Lava flow from Lavic Lake Volcanic Field
Credit: Wikipedia photo by SkepticalRaptor, CC BY-SA 3.0.

This lava flow is part of the Lavic Lake Volcanic Field in California's Mojave Desert. Of the three volcanoes discussed on this page, it is located the nearest to Southern California's city areas, being about 23 miles (37 km) from Barstow, and 50 miles (80 km) from San Bernardino.[1]

As a resident of Southern California and a lover of volcanology, I love finding out about not only volcanoes in my own state, but volcanoes in California that erupted recently enough that they are still considered to be active and a threat for future eruptions. Turns out there are sixteen of them, according to USGS.[2]

Of California’s sixteen active volcanoes, with active typically being defined as having erupted less than 10,000 years ago, which is a short amount of time, geologically speaking[3] – three of them are located in the Mojave Desert.[2] And of those, I’ve visited two of them.

USGS sometimes includes volcanoes in its “active” list because they are thought to be an eruption threat even if they haven’t actually erupted within the past 10,000 years. This is the case with the first of the three discussed below.

I’m pretty sure most Californians don’t know about all these volcanoes. Some are quite obvious such as towering Mount Shasta in Northern California, although others exist more subtly but could still cause trouble should they erupt.

Below I share information about each of the three located in the Mojave Desert, which Californians often call the Upper Desert. There is also an active volcano in the Sonoran Desert, which we often call the Lower Desert, near the Salton Sea.[4]

The four desert volcanoes are the ones that are located furthest south in California. The other 12 active volcanoes in California are all located further north.[2]

#1 - Coso Volcanic Field

Coso Volcanic Field
Credit: Public domain.

A black lava flow extends across the Coso Volcanic Field in California's Mojave Desert.

About 100 miles (160 km) northeast of the city of Bakersfield, in Inyo County, this volcano last erupted 12,000 years ago or possibly longer ago than that, yet is ranked by USGS as a moderate threat for future eruptions. Evidence suggests that in the past 250,000 years it has erupted about 40 times, which on average is once every 6,250 years.[5]

The volcanic field features steep-sided lava domes, cinder cones, and lava flows, in addition to hot springs, steam vents, and boiling mud pots. There is a geothermal power plant that is one of the largest in the USA, and it generates enough electricity for 270,000 homes.[5]

The majority of the volcanic field is located on US government property, within the boundaries of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.[5] This is actually the largest single plot of land held by the US Navy.[6]

Scientific tests have concluded that there is magma, partially molten rock, under the volcanic field, and small to moderate earthquakes that are volcanic in origin are common. The US Navy continues to monitor the volcano's activity.[5]

#2: Lavic Lake Volcanic Field

Pisgah Crater and lava flow
Credit: Google Maps aerial image.

Pisgah Crater is seen toward the top of this image, with its lava flow extending southeast. The nearby highway is Interstate 40. The black lava flow area in the photo is about 6.5 miles (11 km) in length. There are three other smaller cinder cones that are part of the Lavic Lake Volcanic Field besides Pisgah Crater.[7]

Consisting of four cinder cones, this volcanic field likely last erupted about 10,000 years ago, which at the time limit for consideration for being classified as an active volcano. The cinder cones are located in San Bernardino County, and although USGS says the area has potential for another eruption someday, the current threat rating given is low to very low.[7]

There are multiple lava flows originated with this volcanic field, the longest of which covers about 11 miles (18 km).[7] Of the four cinder cones, I’ve seen Pisgah Crater, which is the largest and most prominent, standing about 328 feet (100 meters) high above the surrounding desert terrain. Two other cinder cones are located to the south, and another about 12 miles (19 km) west, that are all part of the Lavic Lake Volcanic Field.[7]

#3: Ubehebe Craters

Ubehebe Crater
Credit: Wikipedia photo by Urban, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Hikers stand at the rim of Ubehebe Crater, the largest of at least a dozen volcanic craters located in Death Valley National Park, in California's Mojave Desert.[8] Hiking down the steep sides is easy and fun, although climbing back out is difficult.

This is definitely my favorite volcano name ever, pronounced like Yoo–Bee–Hee–Bee.

The name is actually is a Native American word, which means “big basket in the rock,” which certainly is what it looks like.[8] I’ve hiked to the bottom of the largest crater, called Ubehebe Crater, and back out. It was a lot of fun, and climbing out was the hard part.

The location is Death Valley National Park,[8] which is an amazing place that you do not want to visit during summer. It’s one of the hottest places on Earth, and parts of it go below sea level. The record hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 134.6 degrees (57 C) in Death Valley.[9] When I visited, it was November and the weather was perfect, around 80 degrees (27 C) for several days in a row.

There are actually at least a dozen craters, many of which overlap, and the largest one, which as stated I've hiked in, and it's in the photo above, is about half a mile (0.8 km) wide, and about 800 feet (250 meters) deep. The most recent eruption occurred about 800 years ago,[8] so around the time that Genghis Khan was ruler of the vast Mongol Empire.[10]

There is no monitoring of this volcano, and the threat level for a future eruption has been determined by USGS to be moderate.[8]