Standing at the entrance to the Lava River Cave a blast of cold air blows into our face. We had been warned that the temperature inside the Lava River Cave stayed at fifty five degrees but in the middle of an Arizona summer that sounded more like a promise than a threat. The Lava River Cave is outside Flagstaff and is a wonderful geological adventure.
The Lava River Cave is really more of a tube, a little more than a mile long, created during a volcanic eruption over 650,000 years ago. As the lava moved in a molten flow the outermost edge cooled into solid rock but the lava in the center retained its heat and continued to flow. What was left behind resembled a vaulted hallway stretching deep inside the earth. Lava tubes appear across the earth but only places that at one time or another have had quite a bit of volcanic activity. In Queensland, Australia an area called Undara was host to a major volcanic event 190.000 years ago that produced over 300 lava tubes but only nine of these tubes have been explored extensively. The longest of these tubes is over 100 miles long.
The Lava River Cave outside Flagstaff is nowhere near this long, stretching under the earth for a little over one mile. We stand at the entrance for a moment enjoying the blast of cool air as it blows over us. A sign near the entrance warns that “squirrels, porcupines and bats” sometime use the cave as shelter. It would be nice to see a porcupine.
Everybody checks their lights and backup lights before we crawl inside the hellmouth, entering the cave. The entrance is the toughest part, descending steeply beneath the surface, crawling over a series of broken rocks and boulders. Footing is steep and uncertain and we are forced to use our hands to steady ourselves. Then the lava tube levels out. The walls are 30 feet apart and the ceiling mostly maintains a height of about 20 feet, although there are a few places with low ceiling where we are forced to crouch. I am used to narrow, wet caves where one is forced to slither on their belly through the mud between narrow crevices, so this is a nice change. Exploring a cave by walking upright two or three abreast is a new experience. Our head lamps swing about surveying our surroundings. We mostly keep our headlamps aimed at our feet as we walk across the uneven terrain. Lava River Cave is about as user friendly and easy as a cave gets without a guided tour and many families have brought children to experience the cave.
There is another lava tube in Show Low known as the Ice Cave which also blasts cool air out the entrance but Ice Cave goes back nowhere near as far. Among my favorite Arizona caves is Peppersauce Cave outside Oracle. Peppersauce Cave earned its name from a hungry miner working nearby Nugget Canyon who every day sprinkled a little hot sauce on his sandwich. He lost so many Peppersauce bottles that eventually the canyon was littered with them and both the canyon and the cave were named after the bottles. Early pioneers in Oracle, Arizona reported that the local Apache were keeping a twelve foot long rattlesnake alive deep inside the cave by feeding it live chickens. The Apache claimed the snake was the guardian water spirit or corua for the entire mountain range.
Other caves in the area include Colossal Cave outside Tucson where bandits are rumored to have stashed ill gotten gold. Nearby Arkenstone Cave is one of only two places in Arizona where the fossilized bones of prehistoric vampire bats have been discovered. Crystal Cave outside Mammoth was a tourist attraction in the 1920s, featured in movie newsreels of the time and included an underground boat ride. The Great Depression put Crystal Cave out of business and during World War II the cave was turned into a gypsum mine. Kartchner Caverns is now a state park and like Colossal Cave features guided tours and lit pathways. My next door neighbor growing up, Barry Wright still has a letter written by Randy Tufts, one of the discoverers of Kartchner Caverns, thanking Barry’s father for suggesting that the Whetstone Mountains might be a good place to look for caves.
The Santa Rita Mountains feature both Cave of the Bells and Onyx Cave. While I have never been inside either, my brother in law Robert Orr assures me that Onyx Cave is spectacularly beautiful.
I have been inside Dead Man’s Cave outside Sonoita. Dead Man’s Cave is an unimpressive dirt mound with an entrance. Although not a very big or deep cave what makes Dead Man’s Cave cool is that the cave walls are speckled with white. These white speckles are bone fragments from the Pleistocene. The Ice Age beasts discovered here include saber toothed cats and prehistoric owls. Dead Man’s Cave was something like the La Brea Tar Pits outside Los Angeles, where animals would get stuck in the muck and mire and sink beneath the earth until their bones were be preserved.
Another favorite is Ventana Cave on the O’odham Reservation. This cave is really more of a big overhang and is more famous for its archaeology than its geology. Ventana Cave was inhabited for thousands of years, from big game hunters who used atlatls to hunt long horned bison at the wane of the Ice Age and remained inhabited until just after the collapse of the Hohokam. The walls of Ventana Cave are still adorned with ancient pictographs going back thousands of years.
My friends and I walk the length of the Lava River Cave enjoying the cool air and happy to have a reason to hike in long sleeves in the middle of an Arizona summer. There are clouds of mist and vapor hovering in the air. Little water droplets glisten on the ceiling, shining like crystals caught in the illumination of our headlights. In the colder months these water droplets become icicles. My three friends have never been inside a cave before and are excited. One of them is so excited that he practically skips up and down the stone corridor. This is how he finds the end of the cave, moving far too fast and stopping way too suddenly. His headlamp smashes into the wall and a small trickle of blood, flows down his forehead. Remember to always be careful inside a cave and to always bring extra lights.
Editor’s Note: One of my favorite memories of college came in my first year at Northern Arizona University right after finals my freshman year. A group of friends decided to hike in the cave before we all headed home for the Christmas holidays. There was about 10 inches of snow on the ground and it was cold. We drove out to the lava tube in two vehicles and hiked into the cave as far as we dared. Then we turned off our lights and experienced the total darkness and silence that comes deep in the earth. It made an impression on that young 18-year-old I was. ~JRC