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It’s hard to get tired of hiking above-ground trails, but perhaps you’re ready for a new challenge! Lava tubes are a lot like caves, but they’re formed differently. Like caves, they’re underground passageways which sustain cool temperatures year-round. They can be a great way to escape from the summer heat without hiding indoors.

The stairway into Skeleton Cave, Lassen National Forest

So how exactly are they created? Lava tubes are formed from volcanic activity. To make a long story short and simple: When a volcano erupts, lava flows out of it, eventually forming a hardened, dried lava bed in the surrounding area. Below the surface, lava is still flowing in channels. As it starts to cool, it crusts over to form a roof and, eventually, walls.

So what does a lava tube look like on the inside? My best description would be a dark, abandoned, underground subway tunnel. The walls and ceiling are usually pretty smooth. The ground can be very jagged and uneven, unless the park or forest service has created a paved trail. The width of the opening, height of the ceiling, and total length varies from tube to tube.

Inside Skeleton Cave

Lava River Cave in Newberry National Volcanic Monument

These formations can be found all over the world in volcanic regions. In the U.S., we have national parks dedicated to some of them. Most of the tubes are open for self-guided, free tours, without any reservations required. However, some parks offer special guided tours at certain times of the year.

Opening of Lava River Cave

If you plan on exploring one of these underground phenomenons, you need to have just a few key items. No matter what temperature it is outside, it’s going to be in the 40s or 50s down below. You’ll probably want some pants and a light sweater. You’re definitely going to want some sturdy shoes. Flip-flops or sandals just won’t cut it. There are absolutely no artificial lights set up, so you’ll have to bring a flashlight, or two. Or, you can rent out a lantern from some of the parks.

Lava River Cave

Being inside a lava tube is a unique experience. Imagining lava flowing through the very spot where you’re currently standing is mind-blowing. It’s an opportunity you won’t want to miss!

Here are some top spots to check out:

  • Lava Beds National Monument, California
  • Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Oregon
  • Lassen National Forest, Oregon
  • Coconino National Forest, Arizona
  • Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Washington
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