Hiking Underground in a Lava Tube

Updated on February 4, 2018

Lava River Trail, Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff Arizona

Bankscottage heading down into the lava tube.
Bankscottage heading down into the lava tube. | Source

Discovered by lumbermen in 1915, Lava River Cave is located about 14 miles northwest of Flagstaff on Highway 180 in the Coconino National Forest. While not the easiest trail to find, it is well worth the effort.

Formed as many as 700,000 years ago, Lava River Cave, also know as Government Cave, is really a lava tube. Part of the San Francisco Volcanic field, it is the longest lava tube in Arizona.

While the thought of hiking in a cave can sound a little intimidating, you can see from the picture above, it is appropriate even for small children. Care and patience, sturdy footwear, a jacket and several sources of light and everyone will do fine.

In May, 1991, the graffiti was cleaned from the cave and all of the litter removed.

What is a Lava Tube?

Creation of a lava tube.
Creation of a lava tube. | Source

Lava tubes form when the outer surface of a molten stream of lava cools and solidifies creating a crust. The inner core remains molten and continues to flow leaving behind a cavity, the lava tube.

As the lava flows out features such as lavacicles and splashdowns (rocks that appear frozen in the floor) can form. In a picture below, you can see ripples in the floor of Lava River Cave from the previously molten lava.

Trail from the parking lot to the Lava River Cave entrance, Coconino National Forest.
Trail from the parking lot to the Lava River Cave entrance, Coconino National Forest. | Source

Lava River Cave Entrance

Lava River Cave entrance
Lava River Cave entrance | Source

The Hike

It is a flat, 1/4 of a mile or so hike from the parking lot to the entrance of the lava tube. A sign outside the entrance maps the cave and describes some of the features you'll find in it.

The lava tube is 3/4 to 1 mile long and the ceiling can be as high as 30 ft. The cave drops about 100 feet in elevation from the opening to the end.

The opening to the cave looks like it is in a massive boulder rock garden. After crouching down to enter the cave and scrambling down several (possibly 15- 20 feet or more) we reached the floor. At the floor we could stand without a problem. Caution: Once you get away from the opening, you are in total darkness.

At no point in the hike did we feel cramped, crowded or claustrophobic. It was similar to walking in a large train tunnel. In fact, a family with small children used patience and coaxing to get the kids down from the opening. Once they were in, they all did fine.

If you go, plan appropriately. In addition to water, wear a jacket. It is cool in the lava tube. The temperatures inside are usually 35-45°F, but can be as low as 32°F at the opening. Ice may form there. While the cave was dry, moisture may be found on the walls, floor, and ceiling.

Wear good closed-toe shoes and consider gloves because you will be grabbing onto rocks. The walls, floor and ceiling are rough.

It will be dark in there. Bring a flash light with fresh batteries. Ideally, bring at least 1 or 2 for each hiker and a spare or 2.

After scrambling down the rocks to get to the floor of the cave, it was basically a flat walk. There were some smaller rocks in the floor as well as a few larger ones that we had to climb over or around.

Approximately 1/3 to 1/2 way into the cave, the path splits. According to other hikers, if you follow the trail to the right, you may have to crawl before you get to the end. Follow the trail to the left and the ceiling can reach a height of up to 30 ft.

Because of time constraints, we turned around at the point the cave divided. All told, we were in the cave less than 45 minutes. I would think you could make it to the end and back, particularly if you took the left fork, in less than 90 minutes.

Small animals, such as squirrels, and bats can live in the cave. We did not see any and most hikers rarely do.

Lava River Cave Floor
Lava River Cave Floor | Source
My son, Jeff in the Lava River Cave. You can see some ripples in the floor near his left foot.
My son, Jeff in the Lava River Cave. You can see some ripples in the floor near his left foot. | Source
Jeff in the Lava River Cave, ceiling approximately 6 ft high.
Jeff in the Lava River Cave, ceiling approximately 6 ft high. | Source

How to Get to Lava River Cave, Coconino National Forest

9 Miles north of Flagstaff on Route 180 turn left (west) on to FR 245 (milepost 230). In 3 miles turn left on to FR 171 (there is a sign). 1 mile on FR 171, turn left on to FR 171B. The parking lot is about 1/4 mile on FR 171B

Be aware that FR 245, FR 171, and FR 171B are dirt roads. Access may be limited in the winter months.

GPS: N35° 20' 32.1714", W-111° 50' 8.196"

Probably going to have to wash the car after this trip.
Probably going to have to wash the car after this trip. | Source

Other Lava Tubes

Lava River Cave is not the only lava tube in the world, the U.S., or for that matter, even in Arizona. There is another lava tube at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument on the other side of the San Francisco Peaks. This tube is closed to the public because it is starting to collapse.

Thurston Lava Tube, Big Island, Hawai'i

Inside the Thurston Lava Tube
Inside the Thurston Lava Tube | Source
Inside the Thurston Lava Tube
Inside the Thurston Lava Tube | Source

Thurston Lava Tube, Volcanoes National Park, Big Island Hawai'i

As you can see from the pictures, Thurston Lava Tube is far more tourist friendly than Lava River Cave. Thurston Lava Tube, or Nahuku, has walkways, steps, and most importantly, lights.

