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Warm weather freezes Crystal Ice Cave tours

Seeing one of Lava Beds National Monument’s most amazing natural wonders, Crystal Ice Cave, won’t happen this winter.

Park officials announced last week that tours of the complex, visually dazzling cave will not be offered this winter for public safety reasons. Lava Beds Superintendent Larry Whalon said the lack of extremely cold weather has prevented the ice formations from being created.

According to a park press release, “A lack of adequate staffing leaves the park unable to provide safe and effective tour oversight and rescue response in case of emergency. However, the park is working to resolve staffing vacancies and will consider other tour alternatives. We aim to use this season to reevaluate our tour operations and partnerships with emergency response teams.”

Barbara Rissman, a park guide who has helped lead Crystal Ice Cave tours in recent years, said park staff are evaluating tours, noting, “Hopefully we’ll be back offering tours next year.” She said some sections of the cave remain wet.

The cave, which is gated and locked, for several years has been available for weekly ranger-guided tours only during the winter months. The three-hour tours have been extremely popular and are limited to six people per tour because too many visitors could change the cave’s delicate balance and cause the ice and formations to melt. In recent years, park staff and tour leaders have seen water flowing into the cave and down through its passages.

When tours are available, exploring Crystal Cave is a challenging and strenuous experience. Entering includes down-climbing ice-slickened rocks to its gated, locked entrance and descending an often ice-frozen ladder. Then, with the aid of ropes, it requires sliding or backing down a 50-foot, slippery-steep ice cube surface and going through a tiny crawl-through passage.

Once inside during times when tours are offered, the route meanders through segments of the multi-level cave, which drops about 150 feet below the surface. Although only 960 feet long, Crystal Cave’s intermittently connected levels make the cave’s total length about 1,800 feet, a distance the tours don’t cover. When the cave is accessible, the inner section includes a series of ice sculpted delights and two frozen waterfalls, including a 15-foot-tall waterfall-like ice column. On previous tours, it required some serious shimmying around the ice column’s bottom, which has widened in recent years, to a room with an ice floor and more weirdly-wonderfully shaped ice blocks.

Like many of Lava Beds most-visited caves, Crystal was named by J.D. Howard, the “Father of Lava Beds” and its most celebrated explorer. The name stems from the crystals found in some of the cave’s subterranean corridors, passages and rooms. During the early years of Lava Beds discovery, the cave’s features were threatened when a bootlegger used Crystal’s ice to make whiskey. Howard chased him out.

To experience Crystal Ice Cave, see the video at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1u15ryaHmw.

During normal years when Crystal Cave receives repeated chilling temperatures, freezing water creates a mosaic of ice formations. Photo by Lee Juillerat