In Southern Oregon not far from the California border in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, there is a special place in the woods—marble caves with surprising formations and an underground stream. Steps from the cave entrance is the Chateau at the Oregon Caves, one of the great lodges of the Pacific Northwest and a historic landmark.
Adventuring to the Oregon Caves
Getting to the caves is an adventure in itself. Once you get to Cave Junction you’ll be traveling up winding OR-46, 20 miles to the Oregon Caves National Monument. It’s easy to envision the early tourists motoring along this narrow road. Busses and RVs are not allowed and travel is slow due to blind turns and the chance of wildlife darting out in front of you. It can take you up to an hour to travel this road.
Once you arrive, there is parking and the historic Chateau at the Oregon Caves beckons you with its spacious lobby and central stone fireplace, cozy rooms with hand-made quilts on the beds, and restaurants serving local comfort food.
Oregon Caves Chateau
This picturesque six-story lodge blends into the forest with its bark-covered exterior. The building extends down into a canyon with a little waterfall and trout pond. The Chateau houses 23 guest rooms, a fine dining room overlooking the canyon, and a quaint 1930s-era coffee shop.
We checked into our rooms, noted there was no Wi-Fi and settled down for a good rest. My corner room had large windows overlooking the wooded canyon, a nice sized bathroom with a tub, a desk and closet. Every room is different but all had the charm of early park lodges. The lodge’s ghosts didn’t make an appearance that night and I awoke as the light of day filled the canyon.
We gathered in the Caves Café coffee shop for traditional breakfasts—French toast, eggs, and local sausage, hearty bowls of oatmeal and, of course, coffee. The “Eggs in a Cave” were popular with the eggs being cooked inside a “cave” of Texas toast. It was easy to want to relax for a while in this old-fashioned café with birch and maple counters and knotty-pine paneling. But, the hearty breakfasts were to prepare us for the much-anticipated entry into the cave, just steps away from the Chateau.
Oregon Caves National Monument
Our next adventure took some preparation. The Oregon Cave maintains a temperature of 44 degrees year ‘round. We needed to bundle up and wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes for the winding trek through the marble cave. I opted for wearing hiking boots just to be sure I wouldn’t slip or trip.
We arrived at the visitors center and were greeted by Ranger Katie Dagastino, a geologist, and our guide for the morning. She showed us a set of stairs where we could test our abilities to climb tall steps and made sure we could bend down and walk at the same time by having us perform a hilarious low level “duck waddle.” We all passed and then received further cautions. No camera bags or purses were allowed and, if we had been in another cave wearing the clothes and shoes we had on, we could not go in. Why? The bats in the cave were susceptible to a fungal disease carried by micro-organisms from cave to cave.
So then, all a bit apprehensive, we walked to the big steel-barred door at the mossy entrance to the cave. We could hear the trickle of the little river as we walked in. It was dark but the ranger turned on lights as we traversed the marble-lined paths. While parts of the walkway were smooth cement and had handrails, other parts were rocky and uneven.
But it was all worth it. As we went deeper into the cave our guide continued the story of how the cave was discovered in 1874 by Elijah Davidson, a hunter who stumbled upon it while looking for his dog (and avoiding a bear). She pointed out small cave insects and, as we entered a chamber, took a flashlight and showed us a colony of bats sleeping attached to a ceiling. During the tour, we encountered only a few flying bats, headed toward the opening in the cave after we disturbed them.
At one point we stopped our tour at an auxiliary cave exit and those who were feeling tired or, perhaps claustrophobic, could leave the cave. (Map of the cave route)
Deep in the cave, things got really interesting. We did our “duck waddle” a number of times to enter larger rooms with impressive formations of stalagmites and stalactites.
We marveled at formations and rooms with names like “Paradise Lost,” “Ghost Room,” and the “Grand Column.” At one point we climbed steep metal stairs to access one of the most impressive formations.
The exciting tour took ninety minutes and when last we exited the cave, we breathed a sigh of relief and enjoyed the warmer air of the forest. Had we not been planning to head for the southern Oregon Coast, a stop at the Caves Café for one of their famous milkshakes would have been ideal.
The Renovation of the Chateau at the Oregon Caves
We were one of the last to stay at the Chateau before an exciting renovation project would close it for one to two years. A representative of The Friends of the Oregon Caves and Chateau showed us how efforts were being made to replicate the original details of the lodge as the renovations proceeded.
Original Monterey Furniture is being sought to ensure the lodge is restored to its original woodsy elegance. They need more than 240 pieces to complete a set for each guest room and the public spaces. Monterey Furniture is ideal for lodges. The heavy furniture design is derived from Spanish and Dutch Colonial styles, California Mission architecture and furnishings, and ranch-type furniture.
The Chateau at the Oregon Caves itself was built in the tradition of many of our National Park lodges with the design of the buildings fitting into the landscape and using the local materials in a rustic fashion.
Landscape architect Arthur Peck suggested the traditional look of the monument’s buildings, and Grants Pass carpenter and self-taught architect Gust Lium followed suit when he designed and built the Chateau. The rocks are the same marble we saw in the cave and the bark which covers the structures is from native Port Orford Cedar trees.
While there are necessary safety and structural upgrades planned and paid for by the National Park Service, I was thrilled to know that the Chateau would look even more like a 1930’s lodge inside than it does now, thanks to the efforts of the Friends of the Oregon Caves and Chateau. I look forward to returning when it opens.
When You Go to The Oregon Caves National Monument
Cave tours are available late March through early November. Surface areas are open year around. Tour schedules are subject to change due to weather or other unforeseen events. During the summer months, wait times for tours can reach two or more hours. To avoid this, arrive early or make a reservation in advance at www.recreation.gov.
Aside from the requirements I talked about previously, there is a 42-inch height requirement for children and they must be able to navigate the cave without being carried. More information about cave tours can be found on the Oregon Caves National Monument website. For more ideas on touring Oregon see these Oregon articles written by Wander contributors.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary meal, accommodations, and tour for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.