The Caves of Central Oregon
with descriptions and figures of common and uncommon lava tube features
By Matt Skeels, Photos by Brent McGregor
Bend and its sister cities of Redmond, La Pine, and Sisters, act as a central hub for caving activities in Oregon. Deschutes County, in which they reside, contains the most caves in Oregon with the current count at over 690! It is projected that the amount of caves in Deschutes County will continue upward toward 800 as new caves are discovered each year.
While 690 is a staggering amount of caves, in sum it is not a very diverse group since out of those 690 known caves, 577 are lava tubes. Out of the remaining 113 caves, the majority consist of caves that originated from lava, usually in the form of OVCs (open vertical conduits), spatter cone caves, inflationary caves, fissure vents, bubbles, and lava molds. Including these with the 577 total, that leaves only 42 caves that were not specifically created by processes that involved actively flowing lava. However, many of the remaining 42 caves are located in volcanic bedrock of one nature or another.
Out of the 42 non-lava caves, most are rift caves or fissures, which are giant cracks that have split the volcanic rock apart. Fissures form along rift zones which occur along shield volcanoes or calderas. Rift zones are created by internal pressure from upwelling magma below. The pressure of the rock splits the crust apart leaving fissures, some of which can be up to 150 feet deep in the central Oregon area.
Rockshelters, sometimes called just “shelters,” are small overhangs of rock and they too make up a good portion of the remaining 42 non-lava caves, even though a lot of them occur in volcanic rocks such as welded tuff or andesite. Rockshelters can form in various ways, usually through erosional processes that carve out bits of rock over time. The most common erosional processes are water, wind, and gravitational erosion. Because most rockshelters form through erosional means, rockshelters can also be labeled as erosional caves. Shelters are prevalent throughout our area, often occurring in the rim rock of ancient lava flows, or in the eroded faces of welded tuff such as is found at Smith Rock.
Some of the remaining caves that are not fissures or shelters are snow caves, also called ablation caves. Snow caves are not to be confused with glacier caves, which as the name suggests, form in glaciers. Snow caves in Deschutes County mostly occur in locations where heat venting occurs near volcano summits leaving melted snow cavities. These snow caves are usually a temporary occurrence and form each winter.
Finally, a few talus caves exist and they are defined as loose boulders that have fallen in such a manner as to leave interior spaces between them. They typically occur in rim rock or along faults that have dislodged rocks haphazardly.
This is the makeup of caves in Deschutes County, but in the greater central Oregon area the diversity of caves increases a bit. While more lava tubes and other kinds of lava caves are found in the adjacent counties, some fascinating and unique caves exist in the form of “piping” caves. Piping is a form of water erosion that occurs internally within an unconsolidated rock material. Central Oregon holds the unchallenged distinction of having the largest piping cave in North America.
Let’s talk lava caves
The central Oregon region is dotted with cinder cones and volcanoes and all that comes with them. Lava flows of andesite, basalt, rhyolite, and dacite ranging from pahoehoe, aa, to block lava. Lava caves can form in all of these different kinds of lava flows, but the large majority of them will be found in basaltic lava flows of a pahoehoe consistency. Lava tubes are the most common type of lava caves and generally speaking, they form when an active lava flow surface begins to cool and harden but the interior remains molten forming horizontal conduits that channel the extruding lava down the path of least resistance. Once the lava ceases to flow, any remaining lava in the conduit drains leaving behind lava tubes. Sometimes it can take a year or longer before it is cool enough to enter a newly formed lava tube.
Deschutes County currently has 577 known lava tubes, although many more are expected to be found, and yet still more are speculated to exist under the landscape but lack a natural entrance. Lava tubes form natural entrances usually during the initial lava flow or immediately after when the lava flow cools and contracts. Weak structural points in the lava tube ceiling cause it to collapse, leaving a hole to the surface. It is also possible that lava tube entrances are sections of the lava flow that never formed a roof. These are usually found very near the vent of the lava flow where the temperatures were too great to allow cooling or inconsistent flow volumes collapsed the lava tube ceiling structure.
Lava tube systems are a series of lava tubes that belong to a single lava flow. A good example of this is the Arnold Lava Tube System (see photo just below). All the caves in this flow were formed in a singular event around 80,000 years ago. A system also denotes a main lava tube conduit, sometimes called the master tube, that functioned as a conduit through which most of the lava was channeled. This is a key distinction between other lava flows that have lava tubes within them, but lack a master tube. Instead, these flows have multiple tubes that dispersed the lava in multiple directions. This usually results in lava tubes of smaller proportions.
This region has two well known lava tube systems, the Arnold and Horse Lava Tube Systems, both of which are roughly 80,000 years old and were formed from a singular event on the north flank of Newberry Volcano. There are other lava tube systems in the area, but they are not as developed as the Arnold or Horse systems. Sometimes they can have as few as four tubes in the system, and yet others can have dozens of caves, but by comparison small and short.
