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Imagine for a moment having a travel experience so ethereal, so surreal, that you can’t even put it into words. My experience at Skylight Cave was almost spiritual in a way. It left me awestruck and speechless, which is pretty unusual for me! Now, I struggle to write about it because it was simply too big an experience for mere words.
I want to stress that Skylight Cave is a very special place. It’s undeveloped and not a place you would ever just stumble upon. Getting there requires purposeful planning and knowledge of the roads. Otherwise, you could wander for hours from one red dirt road to another. If you go, I beg that you tread lightly. Pack out trash and leave no trace of your visit. Take only photos.
Introduction to Skylight Cave
Skylight Cave has been on my list for a few years, ever since I first read about it online. Actually being there was so much more than I imagined.
Like many of the caves in Central Oregon, Skylight Cave is a lava tube, formed when the surface of flowing lava cooled. When the lava in the center drained away, it left a lava “husk” with a cavity inside. As years passed, the roof of the cave collapsed in one spot, forming the entrance. And unique to Skylight Cave, this lava tube is near the surface so a few “skylights” have opened in the cave ceiling as well. These skylights allow sunlight to penetrate the cave down to the cave floor! And like the beam of a flashlight in a dark room, these skylights pierce the cave darkness brilliantly. Three beams trace a path of light across the floor of the cave for about 2 hours a day, only in the summer. Watching the beams emerge and move across the floor is an experience that I promise you won’t forget.
Today, the cave features 3 holes, or skylights. The cave is only about 900 feet long and the largest portion has a 25′ tall ceiling.
Visiting Skylight Cave
Go early in the day as the beams begin emerging between 8 am and 9 am. By 11 am, they’re pretty much gone. If you go early enough, you can be inside the cave in time to watch the sunlight hit each skylight. The first beams are tiny, just pinpricks of light, and grow wider and brighter as time passes.
When you arrive, you’ll know it by the sign at the roadside. Park in the nearby parking area. Since the cave entrance is rather unassuming, we weren’t sure we were actually there at first. If you’re looking at this hole, you’re there.
We arrived around 9 am and clambered down a makeshift log ladder. Usually, there’s a real ladder bolted into place. I assume that it’s removed annually for the closure of the cave from October to April. This year, on our visit in late June, it hadn’t been replaced yet. The logs were sturdy, but navigating downward required a stiff resolve and more than a little bravery. It also required a sure step!
From the entrance, the cave goes two directions. It’s a short cave, so you won’t get lost if you choose the wrong direction. If you’re facing the ladder, go right to the skylight room. The floor is very rough and rocky, so you’ll need flashlights or head lamps. Your phone won’t be quite enough. The ceiling is initially low and requires stooping, but no more than that.
Soon, the ceiling lifts as you enter a cavern. This is the skylight room! The floor under the skylights is fairly smooth from soil that has fallen through the skylights over the millennia. It’s perfect for relaxing or for setting up a camera tripod.
When we arrived, two beams were already present, one on the floor and one on the wall. Small tufts of steam rose from the cave floor where the light hit. I hear that this effect is most impressive on a sunny day after a good rain.
By 9:30 am, the beams were to the center of the cave floor and the third beam was emerging. The third beam started as a pinprick of light, breaking its own path through the darkness with the strength of a laser beam. We watched as the beam slowly grew to the size of a dinner plate.
At 10 am, the three beams were full strength and at their brightest. We were joined by several more families. Kids played in the beams (and most of the dads, too!) They pretended to warm their hands over a fire or exhaled clouds into the cold cave air.
And by 10:30, they were fading fast as the sunlight began to diffuse. More families were arriving, and the cave began to feel crowded. We’d been there for 90 minutes watching in rapt adoration, so it was our time to move on. We were back at our car within minutes and ready for our next adventure of the day.
