If you like outdoor adventure Northern Arizona is the place for you, with endless places to hike, mountain bike, rock climb or just take a scenic drive, everyone can find an outdoor activity that suits them. But if you’re looking for something new and out of the ordinary to explore be sure to spend an afternoon at the Flagstaff Lava Tube.
Lava tubes are unique cave systems formed by sudden and violent volcanic eruptions, and are usually a side vent of a bigger eruption. A large molten flow of lava will push its way to the surface from the side vent, as the flow weakens the sides of the tube harden while the middle continues to flow. When the flow is nothing more than a small stream, the remaining lava hardens and a cavity is formed to make a cave. The Flagstaff Lava Tube is the largest cave of its kind in Arizona, and is thought to have formed in a matter of minutes during a larger eruption in nearby Hart Prairie about 700 thousand years ago.
The cave is accessible year-round, but forest roads are not maintained in the winter and getting there may involve a set of snowshoes or cross-country skis. To get to the Lava Tube take I-180 west out of Flagstaff towards the Grand Canyon to mile marker 230, about 13 miles outside of town. Forest service road 245 is just past the mile marker on the left, take the dirt road for a little less than three miles where it ends and take a left. Follow this road for about a mile and look for a sign pointing to parking for the Lava Tube.
From there the hike involves about a mile walk to the end of the cave with a few scrambles and squeezes. At first the cave looks like a giant hole in the ground, but after climbing in the terrain becomes more of a downward slope than a drop into a black abyss.
During your descent into the earth’s crust you will move from giant rooms with 30-foot ceilings to narrow tunnels that sometimes require crawling on your hands and knees. You can also see large lava icicles hanging from the ceiling and smooth ripples on the ground where the last trickle of lava flowed.
The lava cave is consistently 40ºF year-round, so dress appropriately and wear sturdy shoes because of rough terrain and rocks. When entering a giant hole in the ground there are two main things to prepare yourself for: It’s going to be dark and you’re probably going to get dirty, so wear old clothes and make sure everyone has a flashlight. A headlamp is highly recommended so both hands are available to help you balance and navigate the tunnel. It’s also a good idea to bring a few extra batteries in case somebody’s flashlight dies.
The Flagstaff Lava Tube is a great day trip because it is close to town, easy to get to, and is a fun adventure for people of all hiking abilities. A lava tube’s unique formation allows you to walk into a volcano and see the inside story of how this alpine desert was created.
WARNING: Do not participate in this hike if you are claustrophobic, scared of the dark, don’t like to get dirty or don’t like to have fun.