Nature & Science
Lava River Cave: A Natural Museum
Not all museums are in a building in a city. Lava River Cave is a natural museum where people can learn about history, geology, biology and cave climates.
Unlike other museums, you can't just walk through a door to visit Lava River Cave. The entrance is actually a hole in the ground and the floor just inside is covered with large, slippery boulders. Also, conditions throughout the cave are always cold and dark. you will need to dress warmly, wear sturdy soled shoes and bring adequate lighting in order t make the most of your visit.
A Little Bit of History
Lumbermen working for the Saginaw and Manestee Lumber Company discovered Lava River Cave about 1915. These lumbermen made less than $2.50 per day and each day was usually 12 hours of back-breaking work.
Chainsaws were not popular yet and trees were felled using axes and 2-man "buck" saws. Finding Lava River Cave was probably an exciting and welcome diversion for these hard working men of the early 1900s.
Homesteaders are said to have visited lava River Cave sometime around the turn of the century. According to historians, homesteaders would collect large quantities of ice from the cave. The ice was used for refrigeration, cooling drinks and maybe even to help create a rare summer treat- ice cream.
A Frozen Moment in Geologic Time
Lava River Cave probably formed within a few hours after a brief volcanic eruption. In comparison to other geologic events, like the cutting of a canyon or the movement of a glacier, Lava River Cave formed in the briefest of moments. Since the cave appears today much as it did shortly after its formation, it is indeed a "frozen moment" in geologic time.
Lava River Cave is a unique kind of cave known as a "lava tube". It is the longest cave of this kind in Arizona. Geologists believe lava River Cave was formed sometime between 650,000 and 700,000 years ago when molten lava erupted from a volcano near the present day site of Michelback Ranch. When the lava came to the surface its temperature was hotter than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit!
Lava Flow Features
Lava River Cave contains a variety of outstanding lava flow features. These features also used to exist outside the cave, but have long since been washed away by wind and rain, and overgrown by plants. The lava flow features in this cave include flow ripples, splashdowns, cooling cracks and lavasicles.
Flow ripples can be observed on most of the floor throughout the last two thirds of the cave. This gives the floor the appearance of a frozen river. Actually the floor is a "frozen river" of lava which flowed through the cave shortly after the walls and ceiling hardened.
Splashdowns appear to be rocks floating on the frozen river because they actually were. Shortly after the ceiling hardened a few rocks fell into the still flowing floor and floated downstream a little ways before the floor also hardened.
Cooling cracks are long cracks in the floor, ceiling and walls. Some of these are six inches wide, three feet deep and over twenty feet long. These cracks formed as the lava cooled and hardened because lava shrinks when it cools.
Lavasicles are very small icicle-like formations which formed after the walls and ceiling hardened. For some reason a hot blast of gas shot through the tube shortly after it formed and partially re-melted the walls and ceiling. This caused drips of re-melted lava to form and quickly hardened into lavasicles.
The lava flow features within Lava River Cave may not seem particularly fragile, but they are over half a million years old and cannot be repaired or replaced. Please help keep the flow features unmarred for the enjoyment of future visitors.
Nature's Ice Box
Lava River Cave is an amazingly simple natural ice box. In fact, it could be considered the largest "refrigerator" in northern Arizona. On the hottest day of summer, when the temperature outside the cave is over 90 degrees, just inside the temperature is 35 degrees and sometimes there is ice!
There are two reasons that temperatures within the cave remain so cold:
First, the lava rock which formed the cave is an excellent insulator. Its dark color and very dense composition prevent heat from traveling from the surface into the cave.
Second, Lava River Cave is cold because of its general shape. The highest point of the cave is the entrance. Since hot air rises and cold air falls, cold air falls into the cave during winter and is trapped there throughout the summer.
Creatures That Like The Cold and Dark
Lava River Cave is occasionally used by animals and insects. These include crickets, beetles, porcupines, squirrels and bats. All of these creatures are shy, and since so many people visit Lava River Cave, it is rare to actually see them while in the cave. We do know that animals use the cave because their droppings can be observed beneath rocks and along the walls.
A Few Words About Bats
Bats are truly amazing little creatures which unfortunately have an undeserved bad reputation. A lot of people think bats are filthy, disease-ridden, flying mice. This is not the case. Bats are actually very clean and no more likely to contract rabies than your household pet. They are very important to the environment since they are the only major night-flying predator of insects. In one night some individual bats can almost eat their own weight in insects! Anyone who has had their share of mosquito bites ought to appreciate that.
Bats and other creatures which like to live in cold, dark caves are very vulnerable to human disturbance. Please remember to treat any creatures you observe within Lava River Cave with respect and give them lots of room. Remember - you are a visitor in their home.
Have A Safe Visit
The cold, dark conditions within Lava River Cave require some special precautions and preparation on the part of those planning a visit. The cave is not recommended for persons with physical handicaps because of extreme steep, narrow and rocky terrain.
- Each person in your group should carry three sources of light.
- Wear sturdy soled shoes that protect you from slipping or twisting your ankle.
- Wear warm Clothes.
- A hard hat will protect you from bumping your head.
- Leave notice with friends of your planned trip and return time.
Enjoy your visit!
Litter and graffiti have been problems within Lava River Cave since the late 1960s. For many years various groups and individuals have attempted to clean up the cave only to have their efforts thwarted by the return of more litter and new graffiti.
A major restoration effort was organized in May of 1991. Almost all the litter was packed out and much of the graffiti removed at that time.
You can help maintain Lava River Cave for enjoyment of future visitors.
- Please don't build fires within the cave. Soot and ash can stain the floor and walls, and smoke disturbs animals which might use the cave.
- If you see litter within the cave, you can help by packing it out. Aside from being unsightly, litter can upset the ecosystem of the cave.
- If you see individuals writing on walls or committing other acts of vandalism within the cave, please report your observations to the Forest Service. Don't endanger yourself by confronting vandals, but if you can give a description of the vandals or the license plate number of their vehicle, you could help save the cave from further degradation.