You will rarely find a cave in central Oregon that is larger than those of the Arnold and Horse systems. These extensive systems are home to some of the biggest and longest caves in Deschutes County. The majority of the caves in the Horse system are on private property and are left to the whims and wishes of the landowners. Meanwhile, all but two caves of the Arnold system are on public land and they see a tremendous amount of impact from the average and not so average visitor. These caves get a fair share of trash and intentional vandalism every year, so it is imperative that we keep these caves clean and safe so that we may enjoy them for years to come and beyond into the future.
The lava tubes of central Oregon are found pretty much everywhere. Out in the high desert, up in the mountains, and in the city of Bend or elsewhere. They have been here for thousands of years, in some cases hundreds of thousands of years. The native Americans utilized them right up until westward expansion brought in the white settlers. When the settlers formed the town of Bend, they mined Arnold Ice Cave after Hugh O’Kane cornered the ice market. Even now, lava tubes have been incorporated into the structures of residential homes, often used as a natural and cheap way to cool the house during the hot summer months.
There are three main types of lava tubes in our area: unitary, multilevel and multilateral. Boyd Cave near Bend is a classic example of a unitary tube. It is a single tube that does not have multiple passageways connected to it. Multilevel tubes are lava tubes with more than one level. The tubes sit directly over one another and are traversable through connections in the floor or ceiling of the stacked tubes. Multilateral tubes are lava tubes with connected paralleling tubes, sometimes with as many as three or four paralleling tubes.
Similar to lava tubes, surface tubes form on the surface of lava flows as their name suggests. They usually have a narrow and small cross section, sometimes restricting exploration to only the smallest of animals. In some cases, they are large enough for a human adult to explore up to ten, fifteen or sometimes twenty feet or more. Surface tubes are formed when internal lavas from a young and immature lava tube extrude to the surface. In some instances, surface tubes can connect to larger conduits below. Surface tubes, like lava tubes, can take on different shapes by having multiple interconnected tubes.
Spatter cone caves are lava caves that form in or from spatter cones. Spatter cones are like miniature volcanoes that are located at the main vent of a lava flow. They sit atop emerging lavas and spout lava into miniature cones, sometimes leaving internal cavities upon cooling (see photo right). Spatter cone caves can simply be a hollow spatter cone, but others can take on similarities to surface tubes, and in some cases connecting a surface tube to a spatter cone.
Open Vertical Conduits, or OVCs, are vertical shafts that form at the main vent of a lava flow. They are similar to spatter cones but are often much larger in scale, originate deeper from under the surface and are typically adjoined to the base of a cinder cone. In most cases, OVCs are usually singular shafts and are examples where lava breached the surface long ago. But in rare circumstances OVCs can overlie lava tubes and connect to them. OVCs in central Oregon range from 23 feet deep to 150 feet for the deepest known. To safely explore an OVC, training with vertical gear and the single-rope technique should be utilized.
Inflationary caves are another kind of lava cave and in some cases can resemble lava tubes. Inflationary in this case means that the outer malleable crust of the lava flow inflates, or expands, creating caverns within. In some inflationary caves, as the surface is expanding, the interior wall linings lose their hold on the more solid interior and can begin to roll up as gravity takes over. This is called scrolling. Lava scrolls are common in inflationary caves and many can be observed in the Matz Caves. Some other inflationary caves are created when pressure ridges (also called a tumulus or tumuli) have their internal lavas vacate. These kinds of lava caves are very uncommon. They are usually entered on the top of the pressure ridge through its tension crack.
Fissure vents or rift tubes are hard to discern from regular lava tubes because they share so much in common. While technically speaking fissure vents can be considered a lava tube, they have a unique exception that sets them apart. They are lava tubes that form in rifts or fissures, usually at a lava vent from where the lava is issuing to the surface. Formation happens when internal pressure from lava cracks the surface and forms a fissure. Subsequent lavas then flow into this rift forming narrow lava tubes with high ceilings. There are only a few examples of rift tubes in our area.
Lava bubbles can form in basalt, but our most common examples in central Oregon formed in rhyolitic obsidian flows. The formation of bubble caves happens when pressurized bubbles form in partially molten rhyolite. These bubbles can reach the surface leaving depressions or partial collapses. The obsidian bubble caves of central Oregon are remnants of this activity and are some of the only known examples in the world.
Lava molds, sometimes erroneously referred to as lava tree casts, are empty cavities that once held the trunk of a tree. Typically formed in aa flows, a tree is partially or wholly engulfed by the advancing lava. As the tree burns, the lava cools just enough to form a crust around the trunk of the tree. Eventually the tree completely burns away leaving a hollow interior. Both vertical and horizontal tree molds have been found, sometimes leaving their bark imprints in the lining of the mold. In the state of Washington some horizontal tree molds connect two or more trees together. In California, one particular lava tube has vertical tree molds within the main passage and they appear as skinny lava poles from within the lava tube.
