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Prineville and Crook County residents are minutes away from unique experience

LON AUSTIN - Inside cave 4 at the BLM-managed Redmond Caves, located near the Redmond Airport. There are five caves, some that can be walked into, others requiring a crawl to enter. A trip to the caves makes for a good family outing, but come prepared.

Looking for some kind of outing this winter?

The Redmond Caves may be just what you are looking for.

A set of five lava tubes located just off of Airport Way, approximately a half- mile west of the Redmond Airport terminal, the caves are easily accessible.

Although not as large as some of the caves south of Bend, the Redmond Caves are still listed as significant caves under the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act.

I have been caving or spelunking for more than 30 years now, and although lava tubes are not nearly as showy as some other types of caves, they are just as much fun to explore.

Experts believe that the caves were formed by a lava flow from Newberry Crater approximately 80,000 years ago. The caves and surrounding area were used by Native Americans, apparently on trips between Crooked River and the Deschutes River, for at least the past 7,000 years.

Archaeology in the area has led to the discovery of a variety of stone, bone, shell and textile products. Although some evidence of past usage is still visible in the area, collecting of any artifacts is prohibited.

The caves are administered by the Prineville Office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

There is a small parking area on the north side of Airport Way with minimal signage marking the location.

Once parked, there is a sign directly north of the parking area with a map of the caves as well as advice on caving safety, and applicable regulations.

Of the five caves, three can be easily walked into. The remaining two caves are also accessible, but will require crawling to get into the entrances. Still, both are worth the additional effort.

There is a clearly marked trail that goes to the entrances of caves one and three. Cave four is adjacent to the parking area, while cave two and five are more off the beaten path, but still easy to find.

If you have time to enter just one cave, cave one is the easiest to access. The cave has a high ceiling with no obstructions until the very end of the cave and can easily be walked into. With a ceiling approximately 15 feet high, the cave is by far the largest in the system.

Cave three, on the other hand, has a much lower ceiling, but has way more area to explore. Cave three has both a north and south entrance. Portions of the cave have rocky areas on the floor, and none of the cave has high ceilings. Although cave three can be walked through, at least taller individuals will find it easier to crawl through the north entrance rather than trying to duck and walk through the entrance. Once you have entered the south end of cave three, you will find a junction midway through the cave. The left tunnel is narrower, but has a higher ceiling than the right junction. However, that tunnel eventually dead ends. Still, it is worth exploring. However, to exit the cave, keep to the right.

Should you decide to enter cave three after visiting cave one, the entrance is just to the right of cave one, but is slightly hidden in the rocks.

Cave four is located adjacent to the parking area. The cave has a low entrance and some rock piles on portions of the floor. However, once inside, most of the cave can be accessed easily. Near the back of the cave is a low area where more adventurous cavers could crawl or worm their way deeper into the cave.

Cave five is located to the east of cave four, with the entrance less than 75 feet from Airport Way. The entrance is low, but once inside the cave opens up. Cave five is located northwest of cave one, and has the lowest entrance. It requires crawling on either your back or stomach to enter the cave, but like cave five, it opens up significantly once inside.

15 to 20 years ago, the caves were filled with graffiti. The BLM, along with volunteers, did a great job of cleaning up the graffiti along with some trash that was in and near the caves. Unfortunately, this year, graffiti has begun to reappear in the caves.

The caves can be visited in as little as a half hour, or to visit all five you could easily spend four or five hours.

In the past year, I have taken three grandchildren to the caves, and all have enjoyed the experience. They especially enjoyed going to the back of the caves and turning all of our lights off to see the darkness. With appropriate supervision, children as young as five can safely enjoy the caves.

If you wish to have solitude in the caves, I would suggest going in the morning on a weekday, but even on busy days the caves are not especially crowded.

A word of caution: As we enter winter ice in and near cave entrances, as well as the possibility of ice in places on the cave floors, so watch your step as some places may be slippery.

If you wish to photograph in the caves, a tripod is highly recommended as other than the entrances, the caves quickly become dark. The photographs accompanying this article are mostly 20 to 30 second exposures with a moving flashlight illuminating the cave floor and ceiling.

Although the Redmond Caves are neither the longest nor most exciting caves in Central Oregon, they are still worth a visit and they are far and away the easiest caves of any size to visit from either Prineville or Madras. If you like caves, I highly recommend at least a quick visit, while if you have never visited a cave before, they are a great place to start to see if you like spelunking.

If you go:

Make sure you have plenty of lights and spare batteries. The BLM recommends that each group of cavers has at least three available lights.

There are risks in entering caves, including the remote possibilities of falling rocks, low ceilings, and in some cases tight obstructions. Although the majority of the Redmond Caves have few obstructions and can be entered with very little effort, the BLM still recommends not entering the caves alone.

Bats are an important part of the environment and often reside in the caves. Please protect the bats and their environment by wearing clothing that has not previously been in other caves that might have bats infected with the white-nosed bat fungus, which can kill bats, especially smaller species.

Please follow all cave rules and regulations and leave no trace, so the caves remain available for future generations.

It is recommended to wear long pants and long-sleeved clothing whenever visiting caves. In addition, the caves are always cool, even in the summer, so dress appropriately.

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