Marvel at the Marble Halls of Oregon Caves

July 12, 2016Travel Ideas

There's a lot to explore in the Pacific Northwest, but one of the most amazing national parks in Oregon is almost entirely hidden belowground. Below the forests of the Siskiyou Mountains at Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve, vast marble caves offer a seldom-seen secret world.

An expansive cave system

Millers Chapel at Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve
National Park Service

Oregon Caves has passageways that total about 15,000 feet in length, and represent one of the few cave systems in the United States to be formed in marble. As with the more common limestone caves, marble caves are usually formed as slightly acidic rainwater wears its way through the calcite of which the rocks are made.

Such was the case at Oregon Caves, which were carved out over millions of years as rainwater leached downward through the ancient forests of the Siskiyou Mountains. Over the years, the calcite carried by rainwater has been re-deposited in many areas of the caves, where it formed a variety of cave formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone.

Discovering the caves

Entrance to Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve
National Park Service

Although the Takelma Tribe and other Native American people inhabited nearby areas throughout the Illinois and Rogue River valleys for thousands of years, there is no evidence to suggest they used or entered the caves. Rich deposits of prehistoric fossils, including a grizzly bear skeleton more than 50,000 years old, have been found in the depths of Oregon Caves, but no traces of human habitation have ever been discovered. 

In all likelihood, a settler from Illinois named Elijah Davidson was the first person to enter Oregon Caves in 1874. As Davidson would retell the story in later years, he ran into the dark passageways in search of his dog, who had chased a bear into the cave. 

The marble underground halls of Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve

Creating a national park

Thanks to stories told by Davidson and others, many attempts were made to commercialize the newly discovered caves as a tourist destination in the decades following their discovery. Most were unsuccessful. The caves' remote location and difficult terrain made them a tough sell to tourists from the east. It was not until the more widespread expansion of roadways and the popularity of the automobile that Oregon Caves became more accessible.

By the 1890s, the federal government took a more active role in protecting the land around the caves, which had been government-owned since long before the caves were discovered. The area was first preserved as Siskiyou National Forest in 1903, and later as Oregon Caves National Monument in 1909.

National Park Service sign at Oregon Caves National Monument

Things to do at Oregon Caves

Tour the caves: Ninety-minute ranger-guided tours explore some of Oregon Caves' most impressive features, including the unusual calcite flowstone. The terrain is moderately strenuous and includes a few narrow passages. 

Take a hike: Four hiking trails meander through the quiet forest above Oregon Caves, offering peaceful mountain scenery and a chance to spot some native wildlife. 

Visit the Chateau: The Chateau at Oregon Caves National Monument is a stunning six-story hotel built in a rustic style in the 1930s. Dining and accommodations at the Chateau are available to this day. 

Stop at the Visitor Center: Check out the exhibits and learn more about the history of Oregon Caves. 

Visit nearby attractions: Oregon Caves are a short drive from numerous local attractions, including Rogue River access points, picnic areas, campgrounds, wineries, farmers markets, and a handful of additional national park sites. 

A couple watches the sunset from the Bigelow Lakes overlook at Oregon Caves National Park & Preserve
National Park Service

Oregon Caves National Monument & Preserve is one of seven national parks in Oregon and northern California known as the Circle of Discovery. These sites are home to some of America's most striking natural features, from Oregon's marble caves to towering redwood trees, hydrothermal areas, and America's deepest lake. 

Want to explore other lesser-known sites within the National Park System? Download a free copy of “The Places Nobody Knows,” our Owner’s Guide packed with 25 extraordinary destinations where you can #FindYourPark.

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