Popcorn and soda straws aren’t words you normally associate with caves. Neither are moonmilk or clay worms, but you’ll find them all at Oregon Caves National Monument right alongside stalactites, stalagmites and striking flowstone formations. This unusual underground attraction has another claim to fame, too—it’s an active, living marble cave millions of years old. Only five percent of the caves in the entire world are marble, so it’s indeed rare to find one, much less be able to tour a cave with such diverse geology and unique calcite sculptures.
Tucked in the wooded slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains at an elevation of 4,000 feet, the monument is 20 miles southeast of Cave Junction and 50 miles south of Grants Pass, Oregon. While the forest scenery is pretty, the real highlight of your visit is found down below— a 90-minute, half-mile cave tour. There are no self-guided tours. Instead, knowledgeable rangers lead small groups through a winding myriad of chambers containing dripstone formations. Some of the names of the rooms you stop in are as intriguing as the shapes you see there—the Imagination Room, the Banana Grove, Paradise Lost and the massive Ghost Room. During weekends in the summer, the last tour of the day is conducted by candlelight. If you want a taste of what early explorers of the cave might have seen as they went from room to room with a candle, this tour is for you. Adventurous souls can reserve a three-hour off-trail tour where you must crawl on hands and knees—and your belly—because the smallest passage has only a one-foot-tall ceiling!
The “regular” tours that most visitors opt for move swiftly over uneven terrain, so watch your footing and for “headache” rocks, but also try to look high on the cave walls for carbide arrows. Made by soot from lanterns, these arrows helped early cave explorers find their way out. Cave popcorn was also used like a compass. As air flowed in from the outdoors, water evaporated, resulting in a bumpy residue that helped explorers find their way and discover new passages. Cave moonmilk is made of tiny calcite crystals and has the look and feel of cottage cheese. It was also used as medicine for livestock and is created by the same type of bacteria used to make antibiotics. On one section of flowstone, known as Niagara Falls, you can see the fading signatures from around 1885 of early geologist Thomas Condon and renowned caver Walter Birch. Although tempting, keep your pen in your pocket. Adding your name today is a federal offense! It goes without saying that you shouldn’t touch any of the cave formations for any reason.
The incessant drip, drip, drip of water along the tour indicates that the cave is active and alive. Stalactites hang from the ceiling and stalagmites grow up from the bottom of the cave. A stalactite and stalagmite that has grown together forms a lumpy column. Soda straws are short stalactites that look as if they’ve been broken off, but really they just haven’t formed into full-sized stalactites yet. Your ranger will also point out a formation called “bacon.” Perhaps the most stunning stop on the cave tour is Paradise Lost. Seeing it requires climbing up 30 steep steps, but it’s worth the extra effort. This small room contains parachute-shaped draperies and columns that are actually remnants of an ancient waterfall.
After the marble caves were discovered in 1874, they quickly became famous. The discovery was made quite by chance. A hunter, Elijah Davidson, was looking for his dog, which in turn was chasing a bear. All three ended up deep in the dark cave, but luckily the story ended well for the hunter and his canine friend, Bruno—both man and dog found their way safely back to daylight, minus the bear! Last year, the park celebrated the 100th birthday of President Taft’s 1909 proclamation that set aside 480 acres as Oregon Caves National Monument. In 1922, an automobile road reached the park, and in the early 1930s, a six-story chateau was built to provide overnight accommodations and meals for visitors.
Surrounded by a thick forest of Douglas firs and madrone trees, visitors find it hard to imagine that the marble rocks of Oregon Caves were once a tropical reef. Millions of years ago, Mother Nature shifted, split and raised plates of land and ocean. This created massive amounts of molten rock that “cooked” the limestone (hardened mud containing ancient sea creatures) and created marble. The caves formed when water from the surface (containing carbon dioxide from decaying plants and animals) seeped in and slowly dissolved the marble, creating underground channels and caverns. This mineralized surface water left behind calcite, which created the funky shaped formations you see today. Many are still growing.
Touring Oregon Caves has been a tradition for over a century, but it’s not for everyone. Tours are considered moderately strenuous. Expect a total climb of 230 feet, including more than 500 stairs, many of which are steep and wet, but most have handrails. Several passages are narrow with low ceilings. Children must be at least 42 inches tall and able to walk and climb on their own. If you don’t have walking or breathing problems, you’ll be fine, but if you start out and find it’s too difficult, you’ll have the option to leave the cave 45 minutes into the tour. Wear good walking shoes and a jacket (year-round cave temperature is 44 degrees), and be prepared to be amazed at the underground world!
Although your first inclination might be to bring a flashlight, only rangers are permitted to carry them, plus there are dim lights in the caves. Flash photography is permitted throughout most of the cave tour, but you need to be quick with most of your shots so as not to slow down the tour. Tripods and most camera bags and backpacks are not permitted because there simply isn’t room. Wait times for the scheduled tours can reach up to two hours during the summer season. The busiest times are between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., so arrive earlier or later. Cave tour tickets are sold only at the monument and are on a first-come, first-served basis.
When your guided tour ends, you’ll have the option of returning to the visitor center via a short walk or a longer hiking trail. The longer route is mostly downhill and provides nice panoramic views of the thick Siskiyou National Forest. You also will likely see birds, deer and small animals along the trail. If you’re still chilly from the cave tour even after the hike, warm up in the 1930s-era coffee shop inside the 23-room Oregon Cave Chateau. Grab a stool at the old-fashioned lunch counter and enjoy a snack. This National Historic Landmark is considered one of the great national park lodges. At dinnertime, you can dine on local fare in the rustic yet elegant dining room. If you’re a souvenir shopper, don’t miss the locally crafted gifts and works of art in the gift gallery.
Denise Seith writes the Great Escapes blog at rvlife.com. She also assists businesses with their graphic design, copywriting and marketing needs. She can be reached at DeniseSeith.com.
IF YOU GO:
Oregon Caves National Monument is at 19000 Caves Highway, Cave Junction, OR 97523. Phone (541) 592-2100 or visit nps.gov/orca.
There is no entrance fee to visit the monument. General Cave Tours (offered late March through the end of November) are $8.50 for adults ages 17 and over and $6 for ages 16 and under.
Chateau at the Oregon Caves is open from May through October. Phone (877) 245-9022 or visit oregoncaveschateau.com.
While there is no camping within Oregon Caves National Monument, there are two campgrounds on Highway 46 that will accommodate RVs: Grayback Campground in the Siskiyou National Forest and privately owned Country Hills Resort.
Directions to the monument: Take exit 58 on Interstate 5 and merge onto NE 6th St/Oregon 99/Redwood Hwy. Follow Redwood Hwy. for three miles and turn right on U.S. 199 to Cave Junction. After 28 miles, turn left on Oregon 46 and follow it for 20 miles to the monument. The last 10 miles are narrow, steep and winding, limiting driving to about 10 miles per hour. No trailers and large RVs are permitted beyond Grayback campground (milepost 12) due to the winding road to the monument. It is extremely important that you stay in your own lane. There are many blind corners. Watch for traffic crossing into your lane and watch out for wildlife. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get to the monument. It could take you up to 30 minutes to reach the monument from Grayback Campground, even though the monument is only seven miles away.
Large RVs and trailers may be parked for free at the Illinois Valley Visitor Center in Cave Junction. Call (541) 592-4076 for information.