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Thursday, May 19, 2011

5 Northwest Caves for Spelunking

5 Northwest Caves for Spelunking in the United States
5 Northwest Caves for Spelunking

By Tom C Huntington

Spelunking is a popular hobby in the Northwest. The geological features of the Northwest naturally lend themselves to this activity. There are dozens of fascinating caverns and passageways in the area. Whether you are a newbie or a more experienced spelunker, there are plenty of intriguing caves to explore within your skill level.

Remember on your adventure to use proper caving etiquette: be careful not to damage rock formations, avoid touching the walls and don't leave any trash or other obvious signs of your visit behind. It's also always a good idea to bring some basic survival gear along, even if you're visiting a well-populated cave. To provide a couple of examples, it's wise to pack twice as much food as you think you'll need for your excursion, along with a multi tool or folding knife, an LED headlamp and, if possible, some extra LED flashlights. Finally, don't forget to dress warmly, as the temperature of many caves remains in the low-40s, even in summer.

Here are a few of the many cave adventures in the Pacific Northwest.

1. Ape Cave

Located near Washington's Mount St. Helens, Ape Cave is an intermediate spelunking challenge. Quite simple in form, Ape Cave is a long lava tube. It's pitch black inside and many visitors describe the Ape Cave experience as eerie. A result of a rare eruption, the Ape Cave is the third longest lava tube in North America, at 13,042 feet long. Two different routes are available. Visitors are strongly encouraged to bring at least three sources of light, such as LED flashlights, headlamps or lanterns.

2. Gardner Cave

Located way up at the northern border of Washington, Gardner Cave is the third longest limestone cave in the state. It is the central feature of 49-acre Crawford State Park. Gardner Cave is replete with underground wonders such as stalagmites, stalactites and rimstone pools. If you're hoping for more information about the cave, there are guided tours between May and September.
Crater Lake in Oregon

3. Oregon Caves National Monument

The Oregon Caves National Monument is located deep within the Siskiyou Mountains, near the Oregon-California border. Here, acidic rainwater has created pockets within the marble of the mountains, forming some of the few marble caves in the world. The National Park Service manages these caves and offers seasonal guided tours.

A great place for beginners, the Oregon Caves are well-lit and you'll have to leave your LED flashlights and supplies in the car - backpacks aren't allowed on the tour. But you can still use those supplies for hiking in the surrounding old growth forest.

The Oregon Caves also offer a unique experience for beginners who are interested in learning spelunking skills. You can take an off-trail caving tour where guides will assist you with skills such as climbing, crawling and descending over uneven rocky slopes. Guides on this program provide safety equipment such as an LED headlamp.

4. & 5. Boyd Cave and Lava River Cave

Near Bend, Ore. lies the Deschutes National Forest, where you can find obsidian fields, petrified forests and miles of underground lava tubes riddled with caves. Many of the more than 300 caves here are not widely known. One is the Lava River Cave, which opens July 1 and offers both self-guided and traditionally guided tours of the mile-long underground hike.

Boyd Cave offers a more rigorous experience, with narrow passageways, low ceilings and areas that require crawling. An LED headlamp is a must for this cave, so as to keep your hands free. Bring at least two additional LED flashlights or other sources of light.

Exploring a cave can be a great adventure. Just remember to come prepared with the necessary supplies and tools - plenty of LED flashlights and a multi-tool or other survival knife in case of emergency.

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