Common and uncommon features of lava tubes
Features of lava caves and lava tubes have been documented over the past decades. Some are rare, while others are commonplace. The lava tubes of the central Oregon region share many attributes. Probably the most common attribute is “breakdown.” Breakdown is a feature that forms while the lava tube is cooling and contracting. Walls or parts of ceilings collapse leaving boulders inside the cave (see photo right). Over time parts of a lava tube can continue to collapse although the majority of lava tubes have withstood thousands upon thousands of years and survived hundreds of earthquakes without losing their integrity.
Sand is also another common feature and it can invade a subterranean cavity by creeping through cracks on the surface and washing down with rain water (see Figure 1). It may also drain into a cave from a natural collapse entrance when excess rain water filters in such as by flash flooding. Over time, the sand and dirt can collect in areas and be acted upon by drip water to form elaborate shapes called “sand castles.” The commercial Lava River Cave used to have some amazing sand castles, but generations of visitors have treaded on them reducing them to a ghost of their former self. Sand castles are one of the rarest formations in central Oregon and when they do exist they are not extensively developed. Only a handful of lava tubes have them and only three outstanding examples remain (see Figure 2).
Original features from lava are multitudinous. They often take names like “original floor” or “original lining” which mean that the floor and walls (respectively) appear as they did when the lava stopped flowing many thousands of years ago (see Figure 3). But plenty more flow features exist. Cauliflower aa is a kind of original floor that showed the transitional stage from pahoehoe to aa inside the lava tube. It forms spiny or knobby bumps in the floor that in whole can form roped ridges showing the flow trend within the tube. Another uncommon original feature of lava tubes are shelves. They represent past lava flow levels within the lava tube. (see Figure 4)
Perhaps some of the most photogenic features of lava tubes are the delicate stalactites and stalagmites. Both are formed by dripping lava, sometimes together. A stalactite forms on the ceiling where lava seeps from ceiling cracks or from behind a wall lining. If this lava drips onto a stationary floor, it will collect into slim or stout spires called stalagmites (see Figure 5). Contrary to some beliefs, these stalactites and stalagmites will not grow back. Like all lava features in a lava tube, once the lava has stopped flowing it is done forever and will not return. This is why it is important to maintain a hands-off approach to these and other features. One misstep and you will have destroyed a feature that lasted for millennium but now cannot be enjoyed by others for the rest of time.
Secondary mineral formations are uncommon in lava tubes, but a few kinds do exist. Gypsum minerals can form along the ceilings, walls, and floors of a cave and look like a white thick crust about ¼ inch thick. Gypsum usually forms where water has invaded the cave in small quantities and air exchange has been kept to a bare minimum. One cave in particular, Feather Bed Cave, was broken into by a pipeline crew. It previously had no original entrance and its floor harbored a bed of gypsum powder one foot thick (see Figure 6).
Coralloids are another kind of secondary mineral that is very common in the semi-arid lava tubes of central Oregon. They are primarily siliceous in nature and very small. They look vaguely similar to coral, hence the name, but often take on the color of the surrounding lava rock. The size of coralloid is usually about the size of a bead, but larger specimens have been noted to be as large as a dime (see Figure 7). They too are extremely fragile and unlike other features they will grow back, albeit very slowly and over hundreds to thousands of years.
Another very common mineral formation is ice (see photo above). While not typically thought of as a mineral, it is nonetheless present in many lava tubes and often during winter months and late spring. While it does have the benefit of growing back rapidly and every year, it is still treated delicately and not to be touched so others can admire its unique subterranean character. In some caves, ice remains year round and does not melt out during the summer. In these cases, it is very important to maintain a no hands approach. Sometimes lava tubes can be referred to as “ice caves” which is misleading, because a lava tube is not primarily made out of ice. But if a cave contains ice year round it may be referred to as an ice cave.
Lava falls, like the name implies, resemble a waterfall but consist of lava rock. Unlike the waterfall, lava falls are no longer flowing, but are frozen in time, capturing the last flow of lava as it cascaded down an abrupt drop in the floor (see Figure 8). The only freestanding lava falls known are in Manjanggul Cave, South Korea.
Figure 1 - The sandy floors of Wolff's Teepee Cave.
Figure 2 - Some of the last remaining sand castles in Oregon. Note that some are half as tall as Matt Skeels in this photo.
Figure 3 - Original floor and walls in Lost and Found Cave.
Figure 4 - Shelves in Infinity Cave. Usually shelves overhang a little.
Figure 5 - Sam Loomis by a large diameter stalagmite.
Figure 6 - Thick gypsum bedding in a cave of eastern Oregon.
Figure 7 - Very large coralloids in Stookey Ranch Cave.
Figure 8 - Brent McGregor on top of a lava fall in Dynamited Cave.
The Oregon High Desert Grotto is an internal organization of the National Speleological Society. We are dedicated to the study and preservation of caves.
Membership in the Grotto is $10 a year and comes with an invitation to the Yahoo! Groups forum, access to the Grotto library, issues of the Oregon Underground newsletter, and information on yearly caving activities and trips.
Donations will go to the restoration fund.