This summer, intrepid explorers can add one more environment to their local bucket list: Bend's underground.
Wanderlust Tours is offering lava tube cave tours, taking visitors deep beneath the high desert to explore a cavernous world. Tourists can visit Skeleton Cave or Boyd Cave, two distinct caverns that exemplify the common features of lava caves.
Jeff Gartzke, the company's chief operating office, said the caves provide plenty of opportunities for discovery. He said, "However many hundred times I've been down (for a tour), every time I go into the cave, there's something that makes me say, 'Oh, I've never seen that before,' 'I've never noticed this,' or 'How the heck did this happen?'"
Gartzke is also one of the company's naturalist guides, and I was able to join him and a small group for an informative—and sometimes heart-racing—tour of Skeleton Cave.
Science in the dark
As we broke off of Highway 97, about 20 minutes outside of town, Gartzke was already dispelling the popular image of cave tours.
"What most people think of when they think of cave tours are 'show caves' where they've installed lights, paths and guard rails so they can pump five or six tours through a day," he said. "Skeleton Cave is a wild cave, which means no electricity, no man-made paths. It's practically untouched."
In fact, the only human additions were found at the entrance: a steep staircase and a bat gate. The stairs granted us access to the cave's mouth at the bottom of a 20-ish-foot hole. The bat gate, a set of rusty, horizontal bars, blocked the entrance with just enough space for the bats to squeeze through. Luckily, Gartzkehad a special key to let us in.
As we entered the "twilight zone"—the slim area where the last slivers of natural light fall to total darkness—I was surprised by how smooth and dark the cave walls were. There were no rock spikes hanging from the ceiling, or bright colors reflecting the artificial light from my headlamp.
"Limestone caves have a lot of moisture, so inside those you'll see a lot of stalagmites (rock protruding from the ground) and stalactites (from the ceiling) and more yellows and reds," he explained. "Skeleton and most of the caves in Central Oregon are composed of basalt rock, which you only get from lava."
That lava was provided by Newberry Volcano, just southeast of Bend, thousands of years ago. As the volcano erupted, its lava flow stretched hundreds of miles across the region, creating slow-moving rivers of lava. When all that lava started cooling, it formed hundreds of lava tubes, including Skeleton Cave.
I know all this thanks to Gartzke and his naturalist training, an important aspect of Wanderlust's tours.
According to Gartzke, "All of our guides at Wanderlust have their own areas of expertise. What makes our company unique is that you can take the same tour twice, and if you get a different guide, you're going to get a really different tour."
Gartzke is a self-professed "rock jock" with a background in geology, so our tour was filled with facts about mineralization, volcanic ash, night vision, cavern acoustics, temperature control, and cave ecosystems and wildlife. He even convinced me to eat an ant that tasted like an orange—albeit a tiny, crunchy, squirming orange. It was like a middle school field trip without the homework afterward.
A safe and fun adventure
While the educational moments are a nice bonus, the main goal of Gartzke and his fellow Wanderlust guides is to provide an experience that is safe for both the visitors and the location. Wanderlust is the only company permitted to visit Skeleton and Boyd, a responsibility they take seriously.
"Cave ecosystems are extremely delicate, so it's important we don't bring in any outside, man-made elements that could throw it off," he explained.
Groups are asked to bring only water for the one to two-hour tours, and are encouraged to wash their clothes before and after so as to not spread fungi to other caves.
Wanderlust provides helmets and headlamps. And while our path through Skeleton Cave required stamina and careful movement in certain spots, it was always manageable for everyone.
Gartzke said, "We want that 7-year-old to be able to go caving with their 84-year-old grandmother, and make it a trip that's approachable to both of them."
Our group hiked 2,000 feet into the cave before we turned back. As we returned to the bright, hot surface, I already felt the urge to go back in. There were paths that I still wanted to explore, and there was more that I wanted to learn. For the team at Wanderlust, that's a marker of success.
"Naturalism is the constant quest for knowledge," said Gartzke. "I want people to be talking about our cave trip one year later—10 years later—as just really being a memorable experience. I try to make that happen every time."
Wanderlust's Lava Tube Cave Tours are scheduled daily at 9am and 1:30pm, and must be booked 48 hours in advance. Tours cost $75 for adults, and $55 for children 11 and under. For more information, visit wanderlusttours.com or call 541-389-8359.