Does it count at spelunking if you have explore a cave that has already been mapped and outfitted with walkways and staircases? Oh, and you also go with a group led by a park ranger? Well, in my mind it does!
This weekend, I knocked another item off my ‘To Do Before I Move” list: the Oregon Caves National Monument. Just under two hours from Crescent City, these ancient marble caves lie deep in the Siskiyou Mountains. Once you head off Highway 199, you drive* 20 miles up winding mountain roads (rarely topping 35 mph) to an elevation of about 4,000 feet. There’s a National Parks Service building that houses rangers as well as a chalet for guests. Unfortunately, the Chalet doesn’t reopen until May, so our visit was just a day trip.
The caves had just reopened a few weeks ago, since snow makes access difficult in winter. A recent snowstorm delayed our visit, but a few sunny days last week meant there was plenty of melting snow runoff to keep the caves drippy, wet, and slippery. I’m glad I read the online information, so we were prepared with lots of clothing layers (the caves are always cold), proper shoes, and nothing else.
Warnings abound on the web site and at the tour orientation. The cave tour involves 500 stairs. All surfaces are wet and slippery. There are no handrails along some of the tour. Water will shower down upon you. There are areas just 46 inches high, where you must walked hunched over. Some passageways are narrow. There is only one chance, halfway through the 90-minute tour, to leave if you get claustrophobic. I began to get nervous. What if I was too fat to fit through the narrow passageways. Would I get claustrophobic (even though I never have had a fear of small spaces)?
Oh, and there are bats.
Yep, bats. They are still hibernating in the caves, so we had to use a different entrance to avoid their sleeping quarters. But we did see one who was nestled into nook along the exit passageway. It was tiny, furry, and adorable! No pics, though, since we can’t disturb the wildlife. We were also questioned about whether we’d visited any other caves in the last six years, so as to avoid bringing white-nose syndrome to the caves. Apparently, unless you boil your clothing, the spores can survive and be transmitted to new bats.
Warnings and fears of killing the entire bat population aside, the tour was fascinating and beautiful. The marble formations were amazing, especially when you consider how many hundreds of thousands of years it took for them to develop, one drip at a time. Our guide was pleasant and informative, and his passion for the caves made it fun. I won’t, however, be rushing back to do the off-trail tours, which involve lighted helmets, knee pads, and crawling through small crevasses. But I would like to take the tour during the summer months, when the bats are active (eating 1000 mosquitoes an hour!) and there are other cave rooms to explore. A Google Images search will give you some stunning photos of what I saw.
In the end, the warnings appear to be a good way to keep those out who might not have the stamina to climb all the stairs or manage the slippery surfaces. But the tour traveled at a leisurely pace so that we could see everything, making it far less strenuous than I feared. On the drive home, though, I found that after a year of living at sea level, an hour of walking and climbing stairs at 4,000 feet can leave you very sleepy.
*As we ascended the mountain for our adventure, the ‘fuel low’ light came on. For the second time in our hybrid vehicle’s life, we were lucky to run low on fuel at the TOP of a mountain. We coasted, with the car in neutral and the engine off, down the mountain for nearly 20 miles, where the road meets Highway 199–with a gas station right on the corner.