“A very short trail to the best ice cave in the monument.
— QuinTCM TCM
You must first obtain a White-Nose Syndrome Screening Pass from the rangers at the visitor center before entering any caves.
Individual caves are often closed during some portions of the year to allow bats a place to nest and care for their young.
The trailhead is located at the end of Merrill Cave Road, which is located north of Skull Cave Road and just south of the road leading to Schonchin Butte. The road turns west off the main park road and ends at a small parking lot where the trailhead is located. The trailhead for Whitney Butte Trail
is also found at this location.
The trail leading to Merrill Cave is short, flat, and easy. The cave itself consists of two metal stairways and a metal walkway at the lowest level of the cave. The overall descent to the bottom of the cave is around 80 feet.
Merrill Cave is part of the Modoc Crater Lava Tube system, which runs from nearby Modoc Crater to the old shoreline of Tule Lake, ten miles to the northeast. The main entrance into the cave is located at the end of the short trail. A 15-foot metal stairway leads down to the first level of the cave. Following the trail north inside the cave will lead to a second 17-foot metal stairway that passes through a very small opening into the lower level of the cave. This lower level contains a large body of perennial ice and a metal walkway passes over the ice so as to protect it from contamination and discoloration. In winter, beautiful stalactites, draperies, and crystals of ice are common in both levels of Merrill Cave.
Very near Merrill Cave are Bearpaw Cave and Bearpaw Bridge. In fact, Merrill Cave Road passes directly over Bearpaw Bridge just before it ends at the parking area for the trailhead. Bearpaw Cave is located south of Bearpaw bridge at the end of the collapsed lava tube. Just inside the entrance, the floors drops suddenly resulting in a passage about 45 feet in height. At the bottom of this incline is a depression that used to contain a small well of water. Bearpaw Cave's floor consists entirely of blocks of rocks that once formed the ceiling of the cave.
The cave is named Bearpaw Cave because in 1888 a trapper named Tom Durham saw a bear emerge from either Merrill Cave or Bearpaw Cave. He killed the bear, skinned it, and nailed its paws to a juniper tree at the entrance of one of the caves, where they hung for many years. Merrill Cave was once called Bear Foot Ice, Bear Paw Ice, Bearpaw Ice, and Little Bear Paw for this reason.
The book "Lava Beds Caves" by Charlie & Jo Larson is an excellent resource and guide for exploring the caves of Lava Beds NM. It is available for purchase at the Visitor Center.