A Journey Underground… Oregon Caves National Monument

Rock formations in Oregon Caves National Monument.

Unusual rock formations created by minerals from dripping water led the Oregon Caves to be set aside as a national treasure in the early 1900s.

Claustrophobia: A fear of confined places

Acrophobia came up in my blog about Mt. Whitney. No surprise there, thousands of feet are between the hiker and a rather unfortunate landing. Splat! It’s a reasonable fear. Claustrophobia is just as real as fears go, but more irrational. The odds of being squished in a tight space— unless you are Indiana Jones or a misplaced wookie caught in a starship’s garbage disposal unit— are between slim and none. Don’t sweat it, right?

Try telling that to someone who is claustrophobic. I suggest you don’t stand between her and the exit. I get it. I am not particularly fond of enclosed spaces myself, whether they are physical or mental. I don’t like driving through tunnels and I hate freeway construction where imposing cement barriers shrink down to your vehicle’s width and provide a view of what hell is like. And that’s even before the gigantic truck comes barreling down on you and breathes fire up your tail pipe because you insist on driving 45 MPH in a 45 MPH zone. At least I can take my revenge when they put up plastic cones instead of cement barriers, as Peggy might tell you. Crunch. Curt strikes another blow for freedom.

Where does this leave me with caving, or spelunking, as the sophisticates call it? How do I feel about getting down on my belly and crawling through a space my skinny fourteen-year-old body would have gotten stuck in several hundred feet under ground? Not a problem; it’s not on my to-do list. But for some unfathomable reason, the standard well-known cave tours don’t bother me. In fact, I find them fascinating. Stalactites and stalagmites tickle my fancy and stir my imagination.

Photo showing how stalactites grow in Oregon Cave National Monument.

These small stalactites show tiny drops of mineral laden water that come down from a tube in the center of the stalactite. They will add about an inch of growth in a thousand years. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

This photo from Oregon Cave National Monument shows the development of stalactites (coming down) and stalagmites (coming up). Eventually they meet, as demonstrating on the left. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

This photo from Oregon Cave National Monument shows the development of stalactites (coming down) and stalagmites (going up). Eventually they meet, as demonstrated on the left. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

So when Peggy suggested we head off to the Oregon Cave National Monument for her birthday a couple of weeks ago, I readily agreed. We’d been talking about it ever since we moved to Oregon. Except for the last few miles of the road that shot up a mountain and redefined the meaning of curves, the hour and a half drive was quite pleasant.

A ranger greeted us and gave us the bad news. We should expect a two-hour wait. He also wanted to know if we had been in any eastern caves in the last five years. If so— no go. White nose syndrome was wiping out eastern bats. So far their western cousins had lucked out. It had been six years since we had visited Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We were in by a cat’s whisker.

Our wait turned out to be just over an hour. There was barely time for lunch and a look through the visitor’s center before we found ourselves at the cave entrance shivering from a blast of 44˚ F air. “Cave’s breathe,” our guide stated. He also told us about the 500 narrow stairs we would be negotiating and the low ceilings. I would be bent over double with my size 14 shoes balanced precariously on wet slippery rocks. I looked enviously at a small girl who would be standing up straight with her feet resting solidly on the narrow stone steps. She gave me an impish grin.

Stone steps in Oregon Caves National Monument

Dimly lit stone steps make their way up from what is known as Ghost Cave. The narrowest ones were about half the depth of my size 14 shoes. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

The Oregon Caves are somewhat unusual in that they are made out of marble. Once upon a time they were a coral reef far out in the Pacific. Plate tectonics sent the Pacific Plate diving under North America and scraped off portions of the ocean floor some 100 million years ago, adding new land to the continent. The tremendous heat and pressure involved changed the lime into marble. Folding, faulting and water created the caves.

This map shows the location of Oregon Caves National Monument.

This map shows the location of Oregon Caves National Monument. (Center Right)

Lit up stalactites in Oregon Caves National Monument.

Artificial lighting adds to the magic of caves.

Another example of the impact of lighting. The rock on the left had been signed by all of the members of a geology class that had visited in the 1800s. Strict rules are now in place to protect the cave.

Another example of the impact of lighting. The rock on the left had been signed by all of the members of a geology class that had visited in the 1800s. Strict rules are now in place to protect the cave.

Unusual stone structure in Oregon Caves National Monument.

This unusual structure caught my camera’s attention.

Ghostly rock waterfall at Oregon Caves National Monument.

Peggy captured this ghostly rock waterfall. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Cave exit at Oregon Caves National Monument.

A view of where we came out from our 90 minute tour.

