Credit: Coleman Becker

The Lava River Caves of Flagstaff

Do you dare explore caves where hot lava once flowed?

Summer in the Valley of the Sun can feel like summer on the surface of the sun, so we, along with hundreds of other Phoenicians, make the trek north to Flagstaff to escape the heat. It was during a summer family getaway, that a local suggested we check out the Lava Tubes. Both my husband and I have been visiting "Flag" since we were kids and neither of us had ever heard of the "Lava Tubes," so we decided to take the kids on an adventure.

The proper name for the Tubes is actually Lava River Cave, and about 700,000 years ago it was literally a river of lava that formed a mile-long cave/tube. According to US Department of Agriculture/Forest Service, "molten rock erupted from a volcanic vent and the top, sides and bottom of the flow cooled and solidified first, after which the insides of the lava river continued to flow emptying out the present cave." You have to get off the beaten path to find this adventure, but it's worth it.

The road leading up to the cave is unpaved, but it's maintained by the Forest Service, so it's in good shape. We literally looked for mile marker 230 off of US 180 and forest service road signs to find the place. It's actually pretty cool because the cave is situated in the middle of the forest and it's not crowded. When we parked the car and looked for the entrance, it was not immediately obvious because the cave is underground. After tramping around for a few minutes, we finally figured out that the people loitering around a large pile of volcanic rocks must be either entering or exiting the cave. We were correct.

The first time we attempt ed to hike the cave, our youngest child was three and we were pathetically ill-prepared: short sleeves, open-toed shoes, no flashlight and a child who was much shorter than some of the rocks. We probably made it half-way into the cave from sheer luck and the kindness of others (we mooched the light of other peoples' flashlights and headlamps). By the time we made it out of the cave, my back was broken from holding my youngest while bending over to avoid some of the low ceilings, we were freezing because it's about 42 degrees in the cave and everyone's feet were a little banged up from improper footwear

The second time we went, we were prepared, made it to the end of the cave and had a great time. As the self-proclaimed oracle of the Lava River Cave, please consider my advice when planning your trip:

1. Wait until your kids are old enough to navigate by themselves. Some of the rocks you'll be stepping over, under or between are large and slippery, and it's challenging to do it alone much less when you're trying to help little ones

2. Dress appropriately - pants, long-sleeves, a light jacket (if you're easily chilled), close-toed shoes, like hiking boots, with good ankle support and grip and a hat. There are places in the cave where the ceiling is low, so the hat helps mitigate a bump on the head.

3. Flashlight, headlamp or both. It's dark in the cave. Really dark. So make sure every member of your party has a flashlight/headlamp for safety reasons, but also so they can see the walls and ceilings of the cave. It's purportedly 700,000 years old and it was formed by a volcano - how cool is that!

4. Water and snacks. You're going to get a good workout, so make sure you have fueled up before and after your adventure.

5. Super Hero BandAids - just in case someone gets a scrape.

6. Don't wash the car before you go, because, despite your best efforts, you're still going to end up with red dust on your car. If it rains, red mud instead.

About the Author

Jamie Daer

Jamie Daer is an Arizona native and mother of three – who she routinely drags around looking for adventure in beautiful Arizona and the other great 49 states. She is the Director of Advertising for the Arizona Office of Tourism.


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