Lava Beds National Monument, CA: Big Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge

This easy 2-mile out-and-back visits two collapsed sections of a wide lava tube with Native American pictographs and natural bridge walls.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

The Modoc Crater Lava Tube System extends over ten miles, from the Modoc Crater to the ancient shoreline of Tule Lake. Over the course of the system, several sinkholes and skylights have opened up access to portions of lava tube. In this area, prehistoric pictographs and paintings have been discovered on the rocky walls in a deep lava tube cave, and under nearby natural lava bridge.

From the trailhead along Skull Cave Road, start a short, level walk on easy trail amid rabbit and bitterbrush, with occasional juniper trees and clumps of rock penstemon and biscuitroot, with cinder-sloped Schonchin Butte rising ahead. After 0.75 mile, the trail forks left to Big Painted Cave, and straight ahead another 0.1 mile to Symbol Bridge. Start with either one, following short, rocky paths down into the caves to observe the ancient artwork close up.

The paintings and pictographs at Big Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge are believed to predate the Modoc culture who once inhabited this valley, and are thought to indicate the spiritual activities of the Ancients. Take photos but please don’t touch, as natural oils on the hands promote decay. Return by the same route.

-Mapped by Eli Boschetto, BoscoMountainPhoto


Trail Facts

  • Distance: 3.0



Location: 41.729457, -121.5123

Hike northwest from the Painted Cave and Symbol Bridge trailhead.


Location: 41.731159, -121.517485

Cross Irish Bridge. There’s a collapsed lava tube on either side of the trail.


Location: 41.732141, -121.52279

Junction for Painted Cave (left) and Symbol Bridge (straight). Explore at will.


Location: 41.731767, -121.523058

Entrance to Painted Cave. Look for faint petroglyphs and paintings on lava tube walls.


Location: 41.733511, -121.526195

Symbol Bridge entrance. Look for very detailed petroglyphs on either side of the bridge.


Location: 41.729513, -121.512115

Schonchin Butte

Location: 41.731355, -121.517372

Symbol Bridge

Location: 41.733565, -121.525977


Location: 41.733325, -121.526127

Desert Color

Location: 41.73238, -121.523252

Big Painted Cave

Location: 41.731755, -121.522822

Cave Painting

Location: 41.731899, -121.523144

Painted Cave & Schonchin Butte

Location: 41.731675, -121.522372