road would have some wood.  Or another option was to drive 6 miles south into the Modoc National Forest and forage on our own for free down wood. 

We took off in the Tracker on the forest road and had fun hunting for old dry wood and filled up the back of the car with enough for the evening.  Once again, we had the road and the forest to ourselves and Mattie had a great time running around off leash in the woods with us.

Back home we relaxed a bit as the evening began to cool.  I heated up our soup while Mo built a great fire and we settled in to enjoy dinner with a view at the massive picnic table built in the 1930’s by the CCC. 

The night was completely silent, and not quite completely dark with the quarter moon shedding more light than I have sometimes seen in a completely full moon.  We sat in our chairs by the fire and with a surprisingly good cell signal I used our favorite little FlightTracker app to identify all the planes flying over us in both directions.  There were a LOT more planes flying in this area that we usually see in Grants Pass to the west.

It was a cold night, with lows dropping to 26 degrees F before morning, but we were toasty.  There are no hookups, but the furnace kept us warm enough with a comforter and 2 quilts. I got up in the dark a few times to try to id stars and constellations as well, but the bright moon and the bit of high cloudiness made it hard to see so I gave up and snuggled back under the covers with my book.  A great night of darkness and silence. 

We enjoyed a slow morning with breakfast and coffee and I managed a short little hike along the 7 Mile Trail that starts at the campground.  Lava Beds is most famous for its lava caves and tubes, and while many are named there are little caves everywhere that aren’t even on the map.  Lava Beds National Monument has instituted a screening procedure to help prevent the spread of bat white-nose syndrome to its caves.  You must have a permit to show that you haven’t been in any caves anywhere else in the recent past.

We packed up and headed back across the monument, stopping to enjoy the views of the Devils Homestead lava flow.  In the distance to the south the broad expanse of the source of all that lava can be seen, still covered in deep snow. 

The Medicine Lake Volcano is home to one of our favorite campsites in the heart of the Caldera, Medicine Lake Campground.  However, at over 7,000 feet elevation the road isn’t accessible until early summer and often snow is still in the campground into June.  Hoping for another great camping trip this coming summer at Medicine Lake.

Our route back toward home passed through two wildlife refuges, Tulelake NWR and Lower Klamath NWR.  Each refuge has its own personality, but both are supplied with water by the Bureau of Recreation for the Klamath Basin Project.  Sometimes there is a lot of water allowed into the refuges, and other times not so much, depending on the forecast for the water year and where the water needs to be allocated.  Water from Klamath Lake goes down the Klamath River, habitat for salmon.  Before it gets to the river however, it is diverted into canals to supply the farmers in the Klamath Basin.  If there is enough water for the salmon and enough for the farmers, and oh yes, enough to keep water in the lake to support the endangered sucker breeding beds, then there will be some left over for the birds.  It is a constant battle.  The water was allocated to the basin by the BoR in 1905, and there is never enough to supply all the needs, so something goes wanting even in a good year, much less a drought year. Here is a link to a study by the USGS about water in the basin.

This time around, as we passed the Tulelake NWR we saw that most of the fields were dry and the ponds where we have walked and seen so many birds were also dry.  We didn’t stop, but continued back west toward Lower Klamath NWR, where there was more water than we have seen in years. 

There is a beautiful refuge graveled auto tour that circles the largest wetlands, and we have often seen huge flocks of many types of geese and swans there during some years.  This year we were a bit late for the geese, but a few swans were still around, and many many ducks.  We saw more bufflehead ducks throughout the refuge than we have ever seen in the past.

Cinnamon teal family on Lower Klamath NWR

White Front Geese with some Northern Shovelers tucked in on Lower Klamath NWR

Northern Shoveler at Lower Klamath NWR

Toward the Willows section of the auto route there are some large cottonwoods that host a heron and egret rookery, but we saw no herons and the egrets have yet to return.  Sadly, a nesting pair of herons were scared from their nest by the many tourists who travel the road and get out of their cars.  People don’t seem to know that staying in your car is the best way to avoid disturbing the birds, and we saw people walking around taking photos.  I follow a birding group from Klamath Basin on Facebook and learned after we got home that the refuge closed the auto tour in that area to try to protect the birds from people.  I wish they had done it before the herons abandoned their nest. 

What we did see however, were many eagles perched high in the cottonwoods watching the wetlands for their next tasty duck dinner.  The one eagle was on the window side of the car, so I was able to shoot the photo without disturbing him.  In the trees on the west side of the road and the canal there were 2 or 3 eagles in each tree, but harder to get a good shot because of the branches and lighting.  Still it was great to see so many eagles.

We returned to the MoHo parked at the entrance to the refuge auto tour and settled in for a nice lunch as the winds kicked up with a coming storm.  Returning to Grants Pass that afternoon we were grateful for the perfect timing of our trip since the very next day there were storms and snows over the High Lakes Pass that was part of our return route.


  1. That's it, then. I want to go, both to camp at Lava Beds and see the birds at the refuge. What a stellar photo of ol' Baldie you got -- wow! What is a LEO at the campground? I'd say you guys made a wise choice when you opted to camp out instead of motel-ing it.

  2. Yes, Nickie, as I mentioned on Facebook, I knew you two would really love this place. Great hiking, few people, and birds. An LEO is a Law Enforcement Officer, what they call a police person in the National Parks or the Forest Service or BLM among others.

  3. Love seeing eagles!!!
    Those cinnamon teal almost look fake.... weird
    I got to visit Judy when she was at Tulelake, it was a fun day...

  4. that trip certainly worked out well for you! It is so much nicer to travel with your own home, isn't it?

  5. Your quickie getaway to meet up with Mo’s accountant yielded some great R&R time. Lucky you managed that getaway as it might be a while before we can all go out with our RVs again. Love that you went to the wildlife refuge to see the birds. Now that I have a decent camera again, I am itching to get out and photograph some wildlife. A shame that people don’t realize that staying in their vehicles gives them a better chance at photographing birds ... and many other wildlife. Can’t tell you how many times people banging their doors shut after getting out of their vehicles has scared off an animal that otherwise we could have enjoyed for a length of time.


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