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Exploring Lava Caves with Wanderlust Tours

I’m not sure if it was a good or a bad idea to read Journey to the Center of the Earth just before exploring lava tube caves on our trip to Central Oregon, but either way, it made it more exciting. Before our trip, our only experiences underground were at Howe Caverns in New York and a few steps into the pitch black Thurston Lava Tube at Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when our friends at the Central Oregon Visitor’s Association suggested a lava tube cave tour with Wanderlust Tours.

What we didn’t expect but were excited to discover was that we would be two of a group of four exploring a giant underground lava tube all by ourselves with just our headlamps and awesome guide Danny to lead the way. Our trip to Howe Caverns was a bit like Disneyland…we started with an animatronics exhibit explaining the history then we were herded into groups and shuttled down the elevator to underground caverns where there were handrails to protect us and strategically placed lighting to increase the drama. While that trip evoked plenty of oohs and aahs for the wonderful rock formations it was a little disappointing on the exploration factor. It was a completely different experience with Wanderlust Tours.

To start, our guide Danny has a background in education and also runs naturalist tours. Combined with his energetic personality, our tour started off strong and continued to educate and entertain even when we were in a big, black tube with nothing around by rock and dust. On the drive out to our caving adventure he told us all about the landscape, the volcano, the history of the area, the plant life and even how the Native Americans used rye grass to create rope.

Lava tube caves in Bend Oregon

The landscape around Skeleton Cave

We travelled about 20-30 minutes from Wanderlust’s offices in Bend until we were bumping over dirt roads and then we needed to get out and hike the rest of the way. You see, this wasn’t just any cave tour. We were going to Skeleton Cave, which is only open to commercial tours and Wanderlust is the only tour company with access. That means it is just the five of us and miles of lava tube to explore.

As soon as we approached this gaping hole in the earth we could feel the cool air rushing out at us as if there was something alive down there drawing us in.

Skeleton cave lava tube in Bend Oregon

The entrance to Skeleton Cave

We descended the ladder, unlocked the gate, strapped on our helmets, flipped on our headlamps and we were off — into the dark — into the center of the earth. Altogether we walked over half a mile into the cave and there really wasn’t a lot to see — no underground lakes, no amazing rock formations. Unlike caverns, this cave was formed by a gushing river of lava that left behind a giant tube and as we were walking through this tube with Danny explaining its history, it was all too easy to imagine a rush of lava coming at us from one of the volcanoes nearby that are long overdue for an eruption.

Lava tube cave tour with Wanderlust Tours

Danny explaining the cave’s history

After walking through the dust that has accumulated over the years and clambering over a few (not recent) cave ins, we came to a fork in the road. Since we had an adventurous group, we decided to take the road less travelled and get the real cave explorer experience. To do so we needed to climb over some rocks and get down on our hands and knees and then our bellies to venture into new territory. This was the caving experience we had missed out on during our cavern tour last year!

Lava Tube Cave exploring with Wanderlust Tours in Bend Oregon

Doing the worm to crawl through tiny spaces

After climbing over a few more cave ins, spinning around and seeing if we could find our way out, and experimenting with creating sparks in the dark by chewing wintergreen Life Savers (go ahead, you can try this at home in the dark), it was time to head back toward the warmth of the sun.

Climbing in lava tube caves in Bend Oregon with Wanderlust Tours

Climbing through the cave

We had a great time on our tour and enjoyed having a very unique experience. Anyone can go visit the Lava River Cave near Lava Lands off Route 97 if they want a basic cave experience with a large group of people, artificial lighting and paved pathways, but if you really want to feel like an explorer, a tour with Wanderlust is the way to go.

Tips for Exploring the Lava Tube Caves

1. Β Dress warm. It is 45-48 degrees underground and you’ll need some layers like a fleece or a heavy sweatshirt.

2. Wear long pants. If you want to go crawling through caves, you are not going to want to do it in shorts, trust me. My knees were hurting even crawling over the rocky ground in yoga pants.

3. Wear sturdy shoes. One of our tour members managed in flats but I’d highly recommend hiking boots or sturdy shoes for climbing over rocks. Keep in mind that the floor of the cave is covered in an inch or more of fine dust so whatever you wear is going to get pretty dirty.

4. Bring a small backpack with anything you want to bring along — a camera, water, etc. — because you are going to want to keep your hands free.

5. Don’t go if you are scared of the dark or get claustrophobic — this tour is not for you!

6. UPDATED: A reader pointed out that because of the dust accumulation, this activity is not a good choice for those with asthma or respiratory problems! Thanks Carolyn for the tip!

Exploring lava tube caves with Wanderlust Tours in Bend Oregon

Journeying to the center of the earth

Wanderlust Tours offers lava tube cave tours daily in the summer with departures at 9:00 am and 1:30 pm. Tours are offered at $60 per adult and $55 for children under 12. Children over five years old are welcome and Wanderlust provides transportation and the helmets and headlamps. Wanderlust also offers kayaking, canoeing, biking and brew tours.

Exploring Lava Tube Caves in Central Oregon

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Note: We were guests of Wanderlust Tours and Central Oregon Visitor’s Association. We appreciate their hospitality but their generosity did not influence our opinions above.

9 Comments on “Exploring Lava Caves with Wanderlust Tours

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  1. Great article, Tamara! It looks fun although I’m probably too claustrophobic to explore these caves myself πŸ™‚

      Miriam, it was really dark but the main tube was actually quite big. But you definitely wouldn’t want to have to crawl through any openings. It was a very unique experience! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. πŸ™‚

    It does sound like a fascinating and educational experience but I’m afraid that I would be too claustrophobic to venture into the lava tube caves – and too worried about the creepy crawlies that could be hiding in the dark!

      I hear you Lisa! Luckily there isn’t anything living in these caves, it was actually really dusty and very large inside but definitely not for you if you are claustrophobic. Very different experience though. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    That looks like so much fun. I guess it is no more claustrophobic than most economy class airline sections. πŸ™‚

    The scenery there is breathtaking. I love caving!! But, it’s hard work! We went to caving a few years ago here in KY… I was so sore the next day from climbing in and out of all these crevices – haha. πŸ™‚

    Caving is so much fun! Looks like you enjoyed yourselves here. Great tips too.

    Looks cool! And it’s funny that you read Journey to the Center of the Earth before going. Haha! Love that movie!

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