Caving at the Lava Beds

A family explores the back of Valentine Cave.

What You Need to Know Before You Go Caving

Current Cave Closures:

  • Ovis Cave
  • Paradise Alleys
  • Blue Grotto Cave
  • Balcony
  • Thunderbolt (upstream section)

Caves may be closed temporarily, seasonally, or year-round, depending on safety conditions or wildlife protection needs.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. You need the right equipment and preparations (see Cave Safely, below).
  3. You need to understand how to explore responsibly (see Cave Softly, below)
  4. 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!

Cave Safely Sign - Tell someone where you are going, when returning. Don’t go alone. Stay on trails. Wear helmet, long pants, sturdy footwear. Caves my be cold. Watch for low ceilings, uneven footing. Bring several lights.
Cave Safely - Tell someone where you are going, when returning. Don’t go alone. Stay on trails. Wear helmet, long pants, sturdy footwear. Caves my be cold. Watch for low ceilings, uneven footing. Bring several lights.

Safety First, Right?

Being underground is an entirely different experience 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.
Cave Softly Sign – If you see bats, leave the area quietly. Do not use caves as restrooms. Remove all trash. Do not break rock formations. No pets, food, alcohol, fires, or sources of flame in caves. Do not mark or deface cave walls.
Cave Softly – If you see bats, leave the area quietly. Do not use caves as restrooms. Remove all trash. Do not break rock formations. No pets, food, alcohol, fires, fireworks, or other sources of flame in caves. Do not mark or deface cave walls.

Explore Responsibly

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.

A child wearing a helmet stands in a beginner cave, with a smooth floor and relatively high ceiling.

Least Challenging

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 originally 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 - This is one of the only developed caves with two entrances; labeled as upper and lower sentinel on the park map. It is also 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.
  • Big Painted Cave & Symbol Bridge Cave - Features fascinating rock art pictographs, some faded, some easy to spot.
  • Ovis Cave & Paradise Alleys - These two have interesting side passages and several entrances.
An intermediate cave with a sloping and rocky floor and a tighter entrance

Moderately Challenging

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.

  • Golden Dome - Beware of “headache rock” when entering and exiting the cave via the ladder. The downstream portion of this cave (heading north) requires some stooping. The back section where the “Golden Dome” is located is a figure-8; take note of your location so you don’t go around in circles. The golden ceiling in this and many other caves here are the result of light reflecting off water droplets that bead up on a coating of hydrophobic bacteria. The bacteria are not harmful to humans but are easily damaged, so please do not touch. The upstream portions of this cave require more stooping and some crawling.
  • Sunshine - Two collapses allow sunlight to enter the cave where abundant vegetation grows. Stooping is required in the main passage, and the back section has floors that are steep, very rough and sometimes wet. Beautiful hydrophobic bacteria coats the ceiling at the back of this cave, where winter icicles adorn cracks in the ceiling.
  • Indian Well - The first half of this cave has a pathway which changes to loose rock. It has a high ceiling and unusual ice formations in winter. Historically, this cave was home to a pool of water, which is how it got the “well” part of its name.
  • Balcony & Boulevard - These caves have sections of low ceilings, and an optional crawl up onto a balcony created by changing lava flow levels. The “boulevard” was named for the smooth floor created by a lava cascade.
  • Blue Grotto - Named for the pale blue-gray portions of the ceiling inside the “Blue Grotto”. The ceilings are high throughout this cave but the floors are rough.
A tight cave passages with a caver crawling in the background
A caver wearing a helmet, squatting inside a cave with about a 3 foot high celling.

Most Challenging

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:

  • Labyrinth & Lava Brook - These caves near the Visitor Center are connected by a twisting segment requiring crawling. Ceiling heights tend to be low throughout. As the name Labyrinth suggests you must pay attention to your route! The “Lava Brook” is an interesting pattern left on the floor of one passage by the last lava flow. As you travel through these caves be prepared to exit at one of three locations, the Labyrinth, Lava Brook or Thunderbolt entrances.
  • Hopkins Chocolate - Named by E.L. Hopkins for the rich brown color of lava coating the ceiling and walls. Stooping is required in a couple places, and there is one passage with a ceiling height of 3 ft (0.9 m) that requires duck-walking. If you look closly you can find historical graffitti in by J.D. Howard, and E.L. Hopkins.
  • Hercules Leg & Juniper - These two caves were connected by the removal of debris in a collapse pit, and together make one long excursion with an entrance and exit. The Hercules Leg portion has generally high ceilings and smooth floors. The connection to Juniper cave involves crossing rocky floors with a passage height of 2.5 ft (0.8 m), and several low sections thereafter
  • Catacombs, which has a map available for download. This very long cave is easily entered but gradually increases in difficulty. It is possible to walk upright for approximately 800 ft (244 m) to the stairway, after which the ceiling rarely exceeds 3 ft (0.9 m). A few places exist where the ceiling height is less then 12 in (30 cm). A cave map is highly recommended for any group planning to explore the entire cave, as multiple levels and numerous side passages can be confusing. This cave is not recommended for inexperienced cavers.
  • Thunderbolt - Crawling is required in the downstream portions of this cave where it connects to Labyrinth and Lava Brook Caves. Upstream (right) from the entrance are a few tight areas, one of which is 6 in (15 cm) wide at knee level. There is some stooping before the ceiling height allows walking upright.
Cave Name LENGTH
You can
upright on
main path
/ steps
has a
duck in
in some
Most people
must crawl in
some places if
you go through
the whole cave
out to
Distance from
Visitor Center
Mushpot 770ft / 235m Y Y (paved) Y 524 foot walk
Sentinel 3280ft /1000m Y Y Y Cave Loop
Valentine 1635ft / 498m Y Y Y 1.6 mile drive
Skull 580ft / 177m Y Y Y 2.4 mile drive
Merrill 650ft / 198m Y Y Y 2.8 mile drive
Heppe 170ft / 52m Y Y ~0.4 mi. 2.8 mile drive
Big Painted 266ft / 81m Y Y Y ~0.5 mi. 2.3 mile drive
Symbol Bridge 148ft / 45m Y Y Y ~0.7 mi. 2.3 mile drive
Ovis 216ft / 66m Y Y Y Cave Loop
Paradise Alley 1033ft / 315m Y Y Cave Loop
Golden Dome 2229ft / 679m Y Y Y Y Cave Loop
Sunshine 466ft / 142m Y Y Y Cave Loop
Indian Well 300ft / 91m Y Y First 1/2 Y 1064 foot walk
Balcony & Boulevard 2903ft / 885m
759ft / 231m
Y Y ~0.2 mi. 2.8 mile drive
Blue Grotto 1541ft / 470m Y Y Y Cave Loop
Labyrinth & Lava Brook 1239ft / 378m
859ft / 262m
Hopkins Chocolate 1405ft / 428m Y Y Y Y Cave Loop
Hercules Leg & Juniper 1948ft / 594m
2363ft / 720m
Y Y Y Cave Loop
Catacombs 6903ft / 2104m Y Y Y Y Cave Loop
Thunderbolt (connects to
Labyrinth and Lava Brook)
2561ft / 781m Y Y Y Y Cave Loop

Last updated: April 21, 2024

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