Visiting Oregon Caves: Complete Guide to A National Park Without The Crowds
June 7, 2021
Travel date May 2021
Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve is a small high elevation National Park located in the Siskiyou Mountains of south-central Oregon. The park’s main attraction is the ranger-led cave tours but the surrounding evergreen forest also offers many hiking opportunities. Additionally, the park’s visitor center is housed in a historic chateau. The Chateau is built in the rustic National park architecture style. Visiting Oregon Caves is a great option on an Oregon road trip from the Samuel H Boardman Scenic Corridor along the southern coast to Crater Lake National.
As with many National Park sites, the Oregon Caves require a bit of a drive to get there. Expect a scenic curvy and narrow mountain road leading to the park.
Fun Facts about Oregon Caves
During the summer cave guides live on the top two floors of the Chateau.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built a walled garden, curved trails and waterfalls near the cave entrance in the 1930s. The intent was to make the area more scenic.
The marble cave was carved by groundwater soaking through the forest floor. The groundwater is a naturally acidic combination of rainwater and carbon dioxide from the forest soil. It dissolved the marble layers creating caverns. The process still continues today.
Eight bat species shelter in the Oregon Cave. All use echolocation to feed and fly in total darkness.
Horizontal rungs on the cave gates allow the bats to safely enter and exit the cave.
Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve Basic Facts
Location: south central Oregon; 50 miles from Grants Pass, OR and 76 from Cresent City, CA
Park Size: 480 acres
Elevation: Cave Creek Trail 2,860 feet; Chateau at 4,000 feet; Mount Elijah at 6,319 feet
Number of visitors annually: 65k in 2019 (Chateau renovations caused lowest visitation since 1956)
Established: National Monument in 1909
Admission: FREE (fees charged for cave tours)
Visitor Centers: Chateau Visitor Center (in the park); Illinois Valley Visitor Center in Cave Junction (20 miles before the park)
How long do I need when visiting Oregon Caves?
A half-day at Oregon Caves is sufficient time for a cave tour and a short hike. If visiting Oregon Caves on a roadtrip, allow at least 45 minutes to drive from Cave Junction to the park. Lodging is available at the park during peak season. National Forest campgrounds are also available along Oregon Highway 24.
What to know before you go?
The Chateau closed in 2018 for a multi-year renovation project. Check the status online before your visit. It offers the only lodging and dining in the park.
The closest town to Oregon Caves is Cave Junction, OR. It is 20 miles northwest on OR-46. The town has several grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations.
Oregon Hwy 46 from Cave Junction is a narrow winding mountain road. Expect many 25 mph curves. It is best to leave trailers and RVs at the Illinois Valley visitor center. There are no oversized parking spaces at the park.
During peak season, the Chateau offers food and lodging in the park.
Cave tours are the main attraction at this park and they sell out quickly in the summer. Either book tour tickets in advance at recreation.gov or visit the Illinois Valley Visitor Center to purchase tickets before driving to the park.
What is there to do at Oregon Caves?
Oregon Caves is a small park in comparison to other National Parks. Visitation has decreased in recent years since the closure of the Chateau’s dining and lodging. Cave tours and hiking are the top things to do at Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.
Visit the Oregon Caves Chateau
The Chateau was built in 1934 and was the first permanent structure. Port Orford cedar bark covers the chateau’s exterior and blends perfectly into the surrounding forest.
The six-story hotel has a fine dining room, a 1930’s era coffee shop, and 23 rooms. Other notable architectural features are the marble rock structures, a grand fireplace and massive Ponderosa Pine pillars and beams of Douglas fir. All park guests are welcome for dinner or a drink at the Grand Lodge even if they aren’t hotel guests.
The Chateau is a National Historic Landmark within the Oregon Caves National Historic District. The district also consists of a beautiful cedar bark covered visitor center and bookstore.
If visiting the Oregon Caves during cave closures, the main thing to do is take a hike. We enjoy hiking so that wasn’t a problem. There are six hiking trails at Oregon Caves ranging from a short one-mile walk on the Cliff Nature Trail to a full day 9.2-mile hike to the summit of Mount Elijah.
Hiking Big Tree Loop at Oregon Caves
We chose to combine the 3.3-mile Big Tree Loop Trail and the shorter Cliff Nature Trail for a 6-mile loop. Expect to work for the first two miles of trail as the 1,000 feet of elevation gain make for a steady uphill trek. The trail is not overly steep and provides a fairly level surface for the climb.
We did encounter a couple of large trees across the trail. Thankfully, we were able to climb over or under them without much fuss.
As the name suggests, the trail leads to the Big Tree. It is Oregon’s widest-girth Douglas fir and is over 41 feet in circumference.
The Cliff Nature trail offers much better views of the surrounding Siskiyou Mountains. Forests blocked most of the mountain views on the Big Trees Loop. If you only have time for one hike, I’d recommend the shorter but more scenic Cliff Nature Trail.
Guides have led tours through the caves for over 100 years. They are the most popular thing to do when visiting Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.
The NPS offers a variety of cave tours including a night tour. Fees range from $10 to $45 per adult. Tours typically last 90 minutes.
Cave Tours are available early spring through fall but depend on the weather. Check the NPS website for the current status. Cave tours were closed in 2020 and into June of 2021. A park ranger told us they hoped to have tours running by mid-June 2021. The cave is also closed every winter to protect hibernating bat populations.
Tours wind through a half-mile of twisting pathways. Guests must be over 42” tall and have the ability to climb 500 stairs to join the tour. There is a small section of the cave stairs available outside the Chateau Visitor Center for those who aren’t sure of their abilities.
Are there accessible tours at Oregon Caves for wheelchairs?
The caves first room is accessible to those with canes or wheelchairs. Contact the park in advance or inquire at the visitor center to make special arrangements for those with mobility limitations.
What to bring for a cave tour
Temperatures inside the cave are constantly in the 40s so bring layers of warm clothing.
The cave tour includes steep grades and uneven surfaces. Sturdy, non-slip footwear is recommended.
Food, drinks, gum and tobacco are prohibited in the cave.
Canes, tripods and flashlights are not allowed within the caves to protect the surfaces. Special arrangements can be made for guests with canes to visit the cave’s first room.
Summary of Oregon Caves
We didn’t get to do everything we wanted to do at Oregon Caves on our first trip. Nonetheless, we enjoyed our hike in the fir forest. The high elevation provided cool temperatures for hiking. We even saw a little snow still on the ground in late May. I am sure most hiking trails in the Siskiyou National Forest would have been just as scenic. The historic Chateau was beautiful even behind construction fencing. If we visit again, I will book a cave tour in advance to ensure availability.
But for now, we’re marking another National Park off the list. We stamped our park passport, snapped a photo with the park sign and hiked at Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.