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Lava River Cave Tube, AZ

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Guide 147 Triplogs  4 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Flagstaff > Flagstaff NW
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Trailhead Elevation 7,684 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 2 hours
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Author landsinaz
author avatar Guides 4
Routes 0
Photos 0
Trips 31 map ( 194 miles )
Age 51 Female Gender
Location Apache Junction, AZ
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Sun  6:08am - 6:37pm
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Go prepared! - Caving Checklist
by landsinaz

This is a short hike/spelunking trip worth the time if you are in the area. Essentially this hike takes you through an ancient lava tube. The tube was exposed when some lava deposits on the surface collapsed and made an accessible opening.

You will need lights for this hike as there is no sunlight once you are inside. Unlike caves back east, this is a cold cave, with temperatures ranging from 32 to 40 degrees. There are many types of lava deposits inside the cave, but none of the typical formations one might expect. The ceiling is arched and rounded in most places, hence the subway tunnel description. The floor is smooth in some places, covered with rough, sharp lava deposits in some, and in some areas covered with loose rocks. There is not much elevation gain that we could tell. The biggest challange comes from loose footing.

Okay, so on to the "hike". From the parking area, it's a short jaunt to the mouth of the cave. There is a big circle of lava rocks marking the entrance. There is an interpretive sign outside that says bats, porcupines, and squirrels occasionally use the cave for shelter, but we didn't see any signs of critters other than human ones!

You start out by climbing down a rock fall into the tunnel. The ceiling quickly opens up so that you can walk upright. The ceiling is actually really pretty. When we were there, the roof and some walls were covered with water droplets that sparkled whenever a headlamp caught them. The rocks in this area tilt and slip quite a bit so watch your step.

As you progress further into the lava tube, the cave splits into two tunnels. If you stay to the right, the ceiling gets quite low in spots, so watch your head and your back. If you stay to the right, you can stand up the whole way, but what fun is that?! These two tunnels rejoin each other shortly and end in the same place.

The lava tube basically dead ends and you go out the way you came in. It's not particularly spectacular as far as caves go, but pretty amazing geology wise. There are areas where large slabs of rock fell from the ceiling and you can almost imagine the lava splashing away from it from the dried patterns on the floor.

We had the most fun just turning off our headlamps and experiencing the darkness and absence of sound. It's also fun to play mind games with your hiking parnters. It's amazing what your imagination can dream up with a little encouragment! We started around 11 AM and had the place to ourselves. We did this with head lamps which makes for an easier walk with your hands free. We did see a few folks with flash lights. Whatever you do, I'd recommend at least one form of light per person and back up batteries! Gloves would be a nice luxury, but are not necessary!

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2002-10-06 landsinaz

    Coconino FS Details
    This mile-long lava tube cave was formed roughly 700,000 years ago by molten rock that erupted from a volcanic vent in nearby Hart Prairie. 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.
    Ample evidence of how the tube was born is written in the rocks of which it is formed. Small wave-like undulations in the floor are the remains of ripples frozen in the last trickle of molten rock that flowed from the cave. Stone icicles hanging from the ceiling show where a final blast of volcanic heat caused the rock to partially re-liquefy and drip.
    Dress appropriately when you come to visit, with warm clothes and sturdy shoes. The cave is as cool as 42° even in summer, and you may even find some ice inside. The rocks are always sharp and slippery, too. Bring two or three sources of light, in case one happens to fail, it can be very dark one mile from the nearest light source.
    Portions of the cave which were defaced by graffiti, have been recently cleaned up. Today's more environmentally aware visitors take better care of such a unique resource and report vandals when they see them.

    Open Season:Year-round
    Best Season:Summer
    Closest Towns:Flagstaff, AZ
    Operated By:Flagstaff Ranger District - 928-526-0866
    General Information

    Location: About 14 miles north of Flagstaff on paved highways and graveled Forest Roads. Travel time is about 45 minutes.
    GPS (Map): 35°20'32.2"N 111°50'08.2"W
    Access: Drive 9 miles north of Flagstaff on US 180 and turn west (left) on FR 245 (at milepost 230). Continue 3 miles to FR171 and turn south 1 mile to where FR 171B turns left a short distance to Lava River Cave.
    NOTE: Though the Lava River Cave is open year-round, FR 245 and/or FR171 may be closed in the winter for resource protection. In those cases, you will need to hike or ski in to the cave.

    General Notes:
    Season: You can visit Lava River Cave the year-round though you may need to ski to it in winter since Forest Roads 245 and/or 171 may be closed for resource protection. Temperatures inside the cave remain roughly the same summer and winter (between 35° and 45° Fahrenheit).
    Attractions: Cool cave, lava flow, scenic drive, wildlife viewing
    Facilities: Interpretive sign

    Wear warm clothes and sturdy shoes.
    Bring two or three light sources.
    Please don't deface cave surfaces, but do report anyone who does. Call 928-526-0600.
    For overnight camping, camp at least 1 mile from the entrance of the cave.
    WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

    Most recent of 14 deeper Triplog Reviews
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    Enjoyed the Lava River Cave as a literal "cool down" after our ascent of nearby Kendrick Peak. The kids always enjoy this one. This time, I remembered to bring my climbing helmet to protect the ol' noggin--a lesson I learned the hard way the last time I visited. Even though most of the cave is tall enough to stand upright in, it only takes one good clonk in one of the lower sections to earn you an unwelcomed souvenir goose egg ;)
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    Really interesting hike and a good, easy way to shake things up from the typical above ground hike. Started about 9:30 this morning. A little later than I wanted, but sleeping in was worth it.

