The day opened wet, as the storm continued to spread the Pacific Ocean around the region. Knowing that rain was called for, I’d left the day open on my itinerary. Fortunately I’d become aware of an indoor activity Monday when I’d seen a sign in Grants Pass for the Oregon Caves . I’ve lived in the state nearly fifteen years and I’d never heard of the caves.
After breakfast at a local diner, I headed East on state highway 46. Highway 46 was built for the express purpose of connecting US 199 to the caves 20 miles away. After running through the Illinois Valley, the road starts the climb up the Siskyou mountains to the National Monument at 4000 feet. While generally following Bear Creek into the mountains, I don’t think there’s 150 feet of straight road the last ten miles. I was reminded of the Hana Highway in Maui.
I’m sure the scenery is impressive, but on the lower slopes there was considerable rain, and the rest of the way I was in the clouds. I caught up to a semi truck about halfway up, so the trip was considerably slower after that. I wondered if the driver was lost, or delivering supplies to the facility. The road is very much not truck friendly, and the only place to turn around is at the end of the road.
There is a fair-size parking lot next to the lodge, and a 900 foot walk back to the main building; not an enticing prospect in a steady rain. I had a hoodie, but even so, I was fairly damp by the time I got indoors.
The main building contains a gift shop and small museum, and is also where you pay the entrance fee and wait for the tour to start. The rangers ask every person if they’ve been inside a cave in the US or Europe since 2005. The point is to prevent the spread of white nose syndrome; fatal to bats. I don’t know what happens if you answer ‘yes’, but I imagine you’re not allowed to enter the cave. I’d like to visit Carlsbad at some point, so I wonder how that will go.
The cave tour is about 9/10ths of a mile long, and takes about 90 minutes. The tour starts in a covered walkway outside the building, and the ranger goes over the safety rules and expected conditions. They mention that there are over 500 steps in the cave, and in fact there is a sample set of about ten steps. I thought we’d have to prove we could climb the stairs, but I guess the ranger thought we all looked fit enough. We did have to practice the crouched ‘cave walk’, as some passages are only 46″ high. The cave interior is always in the mid-40’s, so warm clothing is recommended. As it turns out, you’re working fairly hard climbing up and down stairs, so the temperature is just about right for physical activity.
Cameras aren’t allowed in the cave, but smartphones are tolerated.
The main entrance:
The trail inside the cave generally follows the creek that flows along the floor. The creek didn’t create the cave; groundwater dissolving the rock is responsible for that. The cave rock is marble, which surprised me, as I’d thought marble was a fairly hard rock. It turns out that this isn’t architectural-grade marble, but more inferior stuff.
Not far into the cave are examples of flowstone:
Much of the original trail and steps were built in the early part of the 20th century. The trail was renovated in the 90’s, and many of the original concrete steps were replaced with aluminum ones. The original steps remaining can be treacherous from uneven spacing, wear, and moisture. You aren’t allowed to touch the walls, as skin oil stains the formations, and can stop formations growing entirely. There are plenty of handrails, but in some places there aren’t, so some care is required in negotiating the stairs.
What happens when people touch the formations:
The brown color is from skin oil, and you’ll notice that most of the stalactites have been broken off. In the days of yore, people thought the formations grew quickly, like icicles, and people would snap off a piece for a souvenir. Formations like these, if they are still growing, will take tens of thousands of years to restore.
Some untouched stalactites:
The caves are lit by strategically placed small lights, and at one point in the tour the ranger turns off the lights. I’d done this before, when I visited the ice caves in southern Washington, so I knew what was coming. Complete and total blackness, something few modern people have experience with. I’m sure I wasn’t alone when I hoped the lights would actually come back on. The ranger had a flashlight, and most folks had smartphones, but still.
Roots from a tree that was serious about finding water:
About two-thirds of the way through the tour is a feature called the Glory Room. This isn’t on the main trial, and the stairs leading to it are rather steep:
This isn’t for people suffering from vertigo, as there is considerable space beneath the stairs. One person in our group elected not to go. It’s worth the effort. The ranger doesn’t accompany you, saying that they prefer to let the room speak for itself. It’s quite voluble:
Near the end of the tour, there is a formation of pristine calcium carbonate, where the ranger turns off the lights, and turns on a black light:
The tour ends all too quickly, and you leave the cave here:
It’s a half-mile hike down the mountain to the main building. Fortunately, the rain had let up some.
While the tour does take an hour and a half, and our group was relatively small at eight people, it does feel a little rushed, especially when you want to stop and take pictures. It’s a cave, so there are tight spaces, and rocks jutting out onto the trail at weird angles. Maximum group size is fifteen, and there are places where that many people would be a tight fit indeed. We did see some animals in the cave: moths, spiders, and a bat.
I you are ever in the Grants Pass – Medford area, or even visiting the redwoods in California, the Oregon Caves are absolutely worth a day trip.
My next days destination was well east of this area, so I drove back down to US 199 and on to Medford. The rain was coming down in buckets, and most of the region would receive two inches or more in 24 hours. I visited a couple of covered bridge south and east of Medford, and along the way passed through Jacksonville, OR. Jacksonville is much like Sisters in that the town has retained the downtown buildings from the late 19th century. Back to Medford for the night, where I stayed at the Motel 6, and was happy to see they had a laundromat.
Dinner was fish and chips at the Four Sisters Irish pub downtown. I don’t know how Irish they really are; they didn’t have Harp on tap. Back to the motel to do laundry and watch the basic cable Motel 6 provides.