By Dan Shryock
Some information provided by the National Park Service.
Elijah Davidson didn't know what to expect as he chased after his dog, Bruno. Here he was in the hills of Southern Oregon on a cold day in 1874 and Bruno was chasing a bear into a dark hole.
Davidson could hear Bruno's howl but could not see him. He had no choice but to follow.
Into the side of the mountain he went, striking matches to light his way. Finally, as the last match flickered and died, the pair were deep inside a pitch black cave. The bear was in there as well.
Feeling his way through uncharted caverns and passageways, Davidson found a chilly stream. He followed the water and gradually crawled his way back to daylight. Bruno did the same.
Elijah Davidson had accidently discovered what is today known as the Oregon Caves National Monument, a collection of chambers and passages that experts estimate are 3 to 5 million years old.
That dark hole in the side of a mountain is now the entrance to a geologic wonderland for countless visitors between March and Thanksgiving each year.
Oregon Caves National Monument is one of five national parks or monuments in the state. The others are Crater Lake National Park, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and Fort Clatsop National Memorial.
Taking a Look Inside
Take the unique tour through the Oregon Caves, a trek along an asphalt trail complete with low ceilings, narrow passages and an occasional tight squeeze. General cave tours with a forest ranger include a 90-minute discussion of geology, fossils, wildlife and bats within the caves and the watersheds and old-growth forests around them. In the summertime, visitors can sign up for off-trail cave tours, which introduce visitors to caving techniques, etiquette and conservation. Summertime candlelight cave tours offer a sense of how the caves must have appeared to the first explorers. For something spooky-special, come back in October for haunted candlelight tours.
Some quick rules to keep in mind:
- Visitors must be 42 inches (3 feet, 6 inches) tall to join to tour.
- Flash cameras are prohibited.
- No backpacks - you don't have room to wear them in tight quarters.
- Visitors are cautioned to avoid contact with the cave walls whenever possible to reduce environmental damage. Oils from your skin can introduce bacteria to the walls as well as add a dirty, darkened tint to the wall color, officials say.
Tour interpretor Julie Anderson says the caves are 3 million to 5 million years old. Each person who visit finds something special. "People are fascinated by it," Julie says. "It's human interest. A cave can tell us about ecology. It brings a tells us all so much about the underground world and it's all knew to most people.".
Life in the Cave
Julie enjoys telling the story of a fossil find near the Ghost Room here in 1996. The fossilized remains of a jaquar were found to be about 8,000 years old. Fossils of a nearby girrzly bear, however, were much older. Carbon dating placed the fossils at about 50,000 years old. That makes this cave bear the oldest known grizzly on the North American continent.
"I once saw a deer's antler covered by calite," Julie adds. "There's so much beneath the ground to see and explore."
Betsey Wittick and Guy Sidora of Bainbridge Island, WA, took the tour and found it an easy walk to the deep beyond.
"It was wonderful," Betsey says. "It was not difficult to do, but it was thrilling. Learning about how long things take to form and the effects of the environment were fascinating. It's so expansiveness yet it's so fragile."
It's a little bit out of this world. It was unlike anything else," Guy adds. "It's magic."
Facts and Figures
- The 480-acre Oregon Caves National Monument was created in 1909.
- The caves are located in the Siskiyou Mountains at elevations from 3,800 to 5,460 feet.
- Temperatures typically range from 20 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the winter and from the 50 to 90 during the summer.
- The cave temperature is 42 degrees Fahrenheit year round.
- The caves are home to one of the largest exposures of ultramafic rock in North America and one of the largest, most pristine, and most complete segment of old oceanic crust in Western America.
- It contains one of the most biologically and geologically diverse caves in the world.
Discover the beauty of old growth forests of the Siskiyou Mountains in and around the preserve’s 4,070 acres. You can choose from the Big Tree (which leads to the thickest Doug fir tree in Oregon at 13 feet), Cliff Nature, Mt. Elijah, Old Growth and Cave Creek trails. You’ll walk through groves of Port Orford cedar and some of the largest Douglas fir trees in the state.
HOW TO FIND THE OREGON CAVES
Oregon Caves is at the end of a winding, Highway 46 about 20 miles uphill from Highway 199 and Cave Junction.
DATES AND HOURS
The Caves are open from mid-March through the Thanksgiving weekend.
Hours change depending on the season. In general, tours begin sometime between 8 and 10 am and end at 4 pm.
Chateau at the Oregon Caves
20000 Caves Highway
Cave Junction, OR 97523
Dan Shryock is an Oregon-based journalist and travel writer. When he's not visiting Southern Oregon or sampling local wines, he can be found cycling throughout the state.