Exploring Northern Arizona’s Lava River Caves
NEAR FLAGSTAFF – About 14 miles north of Flagstaff in the Coconino Forest, a network of caverns and lava-encased passages lie just below the feet of hikers, hunters and other recreation seekers.
This relatively small slit, hidden amongst boulders, will take you there. Just large enough to accommodate a grown a man, this doorway leads to a mile-long lave tube.
There’s some tricky footing near the beginning, and most adults will need to a crouch a little, but the cave quickly opens into a large corridor, the ceiling reaching 30 feet in some areas.
Dress warmly. The caves remain between 35 and 45 degrees F year round. You may encounter icicles and icy puddles, even in the middle of summer. The winter’s cold air settles into the caverns with no way to escape, and the lava serves as a superb insulator.
The passageway can be slippery, but overall, enjoyable for all fitness levels. A flashlight or headlamp is essential. It’s the only source of light you’ll have to navigate the rocky the path. The caves are stark, yet still fascinating. The lava formations hold their own unique beauty, similar to a desolate desert. It’s doubtful you’ll encounter any critters. Some bugs and bats visit the caves, yet they’re typically scared away by human visitors.
History of the Lava River Caves
According to the Coconino National Forest Service, these tubes were formed some 700,000 years ago by molten rock that erupted from a volcanic vent in nearby Hart Prairie. The top, sides and bottom of the flow cooled and solidified, as the insides of the lava river continued to flow, emptying out the present cave.
A group of lumbermen are credited with discovering the caves in about 1915. However, I have a strong hunch the Native Americans knew of the massive passageways long before.
Dubbed a “a natural museum,” this lava tube is the longest of its kind in Arizona. If fact, I doubt there are few places like it on Earth that are so easily accessible.
Facts at a Glance
- Season: The lava river caves are open all year, yet you may need skis in the winter. Weekends tend to busy, so visit the area during the weekdays to avoid the crowds.
- How to get there: Drive nine miles north of Flagstaff on US 180 and turn west on Forest Road 245, near milepost 230. Continue three miles to Forest Road 171 and turn south. Travel one mile to where Forest Road 171B turns left a short distance to Lava River Cave. Signs will guide you. The road is appropriate for all vehicles, and the parking lot is marked.
- What to bring: Warm clothes, jacket, flashlight or headlamp, water, athletic shoes or hiking boots.
- More info: Flagstaff Ranger District, (928) 526-0866
Have you ever been to Arizona’s Lave River Caves? Leave a comment about your experience.