    Lots of dew/moisture in the cave due to the monsoon. The floor was moist nearly to the split. Some water droplets inside the entrance. I slipped a few times on the wet rocks, but never actually fell. Temps were about 42-45 the whole way so no frost. I wore jeans, a thin hoodie, and my trail running shoes and I was very comfortable. Gloves were not necessary. Might do some different pants next time as the jeans restricted leg movement when climbing over larger rocks.

    The parts of the cave with the high ceilings were really amazing. Just kept thinking about how far underground I was to have the ceiling that high! The only place where I really had trouble was right past half way where the ceiling drops to about 3 1/2 feet for a short distance. I was just shy of having to crawl thru there. It's really not too bad though (for reference, I'm 6'0" and 215 lbs, and was wearing a Camelback)

    Didn't see too many people on the way in, but that changed on the way out. Probably saw 40-50 people total in the cave this Sunday morning. Saw one couple bring a dog. Seriously: this is NOT a dog friendly hike. The floor of the majority of the hike is made up of very uneven, sometimes sharp and sometimes loose rocks. Farther down I found the land mine the dog left. :sk: Not to mention the obvious: it's pitch black inside. Also saw a few really young kids that weren't too happy with the rocky ground. Kids older than about 6-7 should be fine and will probably really enjoy this cave.
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    Now this was a interesting little hike. The initial rock scramble down is the only tough part of this hike. Wet rocks and the transition into darkness while also trying to avoid other spelunkers created some challenges. Once inside the temperatures are nice and cool. We decided that the effort brought up the body temp enough to warrant short sleeves for most people. Watch your step and get a good head lamp that is bright and gives enough focus to where you want to put your feet. I used a 4$ special that hooked onto my pack and it worked like a champ. Most of the cave was big enough to stand straight up except for one or two spots. The end is a pile of rocks and what looks like a small hole in the wall. Not sure if it goes any farther back but we were not about to get wedged in and find out. If you find yourself up this was I would suggest checking it out. I would also suggest if your child is not big enough to help themselves over boulders then you should probably leave them in the car with the windows cracked :P
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    Uncle CHUMS Summer HAZfest 2013
    Another wonderful weekend with wonderful people in a wonderful place...wonderful!

    Really though, it was a pleasure meeting so many new HAZzers and reuniting with old friends as well.
    I was a little disappointed with the campfire situation this time around but...nonot can't be expected to create perfection every time...especially when Uncle Chums didn't provide him with NEARLY enough deadfall...oh well, maybe next year.

    I was very pleased with how ridiculously clean our massive campsite was after our departure, great job everyone and thank you!! :y:
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    This hike is more challenging than it would seem from the length and levelness. It involves a lot of scrambling over uneven rocks that are loose and often wet and slippery, with no light except what you carry in. The hardest part is the cave entrance, where you drop down into the tube over a long, jagged rockfall. The warnings about being prepared are not to be taken lightly! Yes, it's cold in there, and I wouldn't want to try it in shorts and tank top - but far worse to try it without adequate footwear or dependable lights. On a Saturday afternoon in September there was a nonstop parade of teenagers, families, and boy scout troops in and out of the cave. Ordinarily this would have annoyed me, but I was actually kind of grateful as our headlamp batteries were unexpectedly low. I should've listened to the NFS and stocked up on fresh batteries! The cave once you are inside is pretty uniform and lacking in the dramatic features of a water-formed cave, but it is cool to shine your light around the arc of the cave roof and imagine how it was formed by a river of molten lava. The areas where the tube opens up into wide vaults were the most impressive. There are also some spots on the cave floor where you can see lava deposits. With the heavy traffic there wasn't much opportunity for the "total darkness" experience, but we did get to snatch a few moments here and there. It made a good companion hike with a visit to Sunset Crater NM, which we did later that day, thus getting to see the effects of lava both above and below ground.
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    Second time exploring this neat little area. Took Vince's dog Rocco with us...his ears and eyes were alert to every sound I swear he was on edge to protect us....from SOMETHING whatever it may be :D

    GOYAAH (Vince) and I both wore our Vibram Five Finger shoes and I gotta say...the hardened lava was a bit bumpy...okay it felt like a foot massage...okay it was painful! Even for us and we wear our VFFs on a daily basis, at work, at home, running, hiking you name it we wear em but OUCH! That stuff was brutal...

    Bring a headlamp, a lightweight sweater, and if you bring the dog toss on some boots for the pooch and a little jacket for short coat breeds!

