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A cave!!! In the imagination of all children the word cave is synonymous with adventure. The Oregon Caves does not disappoint. As we were out adventuring one summer we found ourselves adventuring to a tried and true location: the Oregon Caves National Monument. We’d visited before, but we wanted to explore the Oregon Caves with our kids.
The road to the caves is a bit snaky. Carsickness was not a problem for us, but for others be forewarned. Once we reached the parking lot we sat and ate a bit of lunch under a tree at a picnic table. Rangers had a makeshift table set up giving out information and answering questions as the main cave campus area was down a short road, perhaps a couple hundred yards away. The kids were excited.
I was stressing on clothing options as we had not planned for this side trip. Our emergency backpack came through with some warm heavy gear. We’ve done several caves and clothing is always a finicky affair. Cave air is cold, one has to bundle up, but walking to a cave entrance in 100°F weather wearing pants, long sleeve shirts, and a heavy coat is very odd. It feels wrong, but once inside the cave, oh how clearly the decision is a correct one.
Arrival at the Cave
The short road to the cave campus is flat and paved, not a problem, but creates a buzz as the family simply wants to see the opening. Our kids were jumping with excitement. The national monument has a pond with Koi fish, waterfall, gift shop, lodge with eatery (not open during 2020, will reopen in 2021 after renovation), and of course the cave entrance.
On arrival, we found the main gift shop and bought tickets for the tour. Visiting the national monument is free, but tour tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for kids (42″ and taller…every person must be over 42″). The standard guided tour is the Discovery Cave Tour, which is 90 minutes long. Tours are staggered so once we secured our tickets, we found ourselves waiting for our start time and running around the area.
A ranger ran through a quick introduction. He warned us about the cold 44°F temperatures of the cave, and recited statistics on the number of stairs we needed to traverse inside the cave. Anyone can test their ability on a flight of sample steps to decide if they’re up to the moderately strenuous tour. We considered our kids and their capabilities (as they ran up and down the sample steps). Our older kids were 10 and 5, and after completing the cave I found that our kids did fine. About 100 feet into the cave the guide stops at an exit to allow anyone who needs to to leave to the surface. Beyond that point one is committed for the entire 90-minute tour.
Oregon Caves Tour
It was finally time for our tour to start! A group of around 15 people gathered at the cave entrance. We could feel the cold area coming from the cave. It felt good as the summer day was a record-breaker over 100°F. The guide started by questioning us again about physical abilities.
We headed inside for a very short distance when the guide stopped us to tell of the story surrounding the discovery of the cave. As the story is told, a deer hunter went looking for his dog and found the cave. A stream runs out of the mouth of the cave and was instrumental to the hunter finding the surface after becoming lost himself. Once inside we really felt the isolation of the small interior even though we were part of a group. Other caves don’t always support the requirements for stalagmites and stalactites, but Oregon Caves is full of them. The temptation to touch them is incredible, especially for the little people in our group. The guide gave a full explanation as to why we should not touch them. The oil in our hands discolors and destroys them, and can also stop their growth.
Inside the Oregon Caves
There is a bat gate across the entrance of the cave. About 10-15 % of the way into the cave the experts built a full sealing door. The airflow is minimized to keep the cave healthy. My kids were having a blast. The paths are well lit, so they weren’t scared, but instead entranced by the experience of being inside a cave. Really this is what makes caves so amazing: they are a very different world. How many times in our lives have we seen weather, trees, rivers, different terrains? But enter a cave and we see a very rare and new world.
Soon the guide gathered us all close together. He asked parents to hold on to children and everyone to grab a handrail. Then he turned off the lights! We are not talking about any normal darkness, we are talking about super, black, dark darkness. We heard nervous chuckles around us as people started to realize that without the modern amenities of electrical lights we are instantly lost in darkness. This is one of our favorite memories of the cave experience. The kids still talk about holding their hand in front of their faces and not seeing anything.
Rooms in the Oregon Caves
The Oregon Caves has many rooms that vary in size and beauty. The path is tight at times, squeezing through tight spots or crevices. At other times, opening into giant caverns where the guide’s flashlight barely lights the ceiling as he describes attributes. Truly the star of the entire tour is the stalactites and stalagmites. Some resemble shapes and the guide told us their names, like Upside Down Skier, and yes it surely looked like two legs sticking out of snow with skis attached. Other formations looked like flowing water. For me, the pinnacle of the tour was a room called Drapery Room.
