The Marble Halls of Oregon

I have a confession to make.  I’m not a big fan of caves.  Yeah, they’re fascinating, and I can appreciate the artful hand of Mother Nature, but they run counter to three things on which I thrive:  open space, warmth, and sunlight!

Nevertheless, as I was plotting my course from the Redwoods parks to Crater Lake (spoiler alert!), I couldn’t help but notice the exquisitely twisty, windy road accessing Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserves highlighted on my Butler map.  Hmm, that looks like a nice little stop along the way!  Plus, the route took me on US-199 through the Six Rivers National Forest and along the Smith River.  OK, looks like a good place to explore along the way! 

US-199 is part of the Smith River Scenic Byway, which runs smack through some of California’s Redwood state forests.
Beautiful views of the Smith River right off US-199.
I kept seeing this tree along the side of the road and loved the way the bark looked.  I later found out that it’s a Madrone Tree, which is iconic to the Pacific Northwest…and apparently makes great firewood according to a woman at a local grocery store when asked about the tree 🙂
It’s about 30 miles on OR-46 from the Oregon Caves Illinois Valley Visitors Center  (right off US-199) to the Oregon Caves Tours and Visitors Center at the end of OR-46 (ends at the actual caves).  The whole of OR-46 is pretty scenic, but that last 8 mile section before you hit the caves is pretty fun!  Highway199.org 

I’ve really learned to slow down and enjoy Ranger talks and tours, and Oregon Caves was no exception.  I picked up a ton of info from the Ranger who led us on a 1.5 hour tour through the 44 degree caves, which was actually bearable (with a sweatshirt) on a 90+ degree day!  I learned that, like Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, Oregon Caves is a solution cave, meaning it was formed as acidic rainwater and groundwater seeped through cracks and pores to reach, and dissolve, the rock below, creating open gaps like caves and tunnels.  In the case of Mammoth Caves, the type of rock dissolved was primarily limestone, whereas in Oregon Caves, the acidic rainwater crept through the forest floor, dissolving primarily marble rock below.  You can learn more about the different types of caves, and where they are found, HERE.

The entrance to Oregon Caves was much less elaborate than Mammoth Caves, but provided an upright opening, as opposed to the original, crawl-in entry point, just a few feet away.  There are 12 known caves in the Monument, including Oregon Caves, which is the largest known cave in the Siskiyou Mountains. –NPS website
The Ranger leading our tour shone her flashlight onto the cave ceiling to illuminate the marble above us.
There were numerous speleothems (fancy name for cave features formed by the deposition of minerals) throughout the cave.  I always confused stalactites and stalagmites, but the Ranger gave us a cool way to remember the difference between the two…stalacTITEs hold TIGHT to the ceiling, and you MIGHT trip over a stalagMITE on the floor!  I’m a big fan of mnemonics…that’s how I made it through all my schooling!!
Rough bumpy clusters of calcite formation like this are called popcorn.  –NPS website
Most of the cave was easily accessible by walking upright and climbing a few steps, but there was one optional area that required the ascent, and descent, of pretty steep stairs to view a whole “room” of formations that hung down like curtains, called drapery. Creepy and beautiful all at the same time.  
The Ranger shone her flashlight through some rocks to illuminate the quartz within.  You can’t see it very well in this pic, but it looked like the rock was glowing…so cool!

At the end of the tour, we emerged from the cave and blinked at the bright sunlight and started stripping off sweatshirts and coats to accommodate the heat.  It was the end of the cave tour, but the hike back to the Visitors Center and the ride back down were both awesome!

It’s a bit of an uphill hike back to the Visitors Center and parking lot once you emerge from the caves, but it’s through gorgeous woods!

Even though caves are not my favorite sites to visit, I always learn something new every time I go in one. It’s amazing that all of this is under our feet!

Next up…Crater Lake!

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