The Lava River Cave in Arizona was created more than 700,000 years ago when a volcanic vent erupted north of what is now Flagstaff.
The hot magma burned a tunnel through the earth and eventually drained itself and cooled into a basalt catacomb that is still there today.
Now a part of Coconino National Forest, the Lava River Cave is a popular hike for tourists and Arizona locals.
In this article, we’ll look at the top 6 insider tips to make the best of your trip to the Lava River Cave, in Arizona.
Lava River Cave (Arizona): Tips
Stay In Flagstaff or Camp Nearby
The Lava River Cave is located 14 miles north of Flagstaff, where you will find the best accommodations for travelers visiting Coconino National Forest.
You can book a hotel room or Airbnb in the city and visit the cave on a day trip.
Alternatively, you can find campgrounds in Flagstaff or on the north route, if you want a more rustic experience.
There is no dispersed camping allowed within a 1-mile radius of the cave entrance.
Prepare for the Roads
The Lava River Cave is open for free, year-round, but road access is limited.
The cave can only be reached by driving on gravel roads, which can be a problem for cars, even in the summer.
A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for the uneven, loose terrain.
In the winter, it is common for forest roads FR171 and FR245 to be closed during the off-season due to snowy or muddy conditions.
If the roads are closed, you can still reach the cave by stopping at the side of US180. From there, it is a 4-mile hike (1 way) to the cave entrance.
In the winter, this trip can sometimes only be made on skis.
Nevertheless, it is possible! If the roads are closed and you are ready for a challenging 8-mile round trip hike, in addition to exploring the cave, you can do it.
Just remember to be safe and bring everything you need with you.
Bring a Warm Jacket and a Headlamp
Arizona can get pretty hot in the summer, so it might seem crazy to pack a winter jacket with you for your trip to the cave, but you’ll be thankful you did.
Even when the temperature surpasses 100 F at the surface, the cave remains cool, averaging 40 F year-round.
That might seem like a relief after sweating through sweltering temperatures, but when your body adjusts to the cold it gets uncomfortable and will ruin your experience of the cave.
Bring a good, heavy jacket to put on when you are deep in the caves.
You’ll also want to bring a headlamp, and probably 1 or 2 other lights.
There is no lighting inside the cave, so you’ll be responsible for lighting your way, and it won’t be easy.
Inside the cave, it is pitch black, and in some places, the ceilings are 30 feet high. The flashlight on your phone is almost useless in this environment.
Bringing a backup is a good idea because without light in the caves you could find yourself in a very dangerous situation.
Even if you have a new flashlight with brand new batteries, bring another light with you.
Arizona is infamously dry, but the surfaces inside the Lava River Cave can be wet and slippery due to condensation.
You’ll be stepping over and onto slippery rocks, and you may need to brace yourself or lean against slippery walls.
Pay close attention to this, since it can be easy to trip and fall inside the cave.
A pair of good hiking boots and/or gloves can help you keep your bearings and find traction, even in a wet cave.
Be Prepared for the Hike
The Lava River Cave is an accessible lava tube hike, and children above the age of 5 or 6 can enjoy it, but the hike is not exactly easy.
The first section of the cave, descending from the entrance, is one of the most difficult sections, with a lot of uneven ground and rocky outcroppings.
After that, the lava tube flattens out a little bit more and it is easier to walk through, although it can still get claustrophobic.
The height and width of the lava tube vary considerably, with some areas that are 30 feet tall and others where you need to crouch down to get through passages that are only 3 or 4 feet tall.
You’ll need to use both hands and both feet to navigate these spaces, so it makes sense to wait until children are old enough to follow along by themselves before bringing them along on this hike.
Although the Lava River Cave is the longest lava tube in Arizona, it still measures only 3/4 of a mile, and it takes less than an hour for most people to experience all of it.
For very young children, the elderly, and those with mobility issues, the hike might be frustrating or impossible, but for most people, it just requires some ducking and twisting to get through tight spaces.
Protect the Environment for Others
There is a bad history of vandalism in the Lava River Cave, which has had problems with litter and graffiti since the 60s.
In the early 90s, they scrubbed a lot of the graffiti off the walls and removed most of the garbage, but it takes an ongoing commitment from visitors to maintain a healthy cave environment.
Leave your pets behind, or outside the cave.
A lava tube doesn’t contain the kinds of bacteria that are needed to break down animal waste, and so urine and feces will only remain there.
Avoid touching the cave walls wherever possible, and bring a bag with you for any trash that you generate while hiking.
Make the Best of Your Lava River Cave Hike
The Lava River Cave is a great hike that brings you below the earth to experience the remnants of a volcanic eruption in Arizona.
It’s an experience you are bound to remember if you arrive with the right gear and expectations.
Although it’s free to enter, access is limited and during the winter the roads are sometimes closed, so plan for that.
The hike isn’t overly challenging for most people, but it does require ducking and scrambling over slippery rocks at 40F, which takes both hands and all of your attention.
It is much easier if you have good hiking boots, a warm jacket, and more than one strong LED light to guide your way.
If you do decide to visit, remember to leave the cave the way you found it, so that future generations can also experience the awe of moving through a subterranean tunnel made of volcanic basalt.
You might also like: