Unlike limestone caves, lava tubes are usually characterized by their drab, colorless interior. Not so with Golden Dome Cave, which sports shiny ceilings, made possible by tiny bacteria that give the lava tube a golden sheen. Golden Dome Cave is found along the Cave Loop Road in California’s Lava Beds National Monument, a volcanic paradise for cave explorers. Pay attention when navigating the tunnels as the passages form a figure-8, making it easy to walk in circles.
Golden Dome Cave is the first cave along the Cave Loop Road after it forks, beginning a one-way circuit. Look for the parking area on the left. The cave entrance—a small skylight that was blasted open around 1934—is a 75-foot walk from the road.
Use caution when descending the metal ladder into the cave, as so-called “headache rock” takes its toll on many visitors. Once at the bottom, flip on your headlamp and bear in mind your surroundings: the lava tube heads both north and south. Head in the direction of the slant of the ladder (north), heading into the larger and wider section of the cave, which boasts the best collection of gold, actinomycete-laden ceilings.
Immediately you will notice the coarse floors, laden with cauliflower aa, a type of cooled lava that is rare in the pahoehoe-dominated cave system at Lava Beds. Watch your footing as the tunnel bears left, then right, and enters a chamber with a partial roof collapse; a well-trodden path weaves through the fallen rocks, which are mostly neatly piled out of the way to the right. Ceiling heights range from 7-10 feet, sparing visitors from having to duck their heads. Small lavacicles extend down from above, while whole patches of gold are visible along parts of the ceiling.
Just beyond, the trail forks—the broad thoroughfare continues left, while a shorter passage bears right over a foot-high hump. Head right, following the ovular tube past another partial ceiling breakdown. The collapse reveals a smaller, 1-2 foot cleavage on the right.
The cave then opens up into a room with 12-foot ceilings; in the center of the floor lies a short and plump rafted block, a loose rock that was carried away by lava and hardened in place as the lava cooled. Gold streaks line the left wall, and ornate patches cover a small ancillary tube on the right.
Another collapse reveals a cavity flush with gold, while the broader passage splits again. (Note: A left-hand turn connects with the broader channel you left earlier. This is the tie in the middle of the figure-8.) Staying right leads deeper into the cave, into a chamber with excellent lavacicles. The path splits again, but not for long: these two passages meet up again within 15-20 feet.
The ceiling in the next room is coated with gold, arguably the most impressive of the hike. Squeeze through a relatively narrow section to enter the Golden Dome chamber, which has the highest ceilings in the cave but, strangely enough, not as much gold as previous rooms. A pair of dead-end passages marks the farthest accessible reaches of the cave.
The Golden Dome room is the final curl in the figure-8, and continuing around the left-hand bend begins the return journey. This tube has an upper and lower deck, with the former visible high above but well out of reach. A corollary tube bears off to the right, while the main tunnel weaves left through a gold-studded room and up a two-foot lava fall. The ceiling drops to as low as 5 feet in this section.
Now back near the middle of the figure-8, the route passes a large rock fall; the trail keeps to the right side. At the end of this chamber, the path reaches the start of the figure-8, with the tunnel back to the entrance heading right.
Continue straight for 1/10 mile until the sun’s rays begin to shine again. Climb the ladder and exit the cave. (Note: It is possible to continue straight to the south side of the cave, which connects after around 2/10 mile with the Garden Bridges Cave. This section, however, is not as scenic and requires squeezing through a one-foot passage to reach the Garden Bridges section.)
Back out of the subterranean landscape, the parking area is a short walk from the cave ladder. Allot around a half-hour for this caving experience, one of the most unique in the park.