Adventures in Lava River Cave

lava cave.jpg

During my latest trek into the wilderness, I went to the Lava Tubes in Flagstaff, AZ. Nestled into the most delicate scenery is this magical hole. It takes you from the surrounding serenity and beauty of the Coconino forest and pushes you into a cold wonder that is breathtaking. 

We arrived at the cave around 10 am on a Saturday and from what my friends told me, it was extremely busy. There were a few people there but nothing to fret over, we walked about 1000 feet to what looked like a burrow hole.  It was pretty sketchy because the welcome sign had been tagged and it had holes in it so I really wasn't too sure about it. 

lava cave hole.jpg

This was my first sight of the Lava Tube. No one told me that it was going down into the ground rather than a traditional cave which is on the side of a mountain. I took that as sign number two that this was either going to be truly amazing or something extremely weird. 

Into the darkness, we went. Deeper and deeper we went with our headlamps, some of us with jackets. The deeper we went the colder it got, creating a haven from the Arizona monsoon humidity. Once we climbed down the jagged rocks that guarded the entrance of the cave we were met with a dome-shaped room surrounded with a large rounded floor which makes it extremely difficult to walk on. The occasional rocks were in the way, however, most of the walk through the cave was pretty easy.

coconino lava tubes

After about 45 minutes into the cave, we stopped at what was the end of the cave. We sat there for quite some time attempting to be in the cave in complete darkness. We also decided that this was a great place for a squad photo. Colin, Jane, Angelina, myself and Shawn had successfully reached the back of the cave and decided to make some cave music for about 35 minutes. This was probably the best part of the cave experience. One Ph.D., 2 masters degrees, and 5 bachelor's degrees spent about 35 minutes attempting to rap and express their weirdness in a cave as passers laughed and joined along. After we grew weary of cave music, we just headed a back to where we began. 

This was somewhere were id bring my children in the future. You could feel where the lava crawled over 700,000 years ago against the bottom of your feet as you make your way through the cave. You can pick up and play with the volcanic rock that was once warm lava that settled over time. This is one of the best places to take your family for free just a stone through from the grand canyon. 


  • 3 sources of light. Yes, you really do want at least 2-3 light sources including a flash light, head lamp, lantern, etc. This is because the rock floors are a painful combination of slippery and dark. If you fall or drop a light source catching yourself you are stuck in the pitch black of the lava tubes. This is no ordinary dark where you can slightly make out the rocks or have your eyes get used to the lack of light. It is the dark where you cannot see your hand if it is touching your nose!
  • Bring steady shoes. This includes hiking boots, running shoes, etc. Anything closed toed is the way to go. This again is due to the lack of light and uneven surface at the bottom of the cave.
  • Bring warm clothing. The cave is not only a constant average of 42°, but it leaks snow melt and weather from rain storms. This means the cold can be slightly damp depending on the time of year.
  • Optional-You could bring a helmet. This cave changes height frequently and in the dark it is difficult to make out anything around your flash light. Even the shortest of people have the potential to bang their head on the wall if they are focused on the ground.
Andres Portela