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5 Reasons Lava River Cave is the Coolest Cave You’ve Never Seen

Cheyenne Reed



Lava River Cave is located just north of Flagstaff, Arizona. This enormous cave was formed by lava and is a spelunking paradise. Still not convinced of its greatness? Check out these 5 reasons why the Lava River Cave is the coolest and we bet you’ll change your mind.

1) Lava River Cave was Discovered by Lumbermen Way Back in 1915

The interior of the Lava River Cave.
Flickr User David Tedesco
Flickr User David Tedesco

Nestled into the Coconino National Forest and just fourteen miles north of Flagstaff, this cave is a true geological find! At nearly a mile long, there’s a whole lot of geologic history to explore. I mean, how often do you get to stand on what used to be hot, flowing lava? It is sometimes referred to as “Government Cave” because of its location on the eastern edge of Government Prairie and southeast edge of Government Peak. Since it is part of a national forest, the United States Forest Service manages the cave.

2) The Cave Was Formed 650,000 – 700,000 Years Ago!

Flickr User Roaming Together
Flickr User Roaming Together

Technically classified as a lava tube cave, geologists can learn a lot about the formation of the cave simply by looking at its rocks. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, there was a volcano in the nearby Hart Prairie. When molten lava erupted from here, the top, sides, and bottom of the cave cooled more quickly and solidified, while the middle — where the cave is now — was left to flow away. You can find both Aʻā and Pāhoehoe basaltic lava here! Not only that, but a close inspection of the cave’s rocks tells you even more about how they formed. Wave marks on the floor visibly show the path that flowing lava took as it exited the cave, and icicle-like rock formations hanging from the ceiling resulted from extreme volcanic heat that partially liquefied the ceiling.

3) Make Sure You’re Prepared for the Lava River Cave

Flickr User David Tedesco
The Lava River Cave.
Flickr User David Tedesco

While it might be toasty warm out under the Arizona sun, you won’t find the same welcoming conditions inside the cave. Inside, temperatures vary only slightly between seasons, and you’ll find that it can be quite chilly — 45 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 35 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Don’t be surprised if you see ice! Even though the cave is generally dry, the extreme temperature difference leads to condensation that often freezes. This especially happens near the floor and ceiling and can make for slippery conditions. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes that you’re comfortable hiking in as well as warm clothing and a jacket. You’ll certainly be thankful later when the lighted mouth of the cave is far behind you.

4) Exploring the Cave Isn’t Necessarily a Walk in the Park…

Flickr User David Tedesco
Flickr User David Tedesco

As with most natures masterpieces, the conditions of Lava River Cave can vary pretty drastically. In some sections of the cave, you’ll find that the going is quite easy. A maximum height of thirty feet gives you more than enough headroom. But, in other places, you might find that the height of the cave decreases drastically. With only two or three feet of height in some places, navigating parts of the cave can be tricky. There are no light sources in the cave, and it won’t be long before the mouth of the cave is out of sight behind you, so it’s very important to bring reliable light sources. It’s recommended that you bring multiple light sources, just to be safe. It can be quite dark nearly a mile away from the only light source!

5) You Can Visit the Lava River Cave for Free

Interior of the Lava River Cave in Arizona. People are spelunking with artificial lighting.
Flickr USer Nicholas Schnur
Flickr USer Nicholas Schnur

Unlike some of the more well-known attractions, there are no entrance or use fees to see this natural wonder. Another awesome feature is that the cave is open year-round, so you’re free to visit whenever you choose. The single exception to this rule is that, in the winter, some roads may close or become impassable to passenger cars. Fear not, though, because you’re welcome to hike or ski the remaining distance to the cave. Sadly, since the 1960s, litter and graffiti have been problematic. In 1991, though, a major restoration was done. And it seems that today’s visitors are more environmentally aware of how important it is to preserve this incredible location. Do your part and leave no trace when you visit this awesome place!

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