Hiking with Kids: Lava River Cave (Sunriver, Oregon)

img_2977 About a month ago my son and I did a camping trip over in Central Oregon, just outside of Sunriver. We were checking out the Bend-Sunriver RV Campground at the time and wanted to get out for a little walk. There are lots of great options in the Bend area, but we are fans of a cave and it was a hot day, so we decided to check out the Lava River Cave. It is located in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument 12 miles south of Bend just off Highway 97 in the Deschutes National Forest. To park here and visit the cave you will need to have purchased a Northwest Forest Pass to park, which can be purchased on site for $5 and this will cover your parking for the whole day where ever Northwest Forest Passes are required.

Lava River Cave is one of the first lava tubes that was discovered by settlers in Central Oregon. In 1889 Leander Dillman was out for a hunt and came across it. As he lived in the cave as his own personal fridge as a way to preserve his venison. The cave was known as Dillman’s Cave until he was convicted of a crime and as geologists had been studying the cave the name Lava River Cave was given to it in 1921. Lava River Cave is Oregon’s longest uncollapsed lava tube and the term “Lavacicle” was first coined here to describe the lava stalactites by Ira Williams in his book “The Lava River Tunnel”.

img_2976-001As you head into the cave make sure you have layers to wear (it is a constant 42 degrees), a good flashlight/headlamp/lantern with you and extra batteries. No food, drink (other than water) or pets are allowed into the cave. Also if you have been in another cave, please help us protect our bats by not wearing clothing, shoes or gear that you took with you into previous caves. This helps us with controlling the spread of White-nose Syndrome (thank you in advance since we are big fans of bats!).

img_2978The entrance to the cave is a series of stairs (55 or so according to accounts), boardwalks and platforms. Footing is pretty good here, but as you get further into the mile-long cave there are hazards and you will need to watch footing. One of the Forest Service rangers was treating her own sprained ankle after going into the cave for a second time that morning to pull people out with sprained and broken ankles. Really, watch your footing and take it slow. Luck favors the prepared! It can be quite dusty and filled with lots of people, so just expect that.

The hike will take between 1-2 hours depending on how quickly you chose to go. They say the average is about 1.5 hours for this 2-mile round trip walk.

The cave is open May – September. Hours vary depending on the week. The busiest time is July/August. The cave is closed from October – April to protect the bat populations. There is a vault toilet on site and lanterns can be rented for $5.00 each at the Ranger Shack.

There are several points of interest in the cave.

  • The first is the massive collapse at the mouth of the cave. Due to snow and ice in the area in the winter moisture gets into the cracks and can cause more rocks to fall and they believe this to be the cause of the collapse in this area many many years ago. All of these rocks came from the walls and ceiling of the cave.
  • After you go up another set of stairs you will find yourself in Echo Hall, which is a massive area. The ceiling is 58 feet high and the width of the cave is 50 feet across. img_2989You will notice as you walk through that the flowing lava left deposits of rounded shelves that hang over-head and slaggy crusts as it flowed through at different speeds over time.
  • Halfway through the cave you will pass under Highway 97. There is a sign there marking the spot. Fun fact: the highway is 80 feet overhead!
  • As you continue along you will come to “Low Bridge Lane” and that is a pretty good warning to watch your head if you are taller than 5’5!
  • img_2984Next you will come to “Two Tube Tunnel” which was probably our favorite area. We found you could take either way. One goes up, so be careful to stay way from the edge and the other stays on the cave floor. The picture on the above right is in one of those tunnels (the lower one). It is pretty much a cave inside a cave!
  • The next section is called the “Sand Gardens” which was quite interesting. This is an area where loads of sand can be found on the floor and there is a fenced area which protects a special area where water, constantly dripping over hundreds of years has carved out spires and pinnacles in the sand. It is interesting to see this living cave in action!
  • The end of the cave is marked by a sign and will let you know when you have reached the end!

To learn more about the cave and the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, make sure to stop in at the Lava Lands Visitor’s Center, which is just down the road from the Lava River Cave. Here you can watch videos, listen to Ranger chats, go for hikes, or take a shuttle to Lava Butte.


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