There may not be any lost treasure (that we know of) in Oregon’s caves, but these deep, dark underground tunnels seem straight out of an adventure movie. The state is home to several extraordinary lava tube caves — made from cooled molten lava, with impressive stalactites and stalagmites and all. You might see a few wild critters, but last time we checked, there were no snakes. You’ll also find the largest sea cave in the United States, a dream for any lover of sea lions. Here’s how to take your family on an Oregon caving expedition.
One of the most accessible lava tube caves in Central Oregon is Lava River Cave, a short drive from both Sunriver and Bend. Here you can venture down a short stairway into the underworld and walk for an entire mile into the earth. It’s dark and cold and gets darker and colder as you go. On your journey, which may take about an hour and a half, you’ll see incredible rock formations and maybe some mice, spiders, worms and centipedes. You probably won’t see many bats — they’re nocturnal and prefer to be left alone. The bats are under attack from a disease called white-nose syndrome, which you can learn more about at the Lava River Cave Interpretive Site, part of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. You can help protect the bats by changing out of clothing you’ve worn into other caves before you start your tour.
The open season for the cave is May through September, closing annually in October to allow the bats to breed in peace. While this site is fairly accessible there are still many stairs, uneven ground and some challenging terrain to cover. Take the kids, but give them a hand.
Central Oregon is filled with ancient lava tubes ripe for exploring. Also check out: Boyd Cave, Redmond Caves, Skylight Cave and Derrick Cave, which is among the longest lava tubes in Oregon and so hidden that it was designated a nuclear fallout shelter in the 1960s.
For a guided caving adventure, consider Wanderlust Tours naturalist-led trips to some of the hidden lava tubes in the area, which are far less accessible to the general public. Kids age five and up are welcome; the tours include a headlamp, helmet, transportation and interpretation.
These caves are known as Marble Halls of Oregon for good reason. Millions of years ago, mountains of limestone dotted Southern Oregon’s landscape. Over eons and eons, the limestone metamorphosed to marble and acidic water seeped into the marble below, forming this stunning network of twisting caves. Today the Oregon Caves National Monument are full of steep stairways, narrow passageways, and 160 species of animals and insects. You can easily explore the caves — about a two-hour drive west of Ashland — on one of several ranger-led tours. Choose the 90-minute kid-centered tour, which introduces families with energetic youngsters to this geological marvel. Cave tours are generally available March through early November, though the family-focused option is currently only offered in the summer.
Maybe you like your caves with a bit of seawater. The Sea Lion Caves, 11 miles north of Florence on Oregon’s Central Coast, has been one of the state’s top attractions since opening in 1961. Ride the elevator to descend 208 feet into the basalt cave, which formed 25 million years ago. Today it’s a year-round protective cove for Steller sea lions, which come and go as they please year-round. You might see hundreds of sea lions here in the winter, but they’ll move to the rock ledges in front of the cave for breeding and birthing in the spring and summer. The cave and its vicinity are also home to an astonishing variety of wildlife such as bats; orcas, gray whales and humpback whales during their northern migration; harbor seals; bald eagles; mountain lions; black bear; elk; and a huge array of seabirds. Check out the sea lions via webcam for a sneak peek before you go.
Tips for cavers: Wear sturdy shoes and dress in layers — Oregon’s caves stay the same temperature all year long, around 40 degrees, no matter if it’s freezing or scorching outside. Bring a headlamp or flashlight — one per person is great. You may feel claustrophobic for a spell, but bring your sense of adventure and you’ll be fine.