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Explore a Lava Tube in Arizona

Updated on April 16, 2018

Lava River Cave, Arizona

Let’s get one thing straight. There’s a difference between a spelunker and a caver. With the most commonly displayed bumpersticker reading "Cavers rescue spelunkers," this is hardly a definition no matter how true it rings. But to put it more bluntly, cavers just don’t like the term "spelunker" and ordinarily use it to refer to people who are unfamiliar with caving techniques.

I have been caving for many years and I’m not talking about riding a mine cart through the Runaway Mine Train at Disneyland. I’m talking the kind of caving where a person literally sucks in his beer belly to fit through a head-sized passageway or rappels in to a blackened void unknowing what lies beneath.

So when I decided to explore a lava tube during my arduous move from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Mitchell Caverns in California, I was somewhat apprehensive. I mean come on, lava tubes are notorious for being little more than subway tunnels. They’re long, tubular corridors littered with jagged, skin ripping boulders and absent of anything resembling a cave formation. Right?

"Not exactly," I thought to myself. When lava oozes from the mouth of a volcano, it proceeds down the cone to a valley floor. The outside of the lava cools and hardens but the center continues to flow leaving a network of large, hollow empty tubes. Erosion eventually causes a collapse in the ceiling and for the first time sunlight enters the chamber. With the sunlight, creatures seeking shelter or recreation penetrate the dark voids of the lava tube and a secret place now becomes a popular haunt.

"I’m a caver not a lava tuber," I thought. "Is a lava tube even a cave?" I continued. I’m not arrogant but I sure was coming off as so and I had just about talked myself out of exploring the lava tube when I decided to try something new for a change. Insulted, I took the challenge. "Take me to this tube," I insisted.

The lava tube I had in mind was one called Lava River Cave located in the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff. Armed with an Arizona Atlas and a few pizza stained, photocopied pages from a hiking book, my adventure began.

Now, I knew that a cave is rarely found with such little information to go by so the impossibility of me actually finding this thing seemed in my favor. "I’ll never make it. I’ll be back on the road to a real cave in no time," I thought smugly as I drove down a bumpy dirt road. I turned to grab a Coke out of the ice cooler behind me when no sooner than I had popped the top and drew a swig I saw a sign and parking area and exclaimed, "I’m here!"

"Well, just because I’m in the parking lot doesn’t mean I’ll find the tube," I mumbled and remembered that I had been on plenty of caving trips never to find the cave. Of course, just as that thought passed my mind, I found the trail. I kid you not.

It was a trail all right. An elephant trail heading straight in to the ponderosa pines."Surely it would peter out and this charade could end," I hoped. I grabbed my pack and helmet and hiked into the forest. The further I walked, the more elephantine the trail. The reality of exploring this lava tube had never been so real. And in only ¼ of a mile, there it was marked by a Forest Service interpretive plaque and partially surrounded by a manmade rock wall. The plaque declared that in 1915 lumbermen stumbled upon this yawning cave entrance and from that time Lava River Cave at ¾ of a mile in length has been a local attraction.

As I stared at the sunken entrance of this 675,000-year old tube, I swore it was grinning. I snapped on my helmet, pulled up my kneepads, and climbed into the tube. "Alright tube, let’s see what you got."

Just like I said, huge, sharp lava boulders all but choked the corridor leading into the tube. As I scrambled over one, I was met with another. I was almost exhausted and I was only six feet inside. I stopped to catch my breath when a cool breeze brushed my face like when you reach into the refrigerator on a hot day. Carried on the 40 breeze were voices. Muddled and unclear, I wasn’t sure if I was hearing the taunts of the cave or I simply was not alone. I saw a dancing beam of light in the distance and I knew I was not alone. An older man and a younger boy emerged from the bowels of the monster. Neither was wearing a helmet or looked prepared for the adventure they had just embarked. We exchanged a few greetings before the boy stuttered, "It flattens out back there." Just what I needed to hear as the two spelunkers went up and I the caver went down.

One thing you should know about exploring lava tubes is that it’s very dark. Before you scoff and attempt to remind me through telepathy that all caves are dark, understand that lava tubes and the igneous rocks that surround them are black unlike the soft white of limestone caves. This black is light absorbing. One headlamp is hardly enough.

I began to feel like this kind of caving was different. As I penetrated the mysterious passageways, I grew somber and quiet- too quiet. I could hear my heart beating. I could hear my breakfast digesting. I could actually feel the blackness. Suddenly, Lava River Cave embraced me. It began to fascinate me with every step. I stared at the lavacicles, tiny formation of once oozing lava and resembling stalactites, dangling gently from ceiling. I noticed the walls were textured, scalloped. And I saw a bat. That puts a star on any cave in my book. But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the cave was found deeper in the tunnel. It was a "splashdown," a limestone rock that fell into the liquid flow only to be entombed in the floor.

At tunnel’s end, a plugged passage suggested the journey could have continued but no one would ever know. Believe it or not, I wished I could have known.

If you have ever wandered among a vast landscape of lava flow, the overwhelming power of volcanoes and their ability to create such incredible natural features has undoubtedly touched you. But, more incredible still is what lies beneath the crust of lava. It’s an underground wonderland. One that I had never known until that day when an off hand suggestion turned into a mind changing event. And I realized that whether caver or spelunker, it didn’t matter because the lure of Lava River Cave takes you into a world few know. It’s a world of silence, serenity, and solitude. It’s a world, we as cavers, know all too well and love all too much.

I will never ridicule a lava tube again no matter how many times I crack my helmet against a hardened ceiling because I couldn’t see or stumble clumsily on an uneven floor. Lava tubes really are worth exploring.

DANGER: It is very dangerous to explore caves alone. It is recommended that a caving trip contains at least 3 people.

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