The Oregon Caves National Monument is a welcome adventure nestled deep in some of Oregon's more beautiful countryside. Dubbed the "wondrous marble halls of Oregon" by poet Joaquin Miller in 1909, the national monument is located on the wooded slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains, near the city of Cave Junction.
Considered one of the more diverse geologic features of the Pacific Northwest, the active marble cave and its gurgling underground stream meander through winding, narrow passageways leading visitors past stalagmites and dangling "soda straws," "moonmilk" and fossils. Eventually, the cave empties into an old growth forest for a view of the picturesque Illinois Valley.
The Oregon Caves National Monument is 20 miles southeast of Cave Junction off U.S. 199. From Medford, take Interstate 5 towards Grants Pass, then follow Highway 199 to Cave Junction. Turn south on Highway 46 (last chance for gas!) and follow the narrow and windy road some 20 miles to the monument.
Taking the Tour
Tours of the caves are considered moderately strenuous and children under 42 inches tall are not permitted on the entire tour, though the first room of the cave is open to children and wheelchair access. Children and adults who take the tour must be able to handle 526 steps of moderately strenuous hiking and children cannot be carried at any point during the tour. Tours last 90 minutes. Admission is $8.50 for adults (17 and over) and $6 for anyone 16 and under.
At the monument, accommodations and food are available at The Chateau, a six-story hotel with dining room, soda fountain and coffee shop. Constructed in 1934 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel is built around the ice cold stream that winds through — and helps create — the cave.
The Chateau operates from mid-June to early September.
For additional information, visit online (www.nps.gov/orca) or call (541) 592-2100. For information or reservations at the Chateau, visit online (http://oregoncavesoutfitters.com) or call 541-592-3400.
A recent drive found the caves a welcome retreat from hot summer temperatures — caves are a brisk 42 degrees year round. Tours are available mid-March through Thanksgiving (hours vary depending on season), and are open to visitors 42 inches or taller who can tackle a "moderately strenuous" hike through some low passageways.
The monument has a colorful history. According to local lore, 24-year-old hunter Elijah Davidson discovered the caves in 1874. Supposedly, a black bear had chased his dog, Bruno, into a dark hole in the mountainside. Davidson hesitated only briefly at the mouth of the cave, but forged ahead when Bruno let out an agonizing howl. Searching for his dog with a handful of lit matches, the hunter eventually found himself in total darkness, but managed to wade down a gurgling, ice-cold stream to find his way back to daylight. Bruno survived the adventure as well.
Following Davidson, other explorers would go on to tell of the cave's great beauty and mystery. In 1907, a party of influential men, including Joaquin Miller, the "poet of the Sierras," visited the cave. Charmed by the great marble halls, Miller's findings prompted President Taft, in 1909, to encourage preservation of the site by designating a 480-acre tract as the Oregon Caves National Monument. Several years later, the six-story historic Chateau was constructed in 1934, the year "the monument" came under control of the National Park Service.
Much work has been done to repair damage from careless visitors and explorers over the many decades. Thanks to restoration efforts, the cave is now well protected, and a careful system of lighting and doors ensure minimal impact to the monument.
With many rooms to discover, the cave features all six of the world's major rock types and a myriad of calcite formations from parachute-like flowstone at "Paradise Lost" to a rack of giant ribs at the "Passageway of the Whale."
Soda straws (hollow stalactite-like formations) ascend from
the cave ceiling, while evidence of moonmilk — created by the same type of bacteria used to make today's antibiotics — clings to other portions of the cave. Cave popcorn, tour guides explain, are found closer to passageways leading out of the cave. Much like hikers who use the north side of trees, popcorn serves as a compass to find their way to daylight or varying elevations inside a cave. Other formations include the "Grand Column," "Angel Falls" and "Miller's Chapel."
At one point during the tour, guides turn off lights to allow visitors to experience the sounds of water that led Davidson to safety so many years ago.
It is the drip, drip, drip of water that lends life to the cave, still forming ever so slowly as centuries creep past. With continued preservation efforts and an interest from visitors, the cave will continue to work its magic, luring visitors and telling the tale of a rich geologic history — and the story of a hunter who discovered one of Oregon's hidden treasures in an act of loyalty to his four-legged friend.