Central Oregon is a landscape shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of volcanic activity. In some cases, this is blindingly obvious, especially aboveground: Look no further than Lava Butte, a reddish gray cinder cone just south of Bend, and the sprawling lava flow at its base. But in other ways, that volcanic past is less obvious—like in the caves and lava tubes that sit just below ground, crisscrossing the bulk of the region beneath our feet.
Over the years, volcanic activity has cleared many of those tubes out, caused collapses, and created numerous caves that visitors can access today—even those of us who’ve never gone spelunking.
So if you’re interested in donning a headlamp and heading underground, we’ve rounded up some of the most popular caves in Central Oregon—along with tips for staying safe and preserving these all-important habitats for the region’s bats.
Exploring the Lava River Cave Near Bend and Sunriver
Every spring and summer, the Lava River Cave Interpretive Site offers an up-close look at Central Oregon’s volcanic past with a relatively developed, wildly popular underground experience.
Usually open between early May and mid-September, Lava River Cave is a mile-long lava tube—one of the first to be discovered in Oregon and the longest in the state—that can be explored via 2.2-mile (round-trip) hike. You’ll start by descending a series of 55 stairs into the cave—and, from there, will explore via flat boardwalks, uneven surfaces, and stairways. On your way into the cave, interpretive panels explain the cave’s natural history and offer a sense of what you’ll see inside.
If visiting Lava River Cave, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind: There is a $5 day-use fee (or the site can be accessed with a federal recreation permit, such as the Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass), and light sources can be rented for $5 on-site. The cave, part of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, is extremely popular—so try visiting on weekdays, or early in the day, if possible. No matter when you visit, note that a timed reservation system may be in effect—and that tickets, available on a rolling 30-day booking window and 24 hours in advance, may be required; learn more about the Lava River Cave timed entry system from the Deschutes National Forest website.
Lava River Cave sits in the heart of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument and a short drive from several outdoor activities in the area—so learn more about outdoor activities in Central Oregon.
Visiting the Redmond Caves
Today, the Redmond Caves are open year-round and showcase a bit of the region’s cultural, geological, and natural history. Local Native American tribes have used the caves for about 6,000 years, for instance, and the lava tube was part of the Newberry Volcano system—which stretches 75 miles north to south.
In all, caves one, three, and four are most accessible and offer the most room for exploration. (Entrances at each are tall enough for most adults to walk through.) Inside the caves, you’ll see lava rocks, jagged walls, and other features that reflect the area’s volcanic past. Caves two and five, meanwhile, are smaller and shallower.When you’re done exploring the caves, unwind over a pint or a meal in town; learn more about breweries and cideries in Redmond, as well as the best restaurants in Redmond.
Visiting Boyd Cave Near Bend
Much like the Redmond Caves, Boyd Cave was formed as part of the Newberry Volcano system—and dates back roughly 10,000 years.
Visitors descend a set of 20 stairs to the floor of the intact lava tube, where almost no light penetrates. From there, visitors can walk about 0.4 mile (one-way) to the end of the basalt cave; it’s a surreal experience to walk around in such a dark, enclosed space—but remain mindful of the jagged ceiling, which can be quite low in places and cause headaches (literally) for distracted hikers.
Boyd Cave is about 16 miles southeast of downtown Bend; high-clearance vehicles are recommended for the final stretch of road before reaching the cave, but drivers should take extreme caution if it’s rained or snowed recently.
Touring Fort Rock Cave Near La Pine
The rock formation at the heart of Fort Rock State Natural Area, a 40-minute drive southeast of La Pine, rises like a monolith from the surrounding high desert. All year long, visitors can walk around inside the old tuff ring (which was once submerged in a shallow sea) and gaze out at the surrounding landscapes.
But nearby, Fort Rock Cave plays a key role in our understanding of the area’s Native American history; it was in this cave, after all, that a pair of sandals were discovered—and were found to be more than 9,000 years old, upending our notions of who has called the region home (and for how long).
Fort Rock Cave isn’t open to the public, but Oregon State Parks offers two-hour guided tours on occasion each spring; each tour costs $15, and most outings book months in advance—so keep an eye out if you’re interested in experiencing this chapter of Central Oregon history.
Curious about our region’s myriad other parks? Learn more about national and state parks in Central Oregon.
What to Know About Visiting Caves in Central Oregon
You’ll want to keep a few tips in mind before visiting some of Central Oregon’s most popular caves.
Equipment or clothing restrictions: Some caves may request you not wear clothing that you’ve worn into other caves—or may impose other equipment-related restrictions. Check with the cave you’d like to visit before heading out, and please observe all restrictions; in many cases, these are implemented to protect bats that may call that cave home.
Light sources: Don’t count on your cell phone’s flashlight getting you through Central Oregon’s caves. Rather, bring at least two light sources—and preferably three, just to be safe. These usually include headlamps and battery-powered lanterns, both of which can be purchased at outdoor and big-box stores throughout Central Oregon.
Clothing: Given that they’re underground and don’t see any sunlight, caves are chilly all year long—even at the height of summer; in many cases, caves don’t get warmer than 45ºF. As such, you’ll want to prepare for the elements by wearing the appropriate attire; layers are recommended in case you work up a sweat and need to cool off.
Sturdy shoes: Most caves boast rough and rugged floors; wear a pair of sturdy (close-toed) shoes or hiking boots to protect against jagged edges, hard-to-see rocks, and uneven surfaces.
Rattlesnakes: If you’re visiting a cave or cave system in Central Oregon’s high desert (such as the Redmond Caves), keep an eye out for rattlesnakes in spring, summer, and fall. Snakes love cooling off in shady places when the weather gets too warm, and caves offer ideal habitat. If possible, bring a hiking stick, and keep your eyes peeled.
Explore Nature’s Beauty
From the sagebrush-covered plains of the high desert to the towering pines and majestic mountain peaks, discover the diverse landscape Central Oregon has to offer.