I love caves. When I travel abroad, cave tours are near the top of my to-do list. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting caves in Slovenia, Mexico, Spain, Greece, Australia, and a few other spots I’m likely forgetting.

I tell you this not to sound like a travel snob, but so you know I speak from experience when I say the Lava Cave Tours offered by Bend’s Wanderlust Tours will knock your socks off.

OK, not literally – your socks will probably stay on, which is good since the caves are a constant temperature of 45-degrees and might be chilly if you went barefoot.

Those familiar with Bend know our area has a very volcanic history. Central Oregon is polka-dotted with dozens of hidden lava tube caves, which can be a little daunting if you want to explore but aren’t sure where to start.

Wanderlust tour guide Jeff Gartzke opens the gate at the entrance to Skeleton Cave.

While the Lava River Caves run by the U.S. Forest Service offer a nice beginner’s option complete with railings, concrete steps, and lantern rentals, the experience is much different from what you’ll get with Wanderlust Tours.

For starters, Wanderlust is the only guide company permitted in the lava caves you’ll be touring with them. You get away from the crowds and into the heart of the high desert to experience lava caves without artificial lighting, paved pathways, and parking lots.

Best of all, you get to experience it with an uber-knowledgeable guide.

Wanderlust’s Jeff Gartzke was the guide on my tour, and he didn’t disappoint. A professional naturalist with a degree in geology, Jeff told me on a previous tour that caves are one of his true areas of passion and expertise. This was evident from the instant our little group hopped in the van for our trip out to Skeleton Cave. Jeff talked the whole way out, telling us about local forest fires, answering questions about area cave systems, and generally making us laugh.

Tawna from Visit Bend inside Skeleton Cave. Notice the grafitti? That’s one reason the cave is closed to the public, but Wanderlust Tours can get you in.

Once we arrived, Jeff got us all outfitted with helmets and headlamps before leading the short hike to the cave opening. As he unlocked the gate that blocks the entrance to the cave, he talked with us about some of the recent history. Skeleton Cave was open to the public until 2006, when the Forest Service stepped in and decided to protect the bats from harassment and the cave walls from constant vandalism.

Since we got a close look at both the graffiti and a lonely little bat, I could see the reasoning behind the decision.

Jeff led us deep into the cave, explaining geologic features like cave coral and basalt, and telling us about the few hardy creatures who reside there. We stopped periodically for photos or for an experiment with wintergreen lifesavers (way cool, trust me).

Our tour lasted just over three hours and included all the transportation, gear, and guidance necessary to make it an amazing experience. Though our group was comprised entirely of adults, the cave tours are popular with families and can be adjusted to accommodate the needs and interests of all ages.

Wanderlust’s cave tours run year round, since you don’t have to worry much about snow or sunstroke when you’re underground. You can find all the info you need about booking and cost on their website.

 

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