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Hidden Gem: Trekking to Nature’s Basement

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A look inside Lava River Cave in Arizona. Photo courtesy Alberto Perez, via the US Forest Service.
A look inside Lava River Cave in Arizona. Photo courtesy Alberto Perez, via the US Forest Service.

Pack a few sources of light, some sturdy shoes and a warm jacket for a mile-long stroll through a 700,000-year-old cave in Arizona. Formed by molten rock that erupted from a volcanic vent in nearby Hart Prairie, Lava River Cave is one of the creepiest ways to cool off in the Arizona summer.

The cave is as cool as 42F in the summer months, and you may even find some ice inside. The rocks are slippery and sharp, and natural light is virtually nonexistent as you get farther from the entrance.

With your own sources of light, you’re able to examine the wave-like undulations in the floor that are remains of ripples frozen in the last trickle of molten rock that flowed from the cave. Watch your head—stone icicles hanging from the ceiling show where a final blast of volcanic heat caused the rock to partially re-liquefy and drip. The cave is occasionally used by animals and insects, including crickets, beetles, porcupines, squirrels and bats. All of these creatures are shy, and since so many people visit Lava River Cave, it is rare to actually see them while you are in the cave.

If You Go:

The cold, dark conditions require a few precautions and a bit of preparation. The cave is not recommended for people with physical handicaps because of extreme steep, narrow and rocky terrain.

  • Each person in your group should carry three sources of light.
  • Wear sturdy soled shoes that protect you from slipping or twisting your ankle.
  • Wear warm clothes.
  • A hard hat will protect you from bumping your head.
  • Leave notice with friends of your planned trip and return time.
Getting there:

The cave is 14 miles north of Flagstaff on paved highways and graveled Forest Service roads. Travel time is about 45 minutes. Drive 9 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. 180 and turn west (left) on FR 245 (at milepost 230). Continue 3 miles to FR171 and turn south 1 mile to where FR 171B turns left a short distance to Lava River Cave.

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