By Jennifer Margulis
Special to The Oregonian – on May 30, 2009
Most people — about 60,000 annually — visit the Oregon Caves National Monument to do a layman’s form of spelunking. With good reason: The 90-minute cave tour is spectacular, offering exploration of a dark, drippy, subterranean world 4,000 feet above sea level in the Siskiyou Mountain Range.
This year Oregon Caves, about 18 miles east of Cave Junction in southwest Oregon, celebrates its 100th year as a national monument. But for both the outdoors enthusiast and the indoorsy type the monument offers more than just guided cave tours, candlelight tours and three-hour off-trail cave tours (belly crawling, rock climbing and some serious squeezing through small openings).
The Oregon Caves National Monument encompasses 480 acres of old-growth forest, including “The Big Tree,” believed to be the largest Douglas fir (by circumference) in Oregon.
There are five nice hiking trails within the monument and the gorgeous, wood-paneled Chateau, where you can cool your tired heels after finishing all that exercise.
You register for the tours at the Chalet, not to be confused with the Chateau (which is known by everyone but the staff at the Chateau as the Visitors Center). Outside the Chalet is a stair test, to make sure you’re up for the 526 stairs you’ll climb inside the cave. Visitors must be at least 42 inches tall and ready to tackle a moderately strenuous trail.
Ranger Tom Siewert, 50, who has been working at the monument for eight years, guides our group. A tall, lean man with a long gray ponytail and a kindly face, Siewert asks us not to touch the rock when we’re inside, since skin oils and dirt can damage the cave walls. Instead we should steady ourselves in the low passageways by putting our hands on our bent knees.
Siewert passes around a chunk of flowstone, white rock that is found throughout the cave, for us to touch, and then we’re off to experience what Elijah Davidson discovered in 1874. Davidson was out hunting with his dog, Bruno, Siewert says, when Bruno disappeared into a dark hole after a bear.
Jamie Francis/The OregonianTours inside the Oregon Caves National Monument last about 90 minutes and require traversing more than 500 stairsteps.
Davidson was reluctant to follow the sounds of the scuffle. But when Bruno’s yelps became desperate, Davidson lit wooden matches to see his way into the cave. His matches ran out and he was alone in absolute darkness (Siewert turns off the lights in the cave to illustrate. It’s so dark I can’t see my hand inches in front of my face). He rescued Bruno and then groped his way out by following the sound of the creek.
Lights were installed in the cave in 1929, so, though dimly lit, we can see our way. There are many creatures in the dark with us, most of them insects. Siewert excitedly calls our attention to a cave-adapted arachnid, a white spider called a harvestman that Siewert has come across only a handful of times. He also points out a tiny furry ball clinging to the ceiling: one of the eight species of bats that regularly use the cave, probably a Townsend’s big-eared.
The walls of the cave have layer upon layer of hardened rock, each in a pattern more unusual than the next. White stalactites, which remind me of oversized parsnips, hang from the ceiling. Water drips on our heads and the walls ooze with moisture. It’s 44 degrees, but the climbing, ducking and squatting keep everyone warm.
There’s something otherworldly and eerie about being in this cave. It was formed as water filtering down through the rock picked up carbon dioxide to form a weak acid, which slowly filtered through cracks in the stone and dissolved the calcite and limestone rock.
“It’s like the process that happens in your mouth,” Siewert says. “You drink carbonated soda, and the acid dissolves your teeth and gives you a cavity.”
We pass through the “Ghost Room,” the largest room in the cave, which geologists speculate was created by sulfuric acid, stronger than carbonic acid. Close to the end of the tour is a display case of the bones of a black bear that died there more than 2,500 years ago. Jaguar and grizzly bones have also been found in the cave.