While You’re There…
Check out the rest of the cave. It goes in both directions from the ladder, and is about 900′ total. Some parts of the wall have layers of rock peeling off in thick sheets. After some research, I found that this is called “plastic deformation” of a cave wall. It happens when the surface layer of the wall is distorted by the lava flow drainage, then it peels away over time1.
Other parts of the cave walls showed interesting textures. We used this opportunity to teach our kids that we don’t touch cave walls as a simple touch can alter the cave’s development. To our disappointment there was graffiti: paintings of both adult hands and children’s hands adorned the walls in bright Crayola colors.
Above ground, don’t miss out on seeing the holes from the topside. As this area is very undeveloped, there are no fences or barriers guarding the openings. We held tightly to our little ones and kept our distance from the holes. It was interesting to know there were people in the cave and not be able to see them at all. We even spoke to people who were inside the cave, but we had no sense of how deep it was. It was eerie!
Are there bats in Skylight Cave?
Yes! Bats do live in the cave and it’s closed between October and April to protect their winter habitat. Officials request that we protect the bats by not wearing shoes or clothing into the cave that we’ve worn into other caves. These can spread white nose syndrome, which is fatal to bats. When you leave the cave, remove dirt from your shoes and wash your hands before you get into your car.
On our trip, we did not see any bats at all, so don’t worry too much about encountering bats during your visit. However, protecting them is still important, even when they aren’t present in the cave.
Plan for Your Trip to Skylight Cave
Before you go to Skylight Cave, plan carefully. Print maps and directions. The best ones I found were from the town of Sisters itself. We had cell reception with AT&T but don’t depend on having it. I recommend printing multiple maps and directions from various sites so you have your best chance of finding the cave on your first attempt.
Prepare well. The cave is 42° F year round. The cave isn’t deep, but it’s chilly inside so take a sweatshirt. Take flashlights. We’ve been in a lot of caves and I recommend that every person have a headlamp. It’s never completely dark, thanks to the skylights, but the floor is very uneven and you’ll need light until your eyes adjust. It’s dark enough that your cell phone won’t be quite enough, even on flashlight mode.
There are no amenities at the cave, so pack water. There are no bathrooms; take toilet paper and a trowel to bury it. There’s parking at the cave for 3+ cars and parking nearby for more.
The road to the cave is gravel and dirt. The Forest Service recommends a high clearance vehicle. We drove all the way to the cave in our minivan. Use caution!
Whether to Write About Skylight Cave
I often question the ethics of writing about special places. After all, they’re special because they’re rare, untainted, unspoiled. The fewer people who visit, the longer these places remain special.
Skylight Cave is such a place.
It is open to the public and it’s on Forest Service land managed by Deschutes National Forest. Anyone is allowed to visit.
Ultimately, I decided to go ahead and write about it. Details about the cave are readily available online. The nearby town of Sisters posts directions on their city website. Even the Oregonian did a write-up on the cave.
On our visit, we found very little litter, and aside from the graffiti on the cave walls, I was pleasantly surprised at the conditions around the cave. Let’s all work to keep it that way!
What else is near Skylight Cave?
You can camp in one of two dozen campgrounds nearby. We camped at Big Lake, about 14 miles away. There are also Forest Service campgrounds nearby at Camp Sherman, down the Metolius River, as well as Suttle Lake.
The small but adorable town of Sisters is about 30 minutes from the cave. You can buy gas, groceries, shop the small stores and eat at local restaurants. We stopped at the park in Sisters to have a picnic. We’ve also eaten at Rancho Viejo a few times, they have great food.
The store at Camp Sherman is quite a bit closer and it stocks plenty of ice, convenience foods, and other things typically needed for camping. Explore the river’s edge, sometimes you can even watch fish swimming!
Walk to headwaters of the Metolius River, it’s a quick and easy walk. Picnic tables and a vault toilet are available.
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1. Geology of Selected Lava Tubes in the Bend Area, State of Oregon, 1971, pages 21-22