Great Lodges of the National Parks
Pacific Northwest: Oregon Caves
Many of America's natural treasures were discovered in the great Westward expansion of the 1850s. In contrast, Elijah Davidson found the Oregon Caves by accident, in 1874.
As word of his discovery spread, a few other brave souls explored deeper into the Cave, returning with tales of beauty and mystery. In 1907, a party of influential men, including Joaquin Miller, the "poet of the Sierras," visited the Caves.
Miller's writings helped to publicize the site and persuade federal officials to preserve the Caves. Two years later, President Taft proclaimed a tract of 480 acres as Oregon Caves National Monument.
In 1922, the first automobile road reached the site. A dozen years later, the Chateau was constructed, and management of the Monument was transferred from the Forest Service to the National Park Service.
According to the geologic record, the Caves were created by a very unusual series of events. The surrounding mountains began as chunks of ocean crust, and the Caves were once part of a limestone reef atop an active oceanic volcano. When the crust and continent collided, the reef was shoved nearly 12 miles under the continent's edge. And then uplifted to 4,000 feet above sea level. This all took about 200 million years, give or take a few.
As a result, in this tiny corner of the planet, there's an intense concentration of diverse rocks and life. There are really two worlds here, the subterranean ecosystem of the Caves – and the forest woodlands above, including the largest Douglas fir tree in Oregon. Below ground, living creatures are secretive. Above, there are many species of birds and mammals, including abundant deer.
People & Protection
Early visitors had to crawl into the Caves, and the smoke from their torches blackened the walls. Vandalism was common.
In the 1930s, the entry and other passage were blasted open, altering the delicate underground ecosystem. Debris from the blasting was piled in side passages. New trails opened pathways for flooding. Internal humidity changed. Lights promoted algae growth on the walls.
A restoration project was initiated in 1986. Thousands of formations, formerly buried under rubble, were uncovered. Water was returned to original paths, cascading over white marble. Airlocks restored the natural underground currents, blocking airflow in artificial tunnels. A new lighting and trail system reduced evaporation and flooding.
But the Caves are now threatened by a global increase in carbon dioxide, which affects the rock formations.
If the Caves were more accessible, they would surely receive more than 80,000 visitors a year. However, the only route to the Caves and Chateau is via a narrow, winding 20-mile mountain road, and people are strongly discouraged from driving with large vehicles, RVs, or long trailers.
According to Dick Rowley, the first custodian of the Caves, early visitors arrived either on foot or horseback, following a 10-mile trail through wild country. There were no visitor facilities back then, so people carried their own food and bedrolls. In the first year of operation, the Caves had about 300 visitors, and plenty of lost souls and vandalism. After that, the Forest Service posted a guard to monitor visitors.
The first road directly to the Caves was completed in 1922. A full road system, Parking areas and trails were finished by 1935.