The Marble Halls of the Oregon Metro
Serendipity is a wonderful thing: the discovery of something when one is not seeking to discover it. Oregon Caves, in the southwestern part of the state, is a case in point.
Elijah Davidson went out one day in 1874 to hunt deer with his dog. After knocking down a deer, your dog caught the scent of a bear. The bear fled through a hole in the ground. To the hunter’s dismay, his dog went down the hole behind the bear. Now what was I supposed to do? Let your dog get out of trouble or come in and try to rescue him. Not quite sure what he was going to find, he went after him with only matches for the light and ended up discovering the most wonderful cave in Oregon.
You can discover the Oregon Caves for yourself by taking a tour of the 480-acre (194-hectare) Oregon Caves National Monument. Perhaps the first thing your tour guide tells you is how Elijah Davidson discovered these caves. The end of the story for his initial discovery is that he ran out of matches while still in the cave. Fortunately, he followed an underground stream and fortunately his dog soon followed. A close call for both of you.
The 44-degree Fahrenheit (7-degree C) cave entrance 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 from your skin stop the growth of the cave decorations by preventing the calcium carbonate from combining with the existing feature.
After passing the aptly named Great Column, enter the Joaquin Miller Chapel, one of the most beautiful rooms in the system with its well-spaced columns. They are formed when a stalactite growing from the ceiling joins a stalagmite growing from the ground to form a single structure. These features grow at a rate of 1 millimeter (about 1/25 of an inch) every hundred years. Try to find out how long it would have taken for the 12 inch diameter Great Column to form, about 30,000 years!
But the largest room is still ahead. It is quite a sight to see and the guide turns off the lights, leaving only the light of a candle lantern, which was how the first explorers of the cave saw it. No offense to modern electric lighting, but a cave looks bigger and more mysterious by candlelight. No wonder this is called the ghost room. On the other hand, it is nice to have the option to see it both ways.
A room this big has some surprises on its walls. Going up a set of stairs, which are almost steep enough to qualify as a staircase, there is a secret room that was one of the last major rooms to be discovered. And your first impression of this small circular room is of feeling overwhelmed. One of the first tour guides in these caves was Walter Burch, who discovered this room. It looks like dozens of marble parachutes are about to descend on you. He thought the sight of all these shelves and columns was a wonderful sight and its hidden location 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 you are looking at during the tour. The original rock of the cave when it was formed is called speleogenic, like the one that was generated when the cave was born. Features that accumulate over time in the original rock are called speleothems. This includes stalactites, which are formed from mineral-laden water dripping down from the ceiling; stalagmites, which grow upward from mineral-laden water that falls to the ground, and columns, which form when these two features meet and continue to grow. To help you remember which is which, remember that “c” for “ceiling” is in the word “stalactite” and “g” for “ground” is in stalagmite.
There may also be a line of water that drips along a wall and minerals accumulate out of the wall forming what are called cave curtains and angel wings.
An additional attraction, if you want to call it that, is one that the National Park Service found while rebuilding the trail. Therefore, they decided to divert the path to highlight the find. And what is this new feature? Black bear bone fossils from the ice age. Elsewhere in the cave are the oldest Grizzly fossils in North America, discovered in late 1997. There is a mystery for you. How did the bears get so far in the cave?
As you think about it, you may also want to think about how a Jaguar entered the Ghost Room and became fossilized. His remains have also been found here. Well geologists know that the cave had other openings in the past that have since been plugged, so these unfortunate creatures may have fallen down a well now hidden in the cave.
You shouldn’t find anything so shocking when you return to the surface world. The monument has three surface trails for exploration, including a nature trail that introduces you to the ancient forests of the area. The Big Tree Trail takes you to the largest Douglas Fir in Oregon.
The Oregon Caves National Monument is a must see for any nature enthusiast passing through southern Oregon.
If you go
Tours of the caves are conducted by a private licensee: Discovery Cave You will need to be reasonably fit to take a tour of the cave. Young children must be at least 42 inches (107 cm) tall and able to pass a simple stair-climbing test in order to go. Children cannot be brought. The cave has over 500 steps and only the first room in the cave is wheelchair accessible.
Cave tours fill up quickly, especially during the summer, so try to get there early. With the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the memorial is open year-round and cave tours are offered starting March 24. Due to the threat of spreading white nose syndrome, you should not wear anything that you have previously worn in another cave. Tours start and end times vary by season, check the Oregon Caves website for the most up-to-date information.
The dealership also offers off-trail tours that you will get muddy on, but you will be able to see places where the regular trail does not. There is also a cave tour by candlelight so visitors can see the cave the way the original explorers would have seen it. Both types of tours are offered only during the summer.
While you wait for your tour, you may want to cross the street to see the historic Oregon Caves Chateau, a 24-room, 6-story hotel that was built with local materials in 1934. It is tucked away in a waterfall glen with a trout pond.
Oregon Caves is 20 miles east of Cave Junction, which is on US 199 between Grants Pass, Oregon and Crescent City, California, at the end of Oregon Highway 46. US 199 can be a bit challenging for longer rigs , but it’s a beautiful road and a lovely respite from Interstate 5. Also known as the “Caves Highway,” Highway 46 becomes narrow and winding for its last 8 miles. You will have to get to the monument in your tow vehicle, if you are on a trailer, or in your towed vehicle if you are in a motorhome.
There is no camping at the monument. The Siskiyou National Forest has campgrounds nearby. There are several private RV parks in nearby Cave Junction and Selma.