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Once in a while, we go on a hike that is so different, so intrinsically unique, that we rave about it for weeks and we know it’s a hike we’ll always remember. The Lava River Cave in Oregon is such a hike. It’s been on our to-do list for years, and we finally made the trip to central Oregon. It is well worth the drive to hike the Lava River Cave with kids.
The History of the Lava Tube Cave
The Lava River Cave, located between La Pine and Bend on Highway 97, is technically a “lava tube”, formed by flowing basalt from a volcano that erupted 80,000 years ago. Lava flowed downhill and formed a channel. As the lava flowed, the top layer cooled and solidified, forming a crust over the top of the molten lava. As the eruption ended, the lava drained out of the tube, leaving an underground tunnel behind. Over time, the roof eroded and collapsed in a portion, revealing the mile-long cave we see today.
A hunter name Leander Dillman “discovered” the cave in 1889, but obsidian flakes nearby suggest that native tribes knew about the cave long before. The cave was originally called Dillman Cave, but was renamed officially in 1923 during a geology study of the cave. Three years later in 1926, the Shevlin-Hixon Lumber Company donated property around the cave entrance for it to become a state park. In 1981, it became part of the national parks system, managed by the Forest Service.
How to prepare for hiking the Lava River Cave
The cave is a cool (okay, cold) 42°F year round. Once inside the cave, there are no lights, bathrooms, or water access.
- Pack long pants, long-sleeved shirts, coats, and stocking caps for everyone, especially children. 42°F feels great when you step out of 97°F sunshine, but then it gets seriously cold.
- Wear good shoes or hiking boots. The floor of the cave is uneven and hard to see in the dark. Good shoes are a must for protecting your feet.
- Speaking of dark, it’s dark. The Forest Service recommends packing two flashlights per person. We personally recommend headlamps to help leave hands free for climbing steps, balancing on uneven terrain, and holding the hands of your little ones. Every person in our party wore a headlamp, plus we carried a couple of strong flashlights with fresh batteries. We passed several groups holding flashlights (or worse, their phones) who wished aloud that they’d thought to bring headlamps. (And this was by experience: when we hiked the Ape Caves, we rented heavy, HOT lanterns.)
- Take a backpack to hold your jacket and gloves until it’s time to need them.
- Water bottle. You may not get as thirsty underground, but hiking 2 miles (one mile down and back) is thirsty work. Of course any water bottle will do, but if you’re in the market for a new water bottle and you want a really rugged one, we’ve become Yeti fans. These will take a serious beating.
Entering the Lava River Cave
After a short orientation by rangers outside, you’re free to head down the paved path to the cave entrance. The temperature drops as you approach, and it feels heavenly on a hot summer day.
There are more stairs than I could count. Hand railings are on both sides, and the steps are studded metal so they aren’t slippery. We stopped to put coats on the little ones before we lost our light.
What is the Lava River Cave like inside?
Remembering that its perfectly dark, there is no light at all except what you bring with you, take time to look around. The cave walls, ceiling, and floor change throughout the length of the cave. We often stopped to shine our lights around, and marveled at the geology of the cave. Look and enjoy, but don’t touch! The oils from our hands can disrupt years of cave formations, and indeed, some have been damaged within the Lava River Cave.
The floor of Lava River Cave changes the most notably. From large rocks to gravel to sand, the floor terrain changes often. Much of the hiking is easy, but some does require good balance and close attention. Other parts are trickier, so step carefully and be prepared to help your kids.
Things to see inside the Lava River Cave
Echo Hall, aka Highway Crossing
About 1/10 mile into the cave you’ll enter a broad cavern. The ceilings are 31′ high (and 50′ thick!). There is a bench here right under Highway 97! They say you can sometimes hear traffic above if you are very, very quiet. Our family doesn’t ever really achieve “quiet”, though, so we couldn’t hear anything.
Low Bridge Lane
Most of the cave has high ceilings, but one portion is only about 5′ high, requiring most adults to stoop a bit. This part of the cave formed when hot gasses trapped within the tube caused the walls to melt again. This is also a great place to see baby stalactites, as in our photo above. Hilariously, our kids stooped too, even the ones who didn’t come close to hitting their heads.
About 3000 feet into the cave (just over halfway), you’ll encounter a fenced portion with a path going around. Signs describe a garden of sand spires, created when dripping water carved the sandy floor into sculptures. These sculptures have been heavily damaged by decades of human contact, and they are now protected in the hopes of letting them develop again.
Where does the cave go?
The cave actually extends in two directions from the entrance. The longer portion is open to the public and is about 6000 feet long. This is just over 1 mile! The shorter portion is about 1,560 feet long but it closed to the public due to falling rocks.
Lava River Cave slopes downhill gradually. As you travel toward the end of the cave, the cave bottom becomes sandier and sandier. Thousands of years of water have percolated downward from the surface to the cave, carrying sand with it. The water drains away and the sand remains.
Finally the cave dead ends as the sand fills in to nearly the ceiling. There have been attempts to dig it out and see how far it goes. Speculation suggests the cave could extend much further, but is simply clogged with sand. As we approached the end, a couple of hikers came up behind us and offered to take a family photo. We returned the favor and headed back the way we came.
Back to the Light
We hiked back out of the cave, the return mile much faster than the first time through. We met lots of people heading down. After being in complete darkness, other than our own lights, for over an hour, it was kind of nice to meet other people. In fact, in a totally ironic coincidence, we ran into our next door neighbors.
And sweet victory when we saw sunlight streaming down from the entrance! We still had a lot of steps to climb to get back out, but the burning calves were worth it!
Visit the Lava River Cave with Kids
If you go, and I hope that you do, here are the nitty gritty details:
Official Website: Deschutes National Forest – Lava River Cave
Fee: $5 parking pass
Pets: Not allowed
Season: Open May – September, check website for exact dates
Restrooms: vault toilets at surface, none inside cave
Water Access: none
- From Bend, OR travel south on Highway 97 to Exit 151/Cottonwood Rd. Turn left after exiting and proceed through underpass following signs to Lava River Cave. Cave is about 1 mile down the road on your left.
- From La Pine, OR travel north on Highway 97. Take Exit 151/Cottonwood Rd. Turn right after exiting. Continue on road about 1 mile to Lava River Cave on your left. If you miss Exit 151, proceed north to Exit 143 Baker/Knot Rd. and follow southbound directions.
Access: the cave is not accessible for wheelchairs or strollers.
Gear to consider:
- headlamps for every person
- Small, inexpensive flashlights for little ones to carry. They’ll have their own light source, but if it gets lost or broken, it’s no big deal. Plus, little ones love to carry flashlights!
- water for every person
- winter clothing and coats
- baby carriers for toddlers and babies
- NO Shoes or clothing that have ever been in any other cave – this is to prevent the spread of bat diseases
We didn’t get enough of our own video footage for a video, but here’s a really nice one from Matt Cook Oregon that shows the floor of the cave and many of the features I’ve described.
1Greeley, Ronald. Geology of Selected Lava Tubes in the Bend Area, Oregon. NASA, 1971, Print.