Some of the stairs were quite unique. One was a spiral single file staircase leading us up 20 feet through a tight crack in the ceiling. Others simple zigzagged back and forth up and over parts of the ceiling that had fallen thousands of years ago. Our guide was awesome and the kids were never bored, tired, or unimpressed.
The End of the Tour
Finally we came to a spot that we all very much appreciated. A stalagmite had combined with a stalactite to form a column and the trail split around the column. The guide told our group that this is the only spot in the entire cave that people have permission and encouragement to touch the stalactite formation. The discolor was grossly apparent. Our guide informed us that it is used to demonstrate the damage that human oil can cause these beautiful formations.
We finally reached the end of our tour and were allowed to walk back along the surface using the return trail. Everyone walked back at their own pace chattering about what they had seen. There was clearly an excitement and buzz. The tour was a hit with everyone. Leaving the cold air of the cave we found ourselves peeling off our extra layers of clothing. The trail was completely downhill so that helped while we were still in pants and long sleeve shirts.
More interior photos
What to do with babies and toddlers
While my husband and older kids explored the inside of Oregon Caves, my toddler and I explored the lodge. Due to the steep steps, children under 42″ are not allowed inside the caves, not even in baby carriers. This is for your safety and theirs! But don’t worry, there’s a lot to do while your family is on a tour.
Next, we wandered down to the lodge. (NOTE: the lodge is not open during the 2020 season. It will reopen in 2021 after upgrades for safety and accessibility are completed). The historic Chateau at the Oregon Caves National Monument was built in 1934 and now includes a fine dining restaurant, cafe, gift shop, and 23 guest rooms.
We ventured inside the lodge and wandered down to the lowest level, following the delicious scent of food. My youngest child and I settled in for a milkshake and a basket of fries. Prices are reasonable, considering the effort it must take to transport food and workers up to the lodge.
History of Oregon Caves National Monument
After enjoying fries and a milkshake, we explored the area a bit more and found this commemorative marker, dedicated to the man who “discovered” the cave in 1874. The Takelma tribe had lived nearby for centuries and surely knew of the cave long before. There is no evidence yet that shows they used the cave, but it is very likely they knew it existed. In 1874, the first non-Native American found the cave while on a hunting expedition with his dog.
Elijah Davidson, as the story goes, was hunting with his dog, Bruno. Bruno chased a bear, and Davidson chased Bruno. Up the hill they went, until the dog disappeared into some brush. Davidson followed, and stumbled into a cave. He had a few sulfur matches, and lit them one after another, looking for his dog and marveling at the cave walls. When the last match died, he was forced to find his way out in the pitch black darkness by listening for the stream that trickled out of the entrance of the cave.1
In 1884, Walter Burch opened the cave as a tourist attraction named Limestone Caves. Due to the long and difficult road, not many dared to visit the cave, and the attraction was closed in 1888. However, during his tenure at the cave, Burch discovered many of the grand rooms that we can see today.
Here is an excellent video by Matt Cook Oregon, detailing Elijah Davidson’s story, which was published in the Oregon History Quarterly in 1922.
Become a Junior Ranger
The National Park Service has a wonderful Junior Ranger program for kids. To become a Junior Ranger, kids can complete a ranger booklet, which is reviewed by a Park Ranger. They are sworn in as a junior ranger, given a very nice medal and a certificate. My kids had a lot of fun and both earned their badges.
If you go, and I hope that you do, here are the nitty gritty details.
Fees: Parking at the Oregon Caves is free, and there are many trails that are free to hike. Taking a cave tour is $10 for adults, $7 for kids. You can reserve tickets a day in advance at Recreation.gov.
Height Requirements: everyone entering the cave must be 42″ tall or taller. Babies are not allowed to be held, not even in carriers. More details available on the Oregon Caves site.
Season: Cave tours are available March – November. Surface areas are open year round.
Closures: the Chateau (restuarants and guestrooms) is closed until 2021 for safety and accessibility upgrades. There is currently no food available at the Oregon Caves, so bring a picnic!
Bathrooms: full facilities with running water are available in the Chateau and in the Visitor’s Center (aka the Chalet).
Remember to bring warm clothing for everyone in your group. The cave temperature is 44°F year round, so long sleeves and jackets are necessary. Good walking shoes with a closed toe are a must. The hike is considered moderately strenuous, know your limits!
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1Siewert, Tom, Elijah Davidson’s Story by Tom Siewert, National Park Service, 2006