Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Exploring Oregon Caves: Above and Below

 The slogan on the brochure reads: Cool Cave, Warm Hearth!  It’s a clever turn of phrase but, more importantly, captures the concept that Oregon Caves National Monument offers two featured attractions, one natural and one man-made. The park is located about 50 miles southwest of Grants Pass off U.S. 199.  A narrow, winding road leaves the community of Cave Junction and the Illinois River Valley, and climbs upwards through the Siskiyou Mountains to the monument, about 20 miles.
Cave Entrance

The caves (actually, it is only one cave, but has numerous side passageways) were discovered by white settlers in 1874 when hunter Elijah Davidson’s dog, Bruno, followed a bear into a narrow opening in the hillside. However, the cave began life over 200 million years ago as a tropical reef in the Pacific Ocean, and by a series of complex geologic events, combined with years of water erosion and mineral deposits, evolved into one of the very few marble caves in the world.

Ranger-led tours through the cave are offered between late April and early November and cover a little over a half mile in 90 minutes. In this remarkable subterranean world, visitors are introduced to the geology,
The "Banana Grove"
history, wildlife, and view a variety of calcite formations: stalagtites, stalgmites, soda straws, moonmilk, popcorn. The trip is described as moderately strenuous and includes 500 stairs, some uneven and wet, as well as a few low and narrow passageways. The cave temperature is 44 degrees so a warm jacket is welcome even on a hot summer day.

Across from the cave entrance and Visitor Center sits the park’s man-made attraction, a rustic, wooden lodge known as The Chateau, a National Historic Landmark. From the entrance it appears to be a two-story structure with a steep pitched roof and dormer windows, however, it is actually six stories tall.  This unusual design reflects the challenging and limited building site it occupies, a ravine with a creek running through it.  Construction began in the early 1930s during the height of the Depression. Local contractor, Gust Lium, chose a style coined by Frank Lloyd Wright as “organic
The Chateau entrance
architecture,” promoting harmony with the environment and utilizing local construction materials. In the end, he created a building of natural charm and elegance, well adapted to its setting, with a great sense of place; a “green” structure long before it was eco-fashionable.

The exterior is covered with Port Orford cedar bark creating a shaggy, textured façade while the interior lobby features a massive, double marble fireplace; exposed wooden beams supported by 30-inch diameter, Douglas fir posts; and a staircase of local madrone, oak, and pine. Downstairs from the main lobby is the dining room, gift shop, and a 1930s diner-style café; 23 guest rooms occupy the two floors above the lobby.

waterfall and reflecting pool
One of the most unusual features of the building is the presence of the stream accumulated from dripping surface water inside the cave. There, it is called the River Styx, but once it emerges from the cavern it assumes the less intriguing name of Cave Creek, and flows over a man-made waterfall in front of the Chateau into a picturesque, reflecting pool. From there, it travels into the building, through the dining room, and then out to the canyon on its journey to the Illinois River. 

1930s Coffee Shop
This design plan had an unfortunate consequence in the winter of 1964 when heavy storms, snow and rain combined to release a flood and avalanche that ripped through the bottom floors of the Chateau creating a swath of structural damage and debris. While many considered the building an insurance write-off, others, including original builder Lium, worked tirelessly to save and restore the property.

Today, visitors can enjoy the charming ambiance of one of the Great Lodges of the National Parks from the attractive lobby, restaurant options, and inviting guest rooms.  Both the public and private rooms are decorated with the largest collection of Monterey furniture, a uniquely American, arts- and-crafts style characterized by leather and metal detailing, distressed wood, and painted designs.

Example of the Chateau's collection of Monterey furniture
Throughout the lodge, the emphasis is on local.  The gift shop offers crafts from southern Oregon artists including jewelry, prints, wooden items, jams, soaps, and textiles. In the dining room, the menu is filled with locally sourced meats, fish and produce.  (Be sure to try the bison meatloaf!) The quirky, retro café with its serpentine countertop serves hearty breakfasts, sandwiches, and old-fashioned milkshakes. Even the people waiting on you are local.

Learn more about a visit to Oregon Caves or make reservations for a stay at the Chateau by visiting these websites: Oregon Caves Cheateau and Oregon Caves National Monument.






  1. Wow, what a well traveled lady you are. I envy your lush lifestyle.