5 Northwest Caves to Explore

ape cave lava tubeThe Pacific Northwest doesn’t have the reputation for crushing heat that some regions have, but in an area known for its heavy rainfall and mild temperatures, the hottest days of summer can stand out sharply in contrast. Some outdoor adventurers like to beat the heat by exploring cool, shady locations such as caves.

Spelunking is a popular hobby in the Northwest, where abundant mountain ranges and past volcanic activity have resulted in fascinating caverns and passageways. Some are unsafe or relatively unexplored and should be left to the more experienced spelunkers, but others are open to visitors of all skill levels.

When exploring a cave, always follow proper caving etiquette : Avoid touching cave walls, be careful not to damage rock formations, and resist the urge to leave your mark behind. Even when you’re visiting a well-populated attraction, bring along some basic survival gear just in case, including food (enough for at least twice as long as you plan to be in the cave), an LED headlamp, a folding knife or multi-tool, and a couple of extra LED flashlights. And don’t forget to dress warmly, as the temperature of many caves remains in the low-40s, even in summer.

1. Oregon Caves National Monument

Deep within the Siskiyou Mountains, acidic rainwater created pockets within the marble of the mountainside, forming some of the few marble caves in the world. Located south of Grants Pass, Ore. and managed by the National Park Service, the Oregon Caves offer seasonal guided tours through the caverns, where jaguar and grizzly bear fossils have been discovered.

The Oregon Caves are well-lit and backpacks aren’t allowed on the tour, so visitors are encouraged to leave their LED flashlights behind. However, be sure to keep some supplies in your car, as there are plenty of opportunities for above-ground hiking in the surrounding old-growth forest.

Beginners who are interested in off-trail spelunking can learn some of the necessary skills and get a taste of caving techniques, etiquette and preservation with an off-trail caving tour. The guides assist visitors through a variety of caving challenges such as crawling, climbing and descending over uneven rocky slopes. An LED headlamp and other safety gear will be provided for you.

2. Ape Cave

The Ape Cave is a long lava tube, carved out by thousands of years’ worth of lava and water flows, near Mount St. Helens, Wash. Two different passages through the tunnel are available – one challenging and one easier – and the cave is open year-round, with guided walks available during the summer.

At 13,042 feet long, the Ape Cave is the longest continuous lava tube in the continental United States. It’s also deep, pitch-black and often described as eerie. Visitors are strongly encouraged to bring at least two LED flashlights or headlamps per person.

3. Lava River Cave and Boyd Cave

The Deschutes National Forest near Bend, Ore. is riddled with underground lava tubes and boasts more than 300 different caves, many of them not widely known. Lava River Cave opens July 1 and offers a mile-long underground hike that can be explored via both guided and self-guided tours.

For a more rigorous caving experience, Boyd Cave features low ceilings, narrow passageways and areas that require crawling. Bring an LED headlamp, as you’ll want to keep your hands free, and at least two more LED flashlights or other sources of illumination.

4. Gardner Cave

Way up at the northern border of Washington is Gardner Cave, the third longest limestone cavern in the state and the central feature of the 49-acre Crawford State Park. Filled with interesting features such as rimstone pools, stalactites and stalagmites, this cave accessible during guided tours from late May to September. Although it’s lit for touring, it’s a good idea to bring LED flashlights for poking into dark nooks.

Exploring a cave can be a great way to escape the worst of summer’s heat. Just remember to come prepared with plenty of LED flashlights and a multi-tool or other survival knife in case of emergency.

[ photo by: abhinaba ]

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