Caves may be closed seasonally, or year-round, depending on several reasons. In the summer we protect maternal bat colonies where mothers raise tiny, vulnerable bat pups on the ceilings. In the winter, we protect caves used by hibernating bats that would die if they are disturbed from their energy-saving slumber. Other closures help prevent the possible introduction of the fungus associated with white-nose syndrome, a disease that is killing millions of bats in North America.
Caving is one of the quintessential experiences of visiting the monument, but there's a few things you need to know before you head out and explore the monument's amazing variety of lava tube caves.
You need a Caving Permit before entering any cave. These permits are free, and available at the Visitor Center during operating hours. Cave permits helps to ensure visitors are ready to cave safely, and also reduce the chance of a fungus causing white-nose syndrome, a deadly disease, to spread and infect more bats.
You need the right equipment and preparations (see Cave Safely, below).
You need to understand how to explore responsibly (see Cave Softly, below)
You need to know where to go, and which caves are easier to explore than others (see The Cave List, below).
If you cover these four items, you are sure to have an amazing experience in the caves!
Safety First, Right?
Being underground is an entirely different expereince from most visitor's day-to-day like above ground. You don't know what it's like until you've done it, and there's a few things you must do to keep yourself and your family safe while exploring. Here's a few things we have noticed that get people into trouble:
Don't rely on your cellphone as a flashlight. Bring several "real" sources of light. We recommend both a headlamp and a handheld flashlight for each person. We often have flashlights to borrow at the Visitor Center.
You have to protect your head with a helmet. The #1 injury we see are nasty cuts and bumps on the head, all of which are preventable and will definitely ruin your day. Basic helmets can be purchased from the bookstore in the Visitor Center at a fairly low cost.
Keep your children close. There are steep stairs, uneven cave floors, and deep drop offs due to collapsed lava tubes. Little children may not recognize these as hazards. Please keep an eye on your children and do not let them wander ahead of you.
Pick the right cave. Some caves are easier than others, depending on lots of factors - how high the ceiling is, how complex and confusing the cave's passages are, how rough the floor is for walking or scrambling, etc. Scroll down to see how we've ranked each cave so you can choose the right one for you. We recommend everybody new to caving starts at Mushpot Cave, a short walk from the Visitor Center and the only cave we have illuminated with lighting.
You have a lot of freedom to explore at Lava Beds, which is part of the fun - but with that power comes responsibility, right? We need your help making sure the caves stay safe, beautiful, and fun for others, as well as the creatures that make these caves their homes. A few good tips:
Bats need their space. Like all wild animals, bats deserve some care and respect. If you see one sleeping on the cave ceiling, cool! You can quietly have a look at it, then move on. But if you see some flying, let rangers know. That could mean there's a maternity colony (female bats raising their babies together) Never touch a bat! Let rangers know if you see one moving around during the day, especially on the ground or outside a cave. We might want to check it for rabies, which bats can have.
"Go before you go." Restrooms are scarce near the caves. Make sure you are prepared for lots of time spent exploring by making a pitstop at the Visitor Center were bathrooms are accessible from outside the building even after-hours.
No, no, no... There's very good reasons we don't allow fires, smoking, food, or pets in caves. Please keep these nuisances out, as well as any trash.
The Cave List
There are 24 caves for you to explore, and they are all different. Here's our take on how easy they are to explore, and a few other notes to help you decide where to go. Whether you have a few hours or a few days to spend here, there is sure to be a cave for your fitness level and comfort underground.
These caves have relatively high ceilings and established trails or smooth floors.
Mushpot Cave - Considered an extension of the Visitor Center, this cave is a short walk away and has a paved path and lighting inside. A good first cave.
Valentine Cave - Probably your best second cave, and if you only have time for one cave during your travels, this might be it. Smooth, organic looking walls with great "primary volcanic features," as in, it still looks much like the day after the lava cooled.
Skull Cave - If time for just two caves, make this the second one! It is massive, and a good contrast to Valentine Cave in how this one is mostly "breakdown," or boulders that fell from the original ceiling and covered the floor. There's a nice trail orignially built by the CCC. As an added bonus, take the long stairways down to the chilly bottom where a year-round ice floor can be viewed. Wonderful on a hot summer day!
Sentinel Cave - A long cave with some bonus deeper passages for caving experts.
Merrill Ice Cave - Historically, there was an ice floor large enough to skate on. Now it is no more - but there is more to the story.
Heppe Ice Cave - A pond in the summer, and an ice floor in the winter. Worth the short hike.
These caves may involve stooping through low sections and/or rough floors. Additional safety gear is recommended for the more difficult spots, including: cave maps, kneepads, and gloves.
Balcony & Boulevard
These caves have some portions which require crawling, and/or may have confusing passages where getting disoriented and lost is a risk. Using all recommended precautions, planning, and safety gear is a must:
Catacombs, which has a map available for download.