Other Lava Tubes in the United States:

  • Lava Beds National Monument, northeastern California, the largest concentration of lava tubes in the U.S.
  • Kazumura Cave, Big Island, Hawaii, most extensive and greatest linear extent (40.7 miles) of any lava tube in the world.
  • Lava River Cave, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Bend, Oregon
  • Ape Cave, Gifford Pinchot National Forest, south of Mount St. Helens, Washington, longest contiguous lava tube in the continental U.S.

Lava Tubes Around the World:

  • Iceland
  • Azores
  • Canary Islands

There are even lava tubes on the moon.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Mark Shulkosky


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    • bankscottage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Shulkosky 

      4 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Livetech, I hope you get a chance to go. It was really worth it. It is a little unnerving scrambling down the rocks as you enter, but once in, it is so big inside you get comfortable quickly. It is cool inside and bring plenty of flash lights. We only had one and we should of had at least one per person. Headlamps would work great also.

    • livetech profile image

      Paul Levy 

      4 years ago from United Kingdom

      Beautiful! Me and the family are looking into interesting kinds of hikes and this would certainly break the mould. I'm not the biggest caver, but this looks like it would be the perfect starting point! The geology of this intrigues me, I'd have to work very hard on convincing my hiking partners that the tube won't suddenly fill with lava! Wonderful hub!

    • bankscottage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Shulkosky 

      6 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks for stopping by and your nice comments and vote. My son found the lava tube when he was looking for a geochache. It was one of the most interesting hikes I have been on.

    • Jason Matthews profile image

      Jason Matthews 

      6 years ago from North Carolina

      This hub is amazing--one of the most fascinating I have ever read! Voted up and thanks for sharing!

    • bankscottage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Shulkosky 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Beachbumaxp, it would be a little ride from Denver but doable. Glad you found the Hub informative and helpful.

    • beachbumaxp profile image


      8 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      This hub was certainly useful! I feel like grabbing my backpack now and just packing it up while reading this with all that you say to bring! I can appreciate this kind of preperation advice, and have no problem just hopping in the car and going :)

    • bankscottage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Shulkosky 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Thanks for stopping by Pamela. If this lava tube is a little intimidating (and it is), you should get over to the Big Island and see Thurston Lava Tube. It even has lights inside.

      My father came from a family of coal miners. He figured out early that was not a life for him.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Dapples 

      8 years ago from Just Arizona Now

      This was really interesting. I'm emailing it to my daughter. She and her husband like to do these kinds of things. Too much possibility of creepy-crawly things in there for my liking, but I imagine for children and the brave of heart it is very educational because there are many men -- and maybe some women -- who make their living underground. They have to face a sunless environment five days a week.

      And as I read this, I especially thought of the children in Britain in the 1800's who had to work in terrible conditions underground.

      Great hub. Voting up, interesting and Sharing.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      8 years ago from SW England

      Good idea - I'd like to try that!

    • bankscottage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Shulkosky 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Annart, thanks for stopping by and your votes. The tough part about Lava river is getting in. Once in it just seems like a dark tunnel. If you are ever in Hawaii check out Thurston Lava Tube. With railings, lights and more people, it isn't as intimidating.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      8 years ago from SW England

      Amazing place and brilliant information! I have an innate fear of being underground - can't stop thinking of all that heavy rock over my head. It's something I should try to overcome but....! Voted up and awesome.

    • bankscottage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Shulkosky 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      I'm sure you'll enjoy the Lava River Cave. With the location and the type of hike, there aren't too many people there. Another nice, easy hike further out Highway 180 toward the Grand Canyon is Red Mountain. When you get into the amphitheater, there are some strange rock formations and effects with the sunlight. I guess you can do a more grueling backpack hike to Red Mountain crater but we didn't do that.

      Thanks for stopping by brenda12lynette

    • brenda12lynette profile image


      8 years ago from Utah

      That was so interesting! I've visited Carlsbad Caverns but never anything like this! I've been to Flagstaff multiple times and didn't know this existed. Now that I do, next time I make the trip I will most certainly check it out. Thanks bankscottage!

    • bankscottage profile imageAUTHOR

      Mark Shulkosky 

      8 years ago from Pennsylvania

      The lava tube was very interesting, particularly since it wasn't "developed" like Thurston and many of the other ones. They cleaned the litter and the graffiti and it left it natural, no lights or hand rails. In doing the research, I was surprised how many there are and hope to check out more when I travel.

      Headlamp is about the only thing that will help in there. No help with the GPS and probably not the cellphone (didn't check and no one called). You can't even follow the light at the end of the tunnel.

      Thanks for stopping by Dan.

    • Outbound Dan profile image

      Dan Human 

      8 years ago from Niagara Falls, NY

      How can you not like hiking underground? Great trail description and pictures to go along with it. Quite interesting, thanks for exploring the geology of a lave tube - otherwise I would have had to look it up.

      I bet my GPS wouldn't work in there. I lose the signal when I go into the little caves in the Niagara Gorge.


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