    Other than that, great little trip, we followed up this adventure with some muddy mountain biking along the surrounding forest roads, saw a decent sized herd of elk too! (maybe 10-12 head) not too shabby!
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    Since we were in the vicinity after hiking the Abineau/Bear Jaw Loop, we decided to drop by the Lava River Tube. My kids had not been there before. Initially, they weren't too excited, after having spent their engergy on the Loop hike; however, once inside the tube, the magic of the "cave" seemed to infuse them with new energy. It had been quite some time since I had been there as well. As you might imagine, there was a lot of traffic (Saturday/semi-holiday weekend), so there wasn't any solitude, and we had to strategically look for opportunities to do the old "turn of all your flashlights" and experience complete darkness. Surprisingly, there are only a few short sections of the tube that are too low for walking upright. I only bumped my head once--but that's all it took for me to earn a couple of good scrapes as souvenirs ;) I recommend wearing hiking boots or more sturdy shoes on this hike, as the footing can get pretty sketchy, and even if you don't twist an ankle, the constant shifting under foot can get pretty tiresome in regular tennis shoes.
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    I was told this would be cold.

    I wasn't told that the temperature would drop nearly 60 degrees IN 15 FEET. Seriously. On the top, it was mid-80s. Within view of the top, there were ice packs. Really nasty ones, too, in places I wanted to step. Lousy ice.

    Being a Phoenix boy, of course I didn't pack a jacket. I borrowed an undersized fleece from a friend and it was cutting off the circulation to my hands. Also, despite the incredible cold, being 6'4, this trail requires a lot of stooping over and crab-walking for me, so I was getting a pretty solid workout. A quarter mile in, the fleece was off. Since I'd been sweating like a foul beast from the deep jungle, I was immediately freezing again, but that passed as we moved on in.

    My caving companions all asked me, individually, if I was freaked out by the darkness. I just don't get claustrophobic. It's a good thing, because apparently I was the only reason we made it through, as I realized later. I was moderately terrified of lifting my head up from the 45 degree angle I walked at for most of the trail and giving myself a concussion on the million pounds of solid rock above me, but the closed in cave didn't bug me.

    There's a point where you can go left or right. My friend who had done this hike before had always gone left. "Right is supposed to be a little more tricky. Let's go right." OK, we went right.

    Don't go right. I mean, do, but really, don't. You get the the same spot either way! It's just, one way, you can walk and hunch over a little, and the other, you need to snake your way through scraggly rocks and a roof that is lovingly caressing the back of your head as you squirm on through. No, actually it was fun, but it's still smarter to go left. (So you should actually go right.)

    I'd been getting a decent workout through the entire hike, so I wasn't freezing but my skin was pleasantly cool. So, I was a little confused when I suddenly didn't feel the cold on my skin anymore. Was I going into hypothermia? Was I delusional? Losing my mind? The latter two are almost certainties but that has nothing to do with the cave. It's wildly warmer at the end than it is at the start. Now, if someone can explain this to me, I'd really appreciate it. 15 feet in, the air was below freezing. At the end, it's a good 15 degrees warmer.

    At the end, we ran into a few girls hanging out and chatting. Smoking. In a cave. With limited oxygen. And we aren't talking cigarettes. So, basically everyone in the cave that day who made it to the end got a little contact high.

    The hike out was less eventful. I had grown to resent my friend's fleece and was tempted to stuff it under a few tons of lava rock, but I didn't see how I could do that discreetly. I let him go first in case the temptation grew too great and I needed to ditch it; that way I could club him with an obsidian slab but that hardly seemed sporting. As we got closer to the surface and the air cleared, my murderous tendencies subsided and we just ended up driving back to Flagstaff for a beer.
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    My trip to Bill Williams Mountain was put on hold thanks to the blister on my heel, so I went here instead. This place is really cool. In retrospect, it's kind of like a dream. I went right at the Scooby Doo junction and just about had to crawl on my hands and knees. Next time I'll bring a better light source.
    Lava River Cave Tube
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    Being a little stiff from the hike the day before, we decided to hit something mild and laid back. It was raining out so the lava tube was a natural choice. What a cool place! Unfortunately there was a ton of people there so quite a few flashlights and it was a bit hard to get a sense of isolation as I had hoped, but it was the 4th of July weekend. I think if we ever want to take someone here we may go at night, to reduce traffic and increase isolation.

    The beginning of the tube is a somewhat steep scramble down into the tube. After a short while however, it levels out and the rocks give way and get much better. For a good portion of the tube you can stand erect and walk comfortably.

    Very neat!

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    FR / Dirt Road / Gravel - Car Okay

    To cave exploration
    From Flagstaff, take 180 heading northwest. Approximately 16 miles from the interection of 180 and 66 you will see Forest Road 245 on the left. Take 245 for 3 miles where it dead ends at 171. Turn left and in about a mile you will see the turn off for the parking area on the left. There are signs directing you to the lava cave.

    NOTE: Temperature chart above is for outside the tube. The temp inside is usually 34 degrees.
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