Grant McOmie is always on the lookout for Oregon’s “touchable history;” interesting, unique lessons that show us more about the place we call ‘home.’
This week, he gets in touch with a real historic hotbed across a landscape that was a true hot zone of volcanic eruptions, magma flows and a birthplace of mountains – evidence that’s obvious not only above ground, but below the surface too at Central Oregon’s Lava Lands inside the famous Newberry Crater National Monument.
Recently, Grant pointed his travel compass into the Oregon Cascades and a campground he'd heard about for many years but had never veered into during cross-mountain treks.
La Pine State Park is just off the famous Century Drive near Bend, Oregon, which winds over a hundred miles past watery gems with alpine mountain views.
Lakes with names like Sparks, Hosmer, Davis, Elk, and Todd offer scores of campgrounds the family will enjoy, but La Pine is quiet and out of the way and no one seems to know why.
Certainly it can’t be for lack of recreation, for aside from the standard state park fare of hiking and biking trails, the 2,400-acre park and its 150 camping sites rest alongside more than five miles of the free-flowing and refreshing Deschutes River.
Lava Lands Visitor Center
First, travel to the Lava Lands Visitor Center; headquarters for all of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument and a super place to get well grounded, so to speak, on the geologic history that created the 500-square-mile region.
The visitor center offers displays and exhibits and rangers who can school you well before you head out to see the terrain.
Larry Berrin, USFS Spokesperson, said that there are 400 buttes or cinder cones that date to the time when volcanoes ruled the landscape near Bend.
“The Trail of Molten Lands” gives you a perspective but then coming up to the butte and seeing it – wow! It keeps going, it’s not just right around here- it’s not just this cinder cone. It actually flows and continues on.”
Berrin added that lava either exploded into the air or oozed out of the ground for miles around – the trail allows you a close up view of the power of nature.
“It knocked down very tree in sight and wherever it went, nothing lived. So, anything you see now came after the flow – 7,000 years of growth on the flow itself…here’s not much growing on this lava field, it’s pretty barren.”
You can hike or drive to the top of Lava Butte. The way up the narrow, winding lane prepares you for the stunning display you’ll find at the top.
Lava Butte erupted several successive times beginning about 7,000 years ago with enough basaltic rock to build a roadway six times around the planet. The lava from these cones flowed for miles--not only above ground but below, too
Lava River Cave
A mile south of the visitor center is Lava River Cave, a mile-long lava tube, Oregon’s longest. Berrin said the chance to go underground and view the lava’s unique legacy is “an opportunity to plunge yourself into a primitive environment.”
Lava River Cave’s entrance is nicknamed “the collapsed corridor” because the cave’s air mixes with the outside air to expand and contract cave’s walls and ceiling.
But rest easy, for there’s no record of rock fall over the past century.
Your cave adventure is perfectly safe as you reach the smooth sandy floor.
Be sure to stop along the way and examine what at first glance looks like a sort of “glazed” donut effect on the cave walls
“What you see here is almost like candle wax I guess,” noted Berrin.“It isn’t but it looks like it is. People think that the water is mixing with minerals and dripping – but that’s not what’s happening – this is solid basalt and hasn’t changed in 75,000 years. When the gasses got trapped, they re-melted the walls and all the walls started dripping again after they hardened.”
You can proceed for over a mile down an eerie passage through a tube where lava flowed, twisted, turned, and drained away.
You lose your sense of space and time and direction the minute you go into the cave and turn the lights out.
What remains is a lava tube that’s dark, cold, and massive. You must carry a flashlight or a lantern, of course, and when you put the light down low, and it’s really quiet, it’s also very spooky.
Berrin added, “The people who are very perceptive will put their lanterns down and out or set them aside and walk and sit and enjoy the silence of the cave.”
There is a nominal entrance fee, and lanterns can be rented to view this cavern. Be careful of ice and always carry two light sources if you descend into the cave.
It is an eerie experience – best enjoyed on a tour – which take place each afternoon – and like all of the lava lands experience – teaches you much about a unique chapter in oregon.
Lava River Cave is open May 1-October 15.
Wear boots to protect your feet and allow an hour for your trip. Remember, it’s akin to being your refrigerator, so dress for the cold. Lighting is also critical and while lanterns can be rented, I always take a backup flashlight too.