The Marble Halls of Oregon Underground

Serendipity is a wondrous thing – the discovery of something when one is not looking to discover it. Oregon Caves, in the southwestern part of the state, is a case in point.

Elijah Davidson was out one day in 1874 deer hunting with his dog. After he brought down a deer, his dog caught the scent of a bear. The bear fled down a hole in the ground. To the hunter’s consternation, his dog went down the hole after the bear. Now, what was he supposed to do? Let his dog get himself out of the jam or go in and try to rescue him. Not quite sure what he was going to do find, he went in after him with only matches for light and wound up discovering the most wondrous cave in Oregon.

You can discover Oregon Caves for yourself by going on a tour at the 480-acre (194 hectare) Oregon Caves National Monument. Perhaps the first thing your tour guide will tell you about is how Elijah Davidson discovered these caves. The finish to the story of his initial discovery is that he ran out of matches while still in the cave. Fortunately, he followed an underground stream out and luckily his dog soon followed. A close call for both.

The entrance to the 44-degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees C.) cave is a locked door for which your tour guide has the key. One thing to remember about this cave is that it is still actively growing, so you shouldn’t touch any of the features. The oils on your skin stop growth of the cave decorations by preventing calcium carbonate from combining with the existing feature.

After passing the aptly named Grand Column, you enter Joaquin Miller’s Chapel, one of the prettiest rooms in the system with its well-spaced columns. They are formed when a stalactite growing down from the ceiling joins a stalagmite growing up from the floor to form a single structure. These features grow at the rate of 1 millimeter (approximately 1/25 of an inch) per hundred years. Try figuring out how long it might have taken for the 12-inch (30 cm) diameter Grand Column to form – about 30,000 years!

But the largest room is still ahead. It’s quite a sight to see and the guide turns off the lights, leaving only a candle lantern’s light, which was as the early explorers of the cave saw it. No offense to modern electrical lighting, but a cave looks bigger and more mysterious by candlelight. No wonder this is called the Ghost Room. Then again, it is nice to have the option of seeing it both ways.

A room this large has a few surprises up its walls. Up a set of stairs, which are almost steep enough to qualify as a ladder, is a secret room that was one of the last significant rooms to be discovered. And your first impression of this small circular room is one of being overwhelmed. One of the first tour guides at these caves was Walter Burch, who discovered this room. It looks like dozens of marble parachutes are about to descend upon you. He thought the sight of all these shelves and columns was a most wondrous sight and it’s location tucked up and away from the main room led him to name it Paradise Lost. Walter Burch also discovered the Ghost Room five years earlier.

The terms geologists use for cave features help you determine what it is you’re looking at during the tour. The original rock of the cave when it formed is called speleogen, as in what was generated when the cave came into existence. Features that build up over time on the original rock are called speleothems. This includes stalactites, which build from dripping mineral-laden water downward from the ceiling; stalagmites, which grow upward from mineral-laden water dropping onto the ground, and columns, which form when these two features meet and continue growing. To help remember which is which, remember that “c” for “ceiling” is in the word “stalactite” and “g” for the “ground” is in stalagmite.

There can also be a line of water dripping down along a wall and the minerals build outward from the wall forming what is called cave draperies and angel wings.

An added attraction, if you want to call it that, is one the National Park Service found while reconstructing the trail. Because of it, they decided to reroute the trail to highlight the find. And what is this new feature? Fossils of ice-age black bear bones. In another part of the cave are the oldest Grizzly fossils in North America, and they were discovered at the end of 1997. There’s a mystery for you. How did bears get this far into the cave?

While you’re thinking that one over, you might also want to think about how a Jaguar got into the Ghost Room and became fossilized. Its remains have also been found here. Well, geologists know that the cave had other openings in the past that have since been plugged up, so these unfortunate critters may have fallen down a now-hidden shaft into the cave.

You should encounter nothing quite so earth-shattering upon your return to the above-ground world. The monument does have three surface trails for your exploration, including a nature trail introducing you to the old-growth forests of the area. The Big Tree Trail leads you to the largest Douglas fir in Oregon.

Oregon Caves National Monument is amust-visit place for any nature enthusiast passing through southern Oregon.

If You Go

The cave tours are run by private concessionaire: Discovery Cave You’ll need to be reasonably fit to go on a tour of the cave. Young children must be at least 42 inches (107 cm) tall and be able to pass a simple stair climbing test to go. Children can not be carried. The cave has more than 500 stairs, and only the first room of the cave is wheelchair accessible.

Cave tours fill up quickly, especially during the summer, so try to get there early. Except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the monument is open all year, with cave tours offered starting March 24th. Because of the threat of spreading white-nose syndrome, you should not be wearing anything that was previously worn in another cave. The hours when the tours start and end vary with the season, check the Oregon Caves website for the most current information.

The concessionaire also offers off-trail tours where you will get muddy, but get to see places the regular tour doesn’t. There’s also a candlelight cave tourso that visitors can see the cave the way the original explorers would’ve seen it. Both of these types of tours are offered only during the summer.

While you’re waiting for your tour, you might want to stroll across the road to see the historic Oregon Caves Chateau, a 24-room 6-story hotel that was constructed from local materials in 1934. It’s tucked into a waterfall glen with a trout pond.

Oregon Caves is 20 miles east of Cave Junction which is on U.S. 199 between Grants Pass, Oregon and Crescent City, California, at the end of Oregon Highway 46. U.S. 199 may be a bit challenging for longer rigs but it’s a beautiful byway and a lovely respite from Interstate 5. Also known as the “Caves Highway,” Highway 46 gets narrow and winding its last 8 Miles. You’ll have to get to the monument either in your tow vehicle, if you’re in a trailer, or in your towed vehicleif you’re in a motorhome.

There is no camping in the monument. The Siskiyou National Forest has nearby campgrounds. There are several private RV parks in nearby Cave Junction and Selma.