Easy (cave tour)
220 feet elevation gain
Open late March to late November
Moderate (to Big Tree)
1125 feet elevation gain
Open late April to early December
Left: The Oregon Caves.
Poet Joaquin Miller’s praise of the “great Marble Halls of Oregon” helped promote National Monument status for Oregon Caves in 1909. Visitors today can join a guided tour for about $8.50 ($6 for children 16 and under), exploring narrow passageways and stairs to hidden rooms of cave formations. For a free hike above ground try the Big Tree Loop, crossing a forested Siskiyou mountainside to one of Oregon’s largest Douglas firs. Pets are banned on all park trails.
Right: The Oregon Caves Chateau.
The caves’ marble began as tropical island reefs in the Pacific Ocean. About 190 million years ago the advancing North American continent scraped up the island sediments to form this part of the Siskiyous. At first the land here was so wet that percolating ground water dissolved parts of the marble, forming pockets. When the land rose and the caves drained, dripping water gradually deposited calcite inside—much as a dripping faucet can stain a sink. Drips in the cave first form “soda straws,” thin tubes hanging from the ceiling. When the tubes get plugged, water runs down the outsides and forms thicker stalactites. If the drip is fast, it carries dissolved calcite to the cave floor to form a stalagmite.
Hunter Elijah Davidson discovered the cave in 1874 when his dog chased a bear into the entrance. Davidson lit matches to follow. When the last match died he found his way out of the darkness only by crawling along a cave-floor stream. After word spread of his find, early entrepreneurs damaged the cave by encouraging visitors to break off stalactites as samples, sign their names on the walls, and hug the white dripstone columns, darkening the rock. A cave operator who took over in the 1920s hoked up his tours with ghost stories, colored lights, and hidden growling men in lion skins—the origin of the Grants Pass caveman mascot. To preserve the cave, the National Park Service now urges visitors not to touch anything in the cave. Lighting is dim to discourage the moss and algae that grow near artificial lights.
Left: A caveman wedding in The Chapel in 1944.
To drive here, take Highway 199 south from Grants Pass 29 miles (or north from Crescent City 57 miles) to Cave Junction and follow “Oregon Caves” pointers east on Highway 46 for 20 miles to a turnaround. Unless you have lodge reservations, park here and walk the road 0.2 mile to the gift shop and cave entrance.
Cave tours leave about every half hour from 9am to 6pm in summer, and about every hour from 10am to 4pm in spring and fall. There are no tours between November 30 and mid March due to hibernating bats, and there are no tours mid-week in late April or November. Children under six must be 42 inches tall to join the tour, although special tours for families with kids may be offered by 2011. Don’t bring a flashlight or a backpack, but because it averages 42° F in the cave year-round, you’ll want warm clothes.
The 90-minute cave tour climbs 0.6 mile through the cave to an upper exit. From there the quickest return route is a 0.3-mile trail to the right.
If you’d rather hike to Big Tree, walk ...
Other Hiking Options
For a longer hike, ...
This chapter taken from the book 100 Hikes in Southern Oregon.