Lava River Cave - Flagstaff, Arizona
Updated: Apr 24, 2022
Who would think that admist the beautiful Ponderosa Pine forest in Northern Arizona we would have our very own collection of volcanic wonders? One of these wonders includes the Lava River Cave in Flagstaff, which were formed by molten rock that erupted from a volcanic vent near Hart Prairie. As the lava flowed from the vent, the outside hardened into a tube-like formation. This newly created tunnel filled with molten lava creating a fiery faucet. Once the flow was done, the cave cooled and remains a 3/4 mile-long tunnel for all of those brave enough to explore it. This 700,000-year-old formation remains a cool 35°-42° even in the summer.
WHAT TO BRING
3 sources of light. Yes, you really do want at least 2-3 light sources including a flashlight, headlamp, 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 snowmelt and weather from rainstorms. 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 flashlight. Even the shortest of people have the potential to bang their head on the wall if they are focused on the ground.
What to Expect
Access: The road to the main parking lot is incredibly well-maintained. Any vehicle will have an easy time accessing the area. The approach from the parking lot to the entry of the Lava River cave is a flat, well-maintained, hard-packed trail that is less than 1/4 mile long.
Phyical Abilities: Being in mostly good physical condition is appropriate. The first 300 ft of the cave is composed of loose, often times slippery boulder rocks that require some amount of scrambling. Using your hands, feet and even sitting on rocks for stability at times is likely. The Lava River Cave meets all "Confined Space Entry" criteria, so be prepared for this in the beginning of your exploration. Once you are in the cave after scrambling down into it, the angle of the ground flattens out but the terrain will continue to be uneven for the remaining distance. There will be points in the cave where the roof gets low. Shorter humans can crouch as they walk, taller humans (maybe 6'2+) might need to crawl. If you have an ankle or foot injury, use extreme caution if you choose to go on this walk as it is especially high-risk for rolling an ankle.
Coversations/Things we learned
If you are in the Flagstaff Arizona region, this location is well worth the visit. The geology and walk through an ice cave in the Arizona heat is a welcome treat.
Drive 9 miles north of Flagstaff on US 180 and turn west (left) on FR 245 (at milepost 230). Continue 3 miles to FR171 and turn south 1 mile to where FR 171B turns left a short distance to Lava River Cave.
For more information please contact Flagstaff Ranger District at 928-526-0866.
(San Francisco Mountain)
(San Francisco Mountains)