Descending into the depths of a volcanic lava tube sounds like something Hollywood would have a big day with. However, just outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, this is actually a reality for avid hikers. Deep within the ponderosa pine forest lies an underground cave system, but it introduces hikers to a whole new world.
With temperatures reaching 35 degrees Fahrenheit – even in the warmer months – there is a sense of wonder and awe for those exploring the Lava Tubes. Lava River Cave isn’t difficult to find, but the hike there requires some preparation and fancy footwork to reach. Here’s how to find the Flagstaff Lava Tubes and some tips on how to hike into their depths.
How to find the Flagstaff Lava Tubes
Hikers new to the lava tubes should be aware that the conditions inside the cave require a certain level of physical fitness. In addition, the cave ceiling varies in height from as much as 30 feet in some places to as little as three feet in others. The terrain is partly uneven at ground level, often slippery and requires some skill from the hiker.
For those well prepared for Lava River Cave, it can be found using the following directions:
- From Flagstaff: Go north on US 180 to mile marker 229. Then turn left onto Forest Road 245 to merge onto Forest Road 171, which leads to Forest Road 171B. From here, a left turn leads to the parking lot of the lava tubes.
After parking, hikers have a fairly easy hike to the caves for a quarter mile.
Navigating the Flagstaff Lava River Cave
The cave itself was formed about 700,000 years ago after a volcano erupted in Hart Prairie. The process of rapid cooling on the outside of the lava flow caused a hollow interior, creating the lava tube cave that exists today. Visitors can see evidence of this unique cooling process, as well as details in the floor and walls from the lava that hardened along its path. These hardened lava rock walls are responsible for keeping the cave at 48 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler year-round, despite Flagstaff’s hot summers.
The cave itself is three quarters of a mile long!
Flagstaff.com recommends that hikers should be in generally good physical condition to traverse the lava tubes. The descent involves about 300 feet of rock climbing that may include loose gravel, large rocks, and dirt. At times, hikers must use both their hands and feet to descend into the cave’s entrance, with some spots being more dangerous than others. The space requires hikers to be comfortable with small, tight spaces, although the path down opens into a wider cave.
Everything is allowed on this cave hike – crawling, squatting and scrambling. Good footwork is obviously required and this is not a hike that should be attempted by those with ankle, foot or leg injuries, or those with unstable feet.
When to visit Flagstaff Lava River Cave
The best time for hikers to visit the lava tubes is in summer. This is when navigation is easiest and visitors can rest assured that the caves are open daily. In winter, the caves often close for safety reasons due to snow and ice.
Those visiting in winter can access the cave on snowshoes or skis, but are not allowed to navigate the caves when they are closed for the season.
Tips for visiting the lava tubes
Those planning a hike through Lava River Cave need to be prepared, and that includes knowing what to bring.
- Good shoes. Shoes with good traction and non-slip soles are an absolute must when visiting this cave. The ground is slippery and may even have a layer of ice, so good footwear is required.
- At least three light sources. The cave is pitch black, which means relying on a light source isn’t always the best idea. In case one light source breaks, another has low batteries, etc., it’s better to have three reliable light sources than just one.
- Appropriate clothing. Because the temperature inside the cave can be so much lower than outside, appropriate clothing, such as layers, is more comfortable.
- Consider a helmet. Those low ceilings are no joke – head protection should be a top priority.
- No rush. The length of the cave is not long, but hikers should take their time descending and ascending to the cave entrance. Start earlier in the day so the hike doesn’t feel rushed.
- Know your skill. If the caving turns out to be too challenging, avoid another hike. This trek requires several technical hiking skills that are applied both in entering and in exciting the cave.
Visiting the Flagstaff Lava Tubes is a unique experience that you wouldn’t expect in the middle of Arizona. Worthwhile for those who can rely on their hiking skills, it offers an opportunity to see some of Flagstaff’s most impressive geological history.