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Aug. 15, 2022

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Oregon offers cave tours with chasers

Geography of Deschutes National Forest was shaped by volcanoes

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Deschutes National Forest is home to some 600 lava tube caves.
Deschutes National Forest is home to some 600 lava tube caves. (Chris Pleasance/Wanderlust/TNS) (Chris Pleasance/Wanderlust) Photo Gallery

DESCHUTES NATIONAL FOREST, Ore. — We are in one of the darkest, quietest places on Earth: an ancient subterranean cave in Central Oregon’s volcanic, sage-covered high desert. At this moment, 30 feet underground and about 3,000 feet in, our naturalist guide has instructed us to turn off our headlamps and remain silent for one minute.

We’ve hiked and scrambled our way through this chilly, rock-filled cave, one of 600 in the 1.6 million-acre forest. But this part — the sensory deprivation — is harder. I search to name the feeling washing over me. Is it calm? Fear? Boredom? Courtney Braun of Wanderlust Tours, the only guide company permitted in this gated cave, tells us to wave a hand in front of our face.

I do, and I swear I can see it. “You didn’t,” she says. “That’s your brain telling you that you did.”

Caving is so much more than walking through unpaved tunnels. Oregon is the most volcanic state in the country after Hawaii — but you have to go underground to see it. The caves inside Deschutes National Forest, which resulted from a river of rapidly cooling lava that descended from the Newberry Volcano tens of thousands of years ago, are a peek into that geography and history and the delicate ecosystems that remain.

Today’s excursion, a Prohibition Tour inside Skeleton Cave, was inspired by the moonshine distillation stills discovered inside the cave years ago. So we’ll wrap up the adventure appropriately with a tasting at Oregon Spirit Distillers back in town. And later this week, we plan to explore the city’s food cart pods and spend a day fly-fishing on the nearby Crooked River.

We started today’s tour at Wanderlust’s headquarters in Bend, where we met our fellow cavers and hopped in Braun’s van for the trip out to the ponderosa pine-studded forest. After a quick safety lesson and sanitation protocols to protect the bats that hibernate here in the winter, we secure our helmets, descend a flight of stairs and step inside the cool, 45-degree cave.

Historically, the mouth of this cave and others like it have been reliable places for animals to seek water or shade, and there have been bones discovered to prove it. The most noteworthy belonged to a horse from the Pleistocene era and a prehistoric bear at least one third larger than any living species. On our visit, we spot hyena bones and a tiny skull trapped in a skylight overhead.

Most of the tour is on foot, but as the tunnel narrows, we squat and climb over rock collapses, using the black manganese-covered walls to steady ourselves. You can see deposits of hydrated white silica and brown-orange iron as well.

With no light and little water, even the smallest fungus can cause serious damage to the bats that hibernate here or the unusual critters that spend their entire lives in the caves, like the near-translucent harvestman spider.

“People think, ‘It’s just rocks; it can handle anything,’” Braun says. But the fact is, you can’t even bring a bottle of Gatorade inside. “It has sugar in it, and if you spilled a little, it could form mold and turn around an entire ecosystem that’s already pretty fragile.”

I ponder this as we emerge from the cave and adjust to the afternoon light before heading out. Braun drives us to Oregon Spirit Distillers, where owner Brad Irwin is waiting to give us a tour of the whiskey-making facility and a tasting of several spirits, including his vodka, gin and absinthe (distilled above ground, not in the volcanic deep).

Sipping my Oregon Mule in the tasting room, I finally put my finger on what I felt in that sensory-deprived minute without light and sound: weightless. And free.


Wanderlust offers four lava cave tours (starting at $110 per person), including the Prohibition Tour, which is held in a variety of caves. The newest offering, the Starlight Cave Tour, is a night hike, with a blanket of stars greeting cavers on the way out. All tours include transportation, refreshments and gear. Find more information at www.wanderlusttours.com.

Oregon Spirit Distillers specializes in craft whiskey and also makes bourbon, vodka, gin, absinthe and limoncello. The tasting room and lounge, which offer food and craft cocktails, open at noon Tuesday through Saturday at 740 N.E. First St. in Bend; https://oregonspiritdistillers.com.

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