There may not be any lost treasure (that we know of) in Oregon’s caves, but Indiana Jones could easily find his next exotic adventure in some of the deep, dark underground tunnels here. Oregon 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. Oregon is also home to the largest sea cave in the United States, a dream for any lover of sea lions — and there are plenty that make their home on the Oregon Coast. Here’s how to take your family on an Oregon caving adventure:
One of the most accessible lava tube caves in Central Oregon is Lava River Cave, a worthy detour just a few miles north of Sunriver, south of Bend. Here, you can venture down a short stairway into the deep, dark underground and walk for an entire mile into the earth. It’s dark and cold and gets darker and colder. 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 bats since 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 do your part by not wearing any clothing into the cave that you’ve worn into other caves.
The cave closes for the season on Oct. 2 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 — the third-longest lava tube in Oregon, so hidden that it was designated a nuclear fallout shelter with supplies of food and water in the 1960s.
For a guided caving adventure, consider Wanderlust Tours naturalist-led trips to some of the hidden lava tubes in the area, without paved pathways and parking lots. 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 the fertile landscape of Southern Oregon. Over time, the limestone metamorphosed to marble. Rain fell on the ancient forest and soaked into the ground, dissolving into the marble below and creating amazing caves. Today, nestled deep in the Siskiyou Mountains — about two hours west of Ashland — this geologic marvel, also known as the Oregon Caves National Monument, takes visitors. Bring the family for a guided cave tour, open April through November. Choose the introductory tour for kids and others who need a more accessible option — the caves are full of steep stairways and narrow passageways and 160 species of animals and insects.
Stay the night at the historic Oregon Caves Chateau, just a few steps away from the visitor center, for a real off-the-grid experience. Stop in for a creek-side meal at their Chateau Dining Room (lunch and dinner service through Nov. 6), or grab an old-fashioned malt as a pick-me-up at the chateau’s 1930s-style Caves Cafe (open through October).
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 good 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.