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Descending into the depths of a volcanic lava cave sounds like something that Hollywood would have a field day with. Just outside Flagstaff, Arizona, though, this is actually a reality for avid hikers. Deep in the Ponderosa Pine Forest lies a cave system that sits just underground, but introduces hikers to an entirely new world.

With temperatures that go as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit - even during the warmer months - there's a sense of wonder and awe for those exploring the Lava Tubes. Lava River Cave is not hard to find, but the hike there does require some prep work and fancy footwork to reach. Here's how to find the Flagstaff Lava Tubes, and some tips for hiking down into its depths.


How To Find The Flagstaff Lava Tubes

Hikers who are new to the lava tubes should be aware that the cave's conditions do require some level of physical fitness. Additionally, the cave ceiling varies in height from as high as 30 feet in some places, to only three feet in others. On the ground level, the terrain is sometimes uneven, often slippery, and requires some agility on the part of the hiker.

For those who are well-prepared for the Lava River Cave, it can be found with the following directions:

  • From Flagstaff: Travel north on US 180 until mile marker 229. After that, a left turn onto Forest Road 245 will bring visitors to Forest Road 171, which will lead to Forest Road 171B. From here, a left turn will give way to the parking area for the Lava Tubes.

After parking, hikers will have a fairly straightforward hike to the caves for a quarter of a mile.

Related: Guide To Flagstaff: Finding Arizona's Best Winter Activities

The cave itself was formed roughly 700,000 years ago after a volcano erupted in Hart Prairie. The process of rapid cooling on the exterior of the lava flow is what caused a hollow interior, which is what created the lava tube cave that exists today. Visitors can see evidence of this unique cooling process, as well as details in the floor and walls from the lava that hardened as it traveled. These hardened lava rock walls are responsible for keeping the cave at 48 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler all year-round, despite how hot Flagstaff's summers get.

The cave itself is three-quarters of a mile long!

Flagstaff.com recommends that hikers should be in mostly good physical condition to traverse the lava tubes. The descent down involves roughly 300 feet of rock scrambling, which can include loose gravel, large rocks, and dirt. At times, hikers will be forced to use their hands as well as their feet to climb down into the cave's entrance, with some spots being more precarious than others. The space requires hikers to be comfortable with small, confined spaces, although the path down does open up into a wider cavern.

Anything goes on this cave hike - crawling, crouching, and scrambling. Obviously, good footwork is required, and this is not a hike that should be attempted by those with ankle, foot, or leg injuries, or anyone who is unstable on their feet.

When To Visit The Flagstaff Lava River Cave

The best time for hikers to visit the lava tubes is during the summer. This is when navigation will be the easiest, and this is when visitors can count on the caves being open daily. During the winter, the caves often close for safety reasons due to snow and ice.

Those visiting in the winter are welcome to snowshoe or ski to the cave but are not permitted to navigate the caves when they're closed for the season.

Tips For Visiting The Lava Tubes

Those planning to hike the Lava River Cave will need to come prepared, and that includes knowing what to bring.

  • Good Footwear. Shoes with good traction and non-slip soles are an absolute must for visiting this cave. The floor is prone to being slippery and may even have a layer of ice, so good footwear is necessary.
  • At least three light sources. The cave is pitch dark which means that relying on one light source is not always the best idea. In the event that one light source breaks, another has low batteries, etc., it's better to have three reliable sources of light rather than just one.
  • Appropriate clothing. Since the temperature can be so much lower inside the cave than outside, appropriate clothing, such as layers, will be more comfortable.
  • Consider a helmet. These low ceilings are no joke - protecting one's head should be a top priority.
  • Don't rush. The length of the cave is not long, but hikers should be sure to take their time when descending and ascending the cave entrance. Start earlier in the day so that the hike doesn't feel rushed.
  • Know your skill level. If the cave hike proves to be too challenging, avoid going any further. This hike requires several technical hiking skills, which are applied both when entering and exciting the cave.

Visiting the Flagstaff Lava Tubes is a unique experience that one would not expect in the middle of Arizona. It's worth doing for those who are confident in their hiking abilities, and is a chance to see some of Flagstaff's most awe-inspiring geological history.