Lunch at the Chateau
It’s time to refuel before hitting the trails, so my son and I head to the Chateau for food. It’s a historic lodge with 23 rustic rooms (no TVs or bathrobes here), a fireplace, an extensive gift shop with a creek running through it (the water’s real, the plants are artificial), and big bay windows on the first floor that give you views of waterfalls and hiking trails. There are chess tables with the pieces set up, lots of couches and comfy chairs and a whole rack of children’s books.
The Cave’s cafe downstairs is decorated like an old-fashioned soda fountain with metal red swivel chairs around long countertops. They don’t serve fast food, and everything’s made from scratch, so if your tour’s in less than 45 minutes, grab a sandwich from the deli case in the gift shop instead. The menu is what you’d expect: burgers (including a vegetarian portabella mushroom option), onion rings, grilled cheese. The waitresses are friendly and the prices reasonable.
The Chateau also offers fine dining in the evenings, and the staff insists you need a reservation (although it gets busy in high season, the dining area was practically empty when I was there). The menu is pricey, the service slow and the food disappointing. The chef’s specialty, stuffed trout, was overcooked and tasted dingy. The lasagna was served lukewarm, and the rice pilaf was simply inedible. Based on my experience, you’re better off heading into Cave Junction, where you can find a bagel joint, two Mexican restaurants and a world-famous sausage place (see accompanying story).
The hiking trails
After lunch, we hit the No Name Trail, a 1.3-mile loop that starts close to the Chateau and winds past mountain rhododendron, sword ferns, licorice ferns growing out of craggy rocks and mossy trees. We walk alongside a gurgling, urgent creek until a turn in the trail crosses a charming covered bridge. Then we ascend: up the mountainside on a steep, winding path through woods and some clearings, past a grove of the greenish brown knotty trunks of tall madrones. Also there: Brewer’s spruce, Canyon live oak, Port Orford cedar and many species of wild flowers.
The next morning, legs aching from all those cave stairs, we explore the Big Tree Trail. Also a loop, this one is 3.3miles with an elevation of 1,400 feet. Take a left behind the Chalet (aka Visitors Center) for the best hike. The trail, which passes forests and meadowlands, is gorgeous. The highlight is the Big Tree, a robust Douglas fir with the largest circumference in Oregon. Bring binoculars: A pair of spotted owls can sometimes be spotted along the trail.
Too soon it’s time to leave. I can’t wait to return this summer to enjoy some of the centennial festivities and brave the Bigelow Lakes Loop Trail, a strenuous hike of 4.5miles with a 2,390-foot elevation gain that passes Bigelow Lake to the top of Mount Elijah.
— Jennifer Margulis
Caving and amenities
Spelunking: The Oregon Caves National Monument offers cave tours from mid-March to the weekend after Thanksgiving, depending on weather. Tours cost $8.50 for adults (ages 17 and older) and $6 for children. Hiking on the trails and parking are free.
Getting there: The monument is 18 miles east of Cave Junction, about 300 miles south of Portland; 240 miles southwest of Bend; and 55 miles from Grants Pass.
Where to stay: Rooms at the Chateau (20000 Oregon Caves Highway, Cave Junction; 877-245-9022, tinyurl.com/dyo7zw) cost $90-$160. There’s also a motel with clean, affordable rooms ($54-$58/night), cabins and camping at the Country Hills Resort (7901 Caves Highway; 541-592-3406, countryhillsresort.com). Two Forest Service campgrounds are within a few miles of the monument: Caves Creek (541-592-4000) is within walking distance of the monument and has primitive amenities (no large RVs). Grayback (541-592-4000) is eight miles from the caves and has running water and flush toilets.
Where to eat: Don’t miss a stop at Taylor’s Sausage Country Store (202 S. Redwood Highway. Cave Junction; 541-592-5358, taylorsausage.com) open daily 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 6 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. They have such delicious meats and sausages (try the German beef sticks and the spicy Italian sausage) that foodies drive here from all over the Pacific Northwest. You can get a hot meal all day long as well as deli sandwiches and ice cream.