Standing on top of the mountain that contains Oregon Caves National Monument.

Tour over, Peggy and I stand on top of the mountain that contains the caves. This photo gives a perspective on the surrounding countryside.

NEXT BLOG: Peggy and I are headed off for a brief hiking tour at Mt. Rainier National Park for the next several days so I may be out of computer range. When I come back I will report on my recent experience as a chicken farmer: The Chicken Whisperer.

33 thoughts on “A Journey Underground… Oregon Caves National Monument

    • Thanks Lynne. Mt. Rainier was quite beautiful… and a forced break from the Internet. LOL Now we are scurrying to get ready for our Orca Kayaking trip and Burning Man. After that we are going to settle down. 🙂 At least for a couple of months. –Curt

  1. That looks like a great trip/experience. We have Luray Caverns her in Virginia, but I haven’t been in a few years (steep $25 fee doesn’t help) but when I go visit a friend out west maybe this will be on the to-do list!

  2. I’m not too much of a cave woman, but your photos are splendid as always and I breathe when I saw the surroundings when you were out of the caves. Gorgeous scenery. Enjoy Mount Rainier!
    The Chicken Whisperer is intriguing…

  3. Plate tectonics have always fascinated me, and the idea of those sliding layers of earth surface (one an ocean floor) now in the middle of a continent I find mind-blowing. Thanks for the underground tour and the great rock formation pictures plus the spot-on description of driving through roadworks!

    • Glad you enjoyed the tour Hilary. Peggy and I just returned from visiting Mt. Rainier National Park… the exact opposite of our cave tour. 🙂 We’ve also been out of reach for the Internet. Guess I better get back to work. –Curt

  4. Well, look there. It’s another revelation. The phrase is “stalactites and stalagmites” — not “stalagtites.” I suppose that’s one of those things I misheard as a child and never got straightened out because, let’s face it, I don’t spend much time around caves.

    The photos are great. That last one, of the place from whence you emerged, reminds me of Thunderball Cave, at Staniel Cay in the Bahamas.

    The first photo looks like a broomstick skirt, wrapped to ensure plenty of creases!

    • Glad to help you out on stalactites. 🙂 Now it’s my turn… what is a broomstick skirt?

      BTW, have you been following the Ebola news in Liberia. Peace Corps has pulled it’s volunteers out from the country. –Curt

      • Broomstick skirt

        Yes, re: Liberia and Ebola. In fact, I’m writing about one aspect of it this afternoon. Connection: Walter Gwenigale, Minister of Health, was Medical director at Phebe when I was there. Also: problems up at Voinjama, where some panic-stricken bolted and ended up in a pediatric ward, the village, etc. Not good, though understandable.

  5. Curt, you and Peggy really captured the beauty of the cave with your words and photos. You also really captured the feeling of claustrophobia – I had no idea I was claustrophobic until we were in a pyramid in Egypt with a huge crowd. Wow.

    James and I had one of our first dates at Mammoth Cave (we lived really close) and I loved the general tour, but never did one of the “crawl on your belly” tours. 🙂 ~Terri

    • One of your first dates at Mammoth Cave… that’s romantic. Peggy and I went to a symphony and my stomach growled through the whole performance.:)

      The cave did have some very unusual rock formations. Thanks. As for claustrophobia, being caught underground with a large crowd would do it. I remember feeling that way above ground at Mardi Gras in NOLA where I was literally forced to move with the crowd.

      We just returned from Mt. Rainier where 1) we didn’t have Internet and 2) my laptop got wet. Talk about quitting my Internet addiction cold turkey….


      • We had that same “forced to move with the crowd” experience on the Great Wall. Yikes!

        Mt. Rainier sounds great. Isn’t it funny how attached we get to the internet. Hope your laptop survived the drenching.

        You and Peggy must be gearing up for Burning Man. I love this year’s theme of “Caravansary.” That should definitely be interesting. I had no idea that tickets sell our so quickly. Do you have trouble getting them? ~Terri

      • My laptop seems to be among the living again. When I took it in to be fixed it had apparently fixed itself, Terri.

        Rainier was beautiful. Hopefully I will get a blog up on it before we head out on our week’s Orca watching kayak trip… and then Burning Man.

        Tickets have been tough to obtain for Burning Man for several years now Terri. We missed this year, but friends got extras. To get tickets you have to preregister and then be on line the moment they start to sell, or make that second. Fingers are poised.


  6. I’ve never toured caverns like this. Still have that on my bucket list. Thanks for taking us along.

    Your description of claustrophobia reminds me of something Wendell Berry wrote. He described felling like “being in a small stall with a large horse.”

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