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Walk On The Wildside: Hiking ‘Lava Tube’

Photo by Hunter Franklin ’19 | Hikers are blurred along with their flashlights during a long exposure photograph as they walk the giant Lava River Tube Sunday, July 24, 2016, in Flagstaff, Ariz.

By Hunter Franklin ‘19

Hiking at the Lava River Cave just west of Flagstaff provides an exciting and challenging opportunity to explore subterranean passageways.

Being avid adventurers, my family and I are always looking to try new things, so one weekend we decided to go on a hike in a lava tube.

Geologists believe this lava tube was formed sometime in between 650,000 and 700,000 years ago when lava erupted from a volcanic vent in nearby Hart Prairie, only to be discovered by some lumbermen hundreds of thousands of years later in 1915.

The lava tube was out in the middle of nowhere, 14 miles west of Flagstaff in the Coconino National Forest to be exact.  

We veered off the highway and ventured deep into the woods on a bumpy dirt road, kicking up dust wherever we went.

We passed a couple of cow pastures, receiving some moos.

Eventually, we found an established dirt parking lot among the tall-ponderosa pines, marked with logs with a dirt foot path, leading to the lava tube.

We arrived at the stony-rimmed entrance crater to the lava tube and we carefully hiked down into the pitch black abyss with headlamps turned on.

As we entered the mouth of the lava tube, there was a sudden and drastic temperature change.

While waiting outside, we had been sweating in the blistering dry summer heat but upon entering the cave we felt a cool breeze that was chilling to the bone.

It got so cold that we had to put on our jackets.

It had gone from 85 and sunny to 40 degrees and pitch black.

The toughest part was the 60-foot climb down in which you had to carefully navigate big rocks with large spaces between them. Lots of gripping hands and careful footwork is needed.

We could see our breath on every exhale, especially near the entrance to the cave. There are usually lots of other hikers in the cave, but at times we were completely alone. It was very eerie. Somehow, always thinking of the worst case scenario, I thought of all the cave horror movies where cave creatures dragged unsuspecting adventurers into deep tunnels, never to be seen again.

As we made our way forward the ceiling of the tunnel lowers and rises causing us to have to hunch over on all fours and shimmy until we could lift our heads up without hitting the rocky roof.

The cave’s height ranges from 30 feet to less than two feet. It also widens and narrows.

The lava tube eventually gets too tight for anyone to fit and that’s when we realized we’d reached the end of the tunnel and began our long journey back to surface where you can see the light again and warm up.

Walking over jagged and sometimes slippery rocks of various shapes and sizes, we stumbled our way forward.

One of times we were hiking in the tube, we had to administer first aid to a woman who hit her head and got a nasty gash upon climbing out.

What we were able to see really depended on how many flashlights or headlamps we brought with us as well as how much foot traffic there was in the tube. You can’t see anything without a flash light, so come prepared.

Some advice from our experience is that headlamps are better than flashlights since they free up both hands.

Make sure to wear proper footwear such as hiking boots since sure footing is a must. At one point, you’ll reach a fork in the tunnel.

It won’t matter which way you go, because they both end up connecting again as part of the main single tube.

Heading back, you tend to move quicker having gotten good grasp of your surroundings and the only real difficulty you face again is climbing out on top of 60 feet of rocks.

The lava tube is about 0.75 miles one way, the longest cave of its kind in Arizona. All in all the Lava River Cave hike is a great experience that I would recommend to hikers and spelunkers alike.

For more information visit http://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/arizona/lava-river-cave as well as https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g60971-d1157200-Reviews-Lava_River_Cave-Flagstaff_Arizona.html.