Sip and Spelunk in Central Oregon

Descend into a cave with a guide for geological and cocktail history in the high desert.
September 6, 2023

It’s a picture-perfect day in Central Oregon: bright sun, brilliant blue sky and balmy warm weather. Yet I am bundled in thick fleece and wool socks, peering through semidarkness toward a few bristly strands growing from a crevice in the rock. They’re so fine that the light from my headlamp barely catches them. 

Some kind of lichen, perhaps? Or a strange crystal formation? The answer, it turns out, is neither. “Those are rabbitbrush roots,” explains my guide, Austin Dailey of Wanderlust Tours, “searching for water 60 feet below ground.” 

They’re not the only life form that’s turned to Central Oregon’s caves in search of a drink. During Prohibition, many illegal distillers took advantage of the miles of subterranean lava tubes around Bend to make moonshine free from prying eyes. That unique history was the inspiration for Wanderlust’s Prohibition Cave Tour, a small-group tour that pairs visiting one of the remarkable lava-tube caves in the Deschutes National Forest with a stop at one of Bend’s excellent — and legal — craft distilleries. Tours run daily year-round, but it’s best to sign up several days in advance to secure a spot. Customized private tours are also available.

Cave tour (Photo by Chaney Swiney)

See Underground Lava Formations Up Close

I’ve always had what I think of as a healthy fear of caves, due perhaps to reading “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” — with its vivid description of getting lost in a cave — at an impressionable moment of my childhood. So I’m relieved to have an expert guide lead the way as we ride a shuttle from Wanderlust’s office in downtown Bend and head southeast toward the Deschutes National Forest

After just a few minutes, neighborhoods and office parks are in the rear-view mirror, and Dailey is sharing some fascinating details about Bend’s regional history, including the origin of the name of the Old Mill District. While today the city’s walkable central district is filled with restaurants, a food-cart pod, breweries and distilleries, it was once home to two of the largest pine mills in the world.

Before long we arrive at the parking lot for Boyd Cave, a day-use area with great walks leading to the destination of the day. I briefly wonder if we have the right kind of parking pass for the area but then remember that Dailey’s on it, and I feel myself relax. “Don’t forget your coat,” he reminds me. It sounds ludicrous given the sunny weather, but as soon as we descend into the mouth of the cave, the temperature dips at least 30 degrees. 

(Photo by Christian Heeb)

Below ground, the temperature holds steady year-round at 45 degrees Fahrenheit — the perfect temperature, coincidentally, for distilling and aging spirits. No wonder it wasn’t uncommon for old-timers to come across ancient stills, condensers and boilers hidden deep in local caves. During the 1920s and 1930s, distilling was prohibited in the United States — and Oregon actually banned alcohol three years before the national law went into effect. Bend’s millworkers and loggers, however, still liked to enjoy a good drink. So distillers took their trade underground — literally — far from the prying eyes of local police. 

As my eyes adjust to the dimness, I learn I didn’t need to worry about getting hopelessly lost in a bewildering maze of caverns. Central Oregon’s caves were formed by rivers of lava that once flowed across the land from the many cinder volcanoes in this high-desert territory. Those fiery rivers created long, mostly straight passageways that feel much more like a buried highway than a labyrinth. With its flattish floor and high ceilings, it’s actually pretty easy to get around in Boyd Cave. 

With Dailey keeping track of time and my whereabouts, I’m free to lose myself in the weird, drippy formations and glittery mineral deposits on the walls and ceiling. “That’s actually non-precious opal,” Dailey says, pointing to a milky-white, slightly iridescent layer of crystals over the top of a swath of slate-gray basalt. 

Spotting another tangle of rabbitbrush roots peeking through a crack, I think of the immense depth of ash and rock they’ve had to burrow through to get here. It reminds me of the same tenacity and enterprising spirit that once drove Central Oregon bootleggers underground.     

Oregon Spirit Distillers

Sip Cocktails Made From Local Spirits

Because we discover no long-forgotten cases of 100-year-old moonshine in the cave, we seek out refreshment after our excursion at Oregon Spirit Distillers nearby in Bend for a tour and tasting. Founded in 2009, this independently owned craft distillery uses almost entirely Central Oregon grains to make several whiskeys as well as vodka, gin, absinthe and limoncello.

The distillery’s friendly bar manager takes us on a quick but comprehensive tour of the distillery production floor, complete with a sample of new-make spirit fresh from the still and a dram of their flagship Oregon bourbon. Peering into gleaming stainless-steel fermentation tanks and admiring the squeaky-clean production floor, it’s hard to imagine pulling off an operation of this scale in the dusty pitch dark of a lava tube.

Afterward we sidle up to the distillery tasting room’s sweeping live-edge timber bar for a celebratory cocktail. Mine’s a Hi Honey, a beautifully balanced combination of house bourbon, honey, cucumber and lemon. 

Old St. Francis School Hotel (Photo courtesy of Kathleen Nyberg / McMenamins)

Places to Eat and Stay

Bend is packed with great places to stay and eat. Campfire Hotel has a laid-back, outdoorsy vibe, with an on-site bar dishing out frozen cocktails and craft brews and a lively, seasonal outdoor heated pool. Or book a room at the Old St. Francis School Hotel, a McMenamins property in the heart of Old Bend complete with an on-site pub, a brewery, a movie theater and a soaking pool. 

Eat at one of Bend’s many bustling food-cart pods, including the Midtown Yacht Club or the Patio at 9th Street Village. I enjoyed a plate of juicy, just-spicy-enough shrimp tacos from Mother Shuckers in the The Podski food-cart pod, recommended by a bartender at the distillery.

Other Food and Beverage Tours to Book

Hungry for other tasty tours? Book an outing with Lost Plate Food Tours in Portland for a locals-led experience to taste the best of the Rose City, including a food-cart tour or a morning spent sampling coffee and doughnuts. Or schedule a trip with Farm 2 Fork Tours, which takes groups on adventures to the Oregon Coast, Willamette Valley and Columbia Gorge to learn about sustainable Oregon farming and food production, then to eat and drink some of the crafts created by farmers, fishers and brewers.

If you’re in the mood to head out without a guide, cruise the High Desert Food Trail, which links farmers, ranchers, fishers, artisan makers and farm-to-table restaurants in Central Oregon.

About The

Margarett Waterbury
Margarett Waterbury is a lifelong Northwesterner who writes about food, drinks, travel and agriculture for local and national press. She lives in a 90-year-old bungalow in Southeast Portland and enjoys high-octane coffee, low-ABV beers and walking long distances.

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