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Cavewoman Tells All: Spelunking for Beginners

200910-b-cave-2jpg I’ve always loved spelunking (a.k.a. cave exploring)—and not just because it’s a fun word to say (spe-lun-king!). Some of the coolest caves on earth happen to be in the U.S. (just check out Kentucky’s 367-mile-long Mammoth Cave National Park, or the stalagmite-rich Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico).

This summer, at a friends’ wedding in Central Oregon, my man-friend and I decided to take a break from the non-stop nuptial activities and do what we really wanted to do: crawl into a hole.

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Lava River Cave sits about 13 miles south of Bend in the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Formed of liquid-hot molten lava during the last Ice Age (10,000-plus years ago), it’s now a mile-long tunnel of basalt. For four bucks, the kindly Forest Service employees at the entrance will loan you an old school gas lantern (lights are necessary, of course, but I recommend turning them off for just a moment while you’re inside—you’ll never experience a darker black). Bring water and something warm to wear—the temperature in the cavern is a constant 42 degrees (warning: most all caves are brisk).

As someone who once repelled down cave walls in Montana, the Lava River Cave was a breeze; it’s almost entirely flat—so navigable we passed clusters of families with slow-moving toddlers. I’d recommend it for beginners, but don’t let it be your only underground adventure; there are caverns that are safe for exploration all over the earth. Each is wonderful in its own way, but to be honest one of my favorite things about being in a cave is leaving it—not because I’m scared of bats or tired or chilled, but because there’s nothing quite like re-entering the world after spending a few hours in a dank underground. Upon surfacing with fresh eyes, one can’t help but think “How bright the world is, how colorful, how full of light!”

Kathryn O'Shea-Evans is a freelance editorial assistant at Travel + Leisure.


Photos courtesy of Kathryn O'Shea-Evans

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