If you have a phobia, chances are you will face your fears at the Oregon Caves.
Situated inside the Siskiyou Mountains an hour east of Cave Junction, Ore., near the California
border, 15,000 feet of cave exploration awaits. Yes, you will come across bats,
spiders, ancient bones, icicles, tight spaces, and total darkness, but don't
let that scare you. It's worth it!
The drive to reach the Oregon
Caves is its own
adventure. My friends and I left Arcata,
Calif., at 5 a.m. and despite our
collective exhaustion from getting two hours of sleep, we could not take our
eyes off the scenery. To our left were ocean waves crashing on empty Pacific
beaches and to our right was the signature Northern
California morning mist framing the tallest trees in the country.
As we passed the Oregon
border and drove east, the temperature almost doubled and cellular phone
Once we got to Cave Junction, it was time to ascend the Siskiyou Mountains.
The road became curvy enough that we each needed an emergency barf bag just in
case. I would not attempt to drive this road in icy or nighttime conditions,
but on a sunny September morning it felt like a scene from The Lord of the
Rings to climb 5,000 feet above the vast Illinois River
About The Caves
The caves themselves are Mecca for science nerds. Most of the nearly
4,000 caves within the jurisdiction of the U.S. National Park Service are made
of limestone or dolomite. The Oregon Caves is one of only three such properties
made of marble and is unique in that it has all three main rock types (igneous,
sedimentary and metamorphic) inside. It holds more than 50,000 animals and 3,800
plants and is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the country. The
rock is almost 200 million years old, which is about when Pangea
separated into the continents.
Even though it was warm outside, we knew to bring coats and various fleece
accessories. It is 44 degrees year-round inside the caves. Though your
instincts may tell you to bring a flashlight, umbrella, backpack or some trail
mix, you may not take anything into the caves except a camera and whatever fits
in your pockets. It is, of course, dark five miles inside a mountain, but the
tour guide will turn on lights and lead you through.
Touring The Caves
All visitors must take a 90-minute guided tour to enter the caves. If you think
you can navigate it yourself, you won't after you are underway. There are
twists and turns that lead to hundreds of different rooms, each with its own
species and rock formations.
The National Park Service designates the tour as
"moderately strenuous." There are more than 500 steep stairs to climb and the
elevation increase from start to finish is 230 feet. Being students at Humboldt State
University, which is also known as
"Hills and Stairs
University," my friends
and I had no problem with the stairs and inclines. We did notice that others
struggled and seemed to regret taking the tour by the time we climbed the first
couple hundred steps. An older woman in flip-flops and shorts was especially
It is difficult to describe the caves because they were unlike anything I
had ever seen before. I felt like I was in a video game because it seemed
impossible that such a beautifully intricate, old and grandiose place could
exist naturally in real life. Photos do not do it justice. The only way to
fully appreciate the Oregon
Caves is to see the
monument yourself. With six above-ground trails ranging from 0.5 to 9.3 miles
and the 23-room, historic Oregon Caves Chateau for lodging, there is enough to
do in the area to make a full overnight or weekend trip out of it.
Tour admission is $8.50 for adults and $6 for kids (minimum height 42
inches). Only large groups can make reservations, so it is best to either get
to the caves early in the day or in the spring or fall to avoid long waits. The
cave entrance gets snowed in during the winter, so tours are usually only
offered from April through October. A detailed schedule and information about
the caves is available online at http://www.nps.gov/orca/.
Melissa J. Coleman studies journalism at Humboldt State
University, where she
serves as Managing Editor of the award-winning school newspaper, "The
Lumberjack." She is also a Copy Editor at the Eureka, "California Times-Standard." Columnist
Sally O'Neal is her stepmother.