If you are looking for a refreshing way to beat summer’s sweltering heat and you want to learn something new about Oregon, consider a natural place that’s more akin to a walk-in cooler.
Central Oregon’s High Cascades Mountains provide recreation heaven on earth with snowcapped peaks, deep green forests and inviting pockets of ponds, lakes and grassy meadows.
Closer to ground, discover that it is countryside born of fire and where more than 400 buttes or cinder cones dot the landscape from a time when volcanoes were kings of the high desert landscape.
Nearly 7,000 years ago, volcanic lava exploded into the air, oozed across the ground or traveled underground for several miles around the Newberry Crater National Monument.
The above-ground evidence is obvious at places like the Lava Lands Visitor Center near Bend, but if you want a firsthand and personalized tour of the underground volcanic system, Wanderlust Tours will provide you a helmet, a headlamp and an expert guide like Courtney Braun.
Braun will teach you much about a fascinating world that is hiding in plain sight. Courtney led our small party a short distance from the Skeleton Cave parking area to discover that a hike inside “Skeleton Cave” is perfect for the curious.
“We enter a tube of lava that is more than forty miles from the Newberry Volcano,” note Braun. “The lava flowed from there through here and it created this huge tunnel several thousand years ago. The river of lava flowed, then emptied and left behind this hollow tunnel.”
Skeleton Cave is nearly 2900 feet long and drops 100 feet across that distance. It is also a constant 44-F. And about that name – Skeleton Cave – it is based upon varied animal bones that were discovered inside nearly a century ago.
“Varied animals became trapped inside – including a horse and a giant bear, said Braun. “The bear was 20 percent bigger than any bear that lives today and its bones ended up in the Smithsonian back in the 1930’s.”
Access into Skeleton Cave is gated from the general public use – (Wanderlust Tours currently holds the concession from the US Forest Service to run tours beginning May 1 and through the summer season.)
The access is limited because of damage to the cave interior and was implemented several years ago to protect the fragile environment that gets pitch black in a heartbeat.
Doug and Bernice Hein and their three grandsons joined the adventure and each of them seemed comfortable with the caving experience.
Doug Hein noted that the youngsters felt right at home: “They’re all natural climbers and love to learn about new things.”
“Plus, it’s an intriguing and mysterious world,” added Bernice. “It is such a good learning experience for them too.”
“I like kids to experience that aspect of nature,” said Braun. “Even the adults wil say, “cool-real cool.’ Total darkness sparks more interest or excitement about caves.”
It is eerie excitement to be sure – best enjoyed on a guided tour – which take place daily and will teach you much about a unique chapter in Oregon’s past.
“It is a part of history,” added Bernice Hein. “And we’re not able to participate in that very often so this is a great opportunity.”