By Ryan Loughrey
The Jot Dean Cave is easy to get to, although it doesn’t have a set trail or stairs down into the cave. It has ice year-round, and temperature differences within the cave can be a stark contrast to hot summer temperatures. Our original goal on the trip was camping at Medicine Lake, but after the aforementioned snow, our final destination turned into the Ice Cave.
That being said, the Jot Dean Cave is very much accessible.
We started the trip in a kind of roundabout way. We started by heading east on Highway 89 from Mt. Shasta and stopping to see the three McCloud waterfalls. The trip hadn’t started out to be a hiking trip, so my shoes were not very adequate. Still, the trail is quite easy and family friendly. We weren’t the only ones with this idea, and we shared the trails with hikers, families, and photographers all wanting to enjoy the splendor. Lower Falls also is a well-known swimming hole, but this time there was only one family who braved jumping into the cold water. They asked me to take photos of them, so I obliged, as well as left them a little selfie so they always have a memory of that one stranger who took their photo. We decided to keep hiking. Middle McCloud Falls was definitely the most populous, with people taking selfies, setting up tripods, or just picnicking on the rocks and enjoying the view. There was even one couple who donned wetsuits, and we all watched as they hiked to the pool beneath the falls and slowly eased into the water. We gazed as they climbed along the edge of pool, and were half submerged in water until they were directly beside the falls. In a moment, they disappeared behind the falls and we could hear their yelps of delight. (At least, we took it as delight. For all we know, they could have been screaming for help as all of us spectators cheered them on).
The hike to Upper Falls is relatively easy, but has elevation gain and less tree cover, so it could possibly pose a challenge. The trail comes to a vista point above the falls, and unlike Middle McCloud it would be more difficult to try and sit at the base of the falls. This was the least populous of the three, but still offered good views.
From McCloud Falls, we continued along Hwy 89 until we came to the junction and turned north. Signs will guide drivers to Medicine Lake (and directions will be provided at the end). We first followed Road 15 north, then it split and we took the road that would point us towards Medicine Lake.
We were squarely in the Medicine Lake Highlands Volcanic Area. According to a visitor guide from the McCloud Station of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, “more than a million years of volcanic activity have produced a landscape that is perhaps California’s most diverse volcanic field.” The forest floor is evidence of the eruptions, rocky and jagged terrain, dotted with small craters and even natural bridges. As more and more lava has been ejected and dried (for example, according to the same guide, 300 years ago Little Glass Mountain erupted and spread white pumice for miles, and today Pumice Stone Mountain is still covered in it) the landscape has been shaped and molded.
Jot Dean Ice Cave is certainly not the only cave, simply the most well-marked, easiest to find, and one of the more dramatic in this specific area. Locals know that nearly 20 miles north is the spectacular Lava Beds National Monument is a great destination for spelunking. We are planning to go later this summer. Jot Dean is a depression that collects cold air and subsequent ice formations are created.
The cave is not clearly visible from the road, it just looks like another depression in the landscape. The hike to the entrance is more of a walk, maybe 5 minutes.
We hiked into mouth of it, putting on our sweatshirts that seemed so unnecessary just two minutes before. The rocks are loose, so it is important to watch your footing. Instantly we could see ice formations. Long, thick icicles hung from the ceiling like stalactites, some even connecting with the icy pools on the floor. Small, bulbous ice forms seemed to rise from the ground, like stalagmites whose shape resembled some kind of ice spirit in a Miyazaki film.
The cave is not particularly deep, and can be explored in a short time if people want to err on the side of caution, which is recommended for families. There also seems to be two levels as you go farther in. The bottom level seems to just drop off into an icy blackness. From previous explorations, (again, this was my experience and wouldn’t be recommended for children or people traveling by themselves), we knew that the icy slope drops probably a few meters, and there is a small cavern with an icy floor and immersed in darkness. On the ‘top’ level of the cave, it too can be explored further but not nearly as long as caves such as Pluto or Subway. A flashlight, or at the very least the phone flashlight, is recommended.
It should also be noted that near the south side of the entrance, bees seem to have found a home in the cool region in between cave and above-ground.
We hiked out into the sunshine and took off our sweatshirts. We continued on the road until we found that we couldn’t get to Medicine Lake. Still, the ice caves were a cool place to see (terrible pun fully intended). I can’t wait to explore more of this volcanic, beautiful landscape.
From McCloud, follow Hwy 89 East for roughly 16 miles until the sign for Medicine Lake. This is Road 15. Stay on Road 15 for approximately 4.5 miles, then there will be a turn off to the right for Medicine Lake. This is the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, but might not be clearly marked. It is about 18 miles to the Jot Dean Ice Cave.