Hiking Underground

My teenage daughters aren’t that into hiking – you know, exertion and sweat and covering ground just for the sake of covering ground – so any hike I planned for our Spring Break road trip had to be extra beautiful or unique. And short. I know they’re not planning on walking far when the sturdiest shoes they have along are their Vans. And so it was we found ourselves hiking in an underground lava river tube.

Lave River Cave is northwest of Flagstaff in the Coconino ponderosa forest. A rock pile and short rock wall marks the opening. It is small and drops downward immediately, giving us the feeling right from the start that maybe we didn’t want to do this hike after all.


067I hung back, initially, to take photos of the girls entering the cave and dropping down into it, and then panicked a bit as I realized I was getting behind and that catching up would be difficult due to the big boulders on the floor. It seemed wrong to call out, “Wait up!” when the girls were just fifteen feet in front of me. I was happy when Addy said, “Come on, Mom, we’ll wait for you.”

Just before the cave floor leveled out, I turned back to get the last glimpse of daylight.


Now we seemed to be walking parallel with the Earth’s surface above us. We turned our headlamps off to check and, as expected, found ourselves in complete darkness. Most of the cave was wide and up to 30 feet in height, but portions of it got to as low as three feet.



The cave is 3/4 mile long, so 1.5 miles round-trip.  A short hike, right? Yes, but a long time to be underground. At no point was it relaxing. For starters, we had to keep our headlamps trained on the ground right in front of us, which was rocky and uneven. Looking ahead required stopping, getting my balance, and moving my head rather than just my eyes wherever it is I wanted to look. And looking around wasn’t all that revealing. The cave walls and floor looked almost the same the entire way, giving few hints that progress had been made or that the end was approaching. And then there’s the fact that our minds started racing with all kinds of crazy thoughts.

Like a good mom should, I started worrying while driving down the forest roads to get to the cave. Were we the only ones out here? Would it be better to be alone in the cave or to have some other hikers in the area? If something happened and I needed to drive out of here quickly to get some help, would I be able to find my way back if in a state of panic? I dropped my mental breadcrumbs.

And as soon as we were in the cave: What if someone covers the opening with boulders? What if there’s an earthquake? What if today is the day the cave becomes unstable? It was only a 1.5 mile hike, so I didn’t bring water or snacks. I didn’t bring anything except an extra headlamp and the clicker to my vehicle. Bad hiker. Bad mom.

There were others ahead of us, we assumed, because there were two vehicles in the parking lot. And there was another family arriving as we were starting down the trail. You’d think you’d hear voices echoing throughout the cave. But no; it was eerily quiet. Was anyone hiding down here, just waiting to attack us? I thought about how hard it would be to run out of here, and the worst, having my headlamp knocked off and the batteries coming loose while struggling to get away from someone.

To cope with these irrational (maybe not so irrational?) ideas, we started acting really goofy. It started in a low section of the cave, where we had to bend over to continue moving forward. The girls’ hands touched the floor and then they were suddenly acting like gorillas. While they do plenty of strange things, I have not seen this particular behavior elicited anywhere above the earth’s surface.

112Amy kept us laughing with possible journal entries, doubly funny because they were all for Day 1 – as if one day would be the extent of our survival in the event something horrible happened – and they all had the word growing in them. Day 1 – Some of us are growing hungry. Day 1 – The soles of my Vans are growing thin. Day 1 – My mother is growing crazier by the minute.

Addy tried to get our minds off the situation by writing raps. She would start and Amy and I were supposed to add to it. I wasn’t very good at it. I was slow to think of rhyming lines and was getting hung up on whether we were doing couplets or quatrains and what was a quatrain, again, anyway.

After what seemed like several miles, we finally reached the end. There was a large family there, or two. It was awkward visiting with them in the dark, nothing like stopping to talk with other hikers while in the daylight and nothing at all like celebrating with whomever you find when you finally reach the summit of a 14er.

We continued our silliness on the way back, but now that we were on our return trip it was more for the fun of it than for the sake of retaining our sanity.

I must say I was plenty relieved when I saw that shaft of sunlight, which was slow to come into view because it was above us (remember I said we had to go down at the beginning of the hike before it leveled off) and not in front of us.


Am I glad we went? Absolutely. Any short hike that is unique in some way is a hike worth taking.


What exactly is a lave river cave? According to Wikipedia, between 650,000 and 700,000 years ago, molten lava erupted from a volcanic vent. The top, sides, and bottom of the flow cooled and solidified, while lave continued to flow through, and out of, the middle, forming a cave.  I don’t know how common lava river tubes are, but there is one near Bend, Oregon. Lumbermen discovered the Arizona lava river tube in 1915. I’m a little surprised that the area hasn’t been made into a national monument or park, to be honest. A sign outside the opening explains that there have been problems with litter and graffiti. It’s a pretty cool place and I’d hate to see it destroyed.




11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Billybuc
    Apr 04, 2014 @ 11:56:04

    Love the pics. It doesn’t look like the girls were too traumatized by the whole event. I see a lot of smiles there. 🙂


    • randee
      Apr 04, 2014 @ 15:30:51

      Oh no, we stuck together and bonded and were just fine. I was telling my dental hygienist about this and she said, “What did your girls think about you taking them down there?” I laughed and said, “Nothing. They’re used to me.”


  2. Deborah
    Apr 04, 2014 @ 21:53:55

    Looks like a blast, if you’ll pardon the irrational fears that could inspire. I loved the mental bread crumbs. It’s interesting how 1.5 miles can seem so long when you have to relinquish your normal navigational equilibrium. Great pics! Enjoyed the snippets of improvised entertainment.


    • randee
      Apr 04, 2014 @ 22:41:25

      Thank you for the perfect phrase there – relinquishing our normal navigational equilibrium. Yeah, I guess that’s what I was trying to say. 🙂


  3. Jaspa
    Apr 06, 2014 @ 13:05:20

    I wish I’d known about this when I was in Flagstaff a couple of years ago!


    • randee
      Apr 06, 2014 @ 16:16:47

      I know how that is. We were in Page, AZ a couple days before and did Antelope Canyon. AFTER the fact I realized there is an UPPER Antelope Canyon and a LOWER one. We did the upper. I would have hiked both had I known.


  4. gapark
    Apr 07, 2014 @ 11:59:05

    Putting this on my bucket list! I’m not a big caver, but this looks doable. Baby steps! Gail


  5. betunada
    Apr 08, 2014 @ 13:01:50

    HOW do you find out about stuff like this? and that antelope-falls/slide place. i thought i’d heard of most the “cool” places in the desert, but obviously by no means not!


    • randee
      Apr 08, 2014 @ 21:31:09

      Six days of planning a 12-day road trip. Look at maps, start googling, who knows where you’ll end up! I was sad to learn though – AFTER our trip – that there is an UPPER Antelope Canyon and a LOWER Antelope Canyon in the area, both equally worth visiting. We only toured the UPPER.


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