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Is there anything more impressive than stepping into a room of stone, carved away over millions of years by the forces of time, water, and wind? Caves are easily one of the coolest features of our incredible rocky mantled planet and are often a primary feature at my favorite national parks.
It should come as no surprise then, that I jumped at the chance to spend a day in Oregon Caves National Monument as part of my big Oregon road trip in late 2023. A whole park just for caves? And a few big trees?! Sign me up!
Oregon Caves National Monument is perfect for a short visit as part of exploring Southern Oregon; you can easily spend a day in Oregon Caves before heading off to other wonders in the region like Crater Lake, the groves of Redwoods National Park near Crescent City, or the southern Oregon Coast. Below, you’ll find my suggestions for how to make the most of your day in the area, including activities above ground too.
Whether you’re a cave nerd (like me) or not, Oregon Caves is a really impressive experience of natural beauty carved over millions of years – and you can stretch your legs on a good hike after you emerge back into the daylight. Here’s how to spend your one day in Oregon Caves National Monument and take advantage of other activities in the area too.
Oregon Caves Travel Basics
I know you only have one day in Oregon Caves and are sensitive about being totally efficient with your time, but bear with me as I cover a few important travel logistics first. Knowing these things will help you better plan your day and avoid wasting any time.
Traveling to Oregon Caves National Monument
Like many units of the National Park system, Oregon Caves National Monument is a bit off the beaten path, so you need to plan ahead to get there in a reasonable amount of time (especially if you only have one day and want to ensure you get on an early cave tour that day!).
Generally, the best starting point is the town of Cave Junction, the “Gateway to the Oregon Caves;” from there, you turn onto OR-46 (also called “Caves Highway,” and follow it 20 miles up to where it ends at the parking area for Caves Junction. The drive takes about 60 minutes in total as it’s a two-lane road and gets very twisty-turny as it climbs up into the Siskiyou Mountains. Large vehicles may have difficulty and need to go slower, and RVs and trailers may have difficulty – vehicles over 46 feet long are not permitted on the road at all.
Additionally, the NPS recommends arriving about 30 minutes before the tour you hope to take; if you’re aiming for a 10am tour, you’d want to leave Cave Junction no later than 8:30am to ensure you make it on time.
Oregon Caves Admission, Seasons & Hours
While there is no admission to visit Oregon Caves on its own, you do need to pay a per-person fee to take a cave tour (tours are required); most cave tours are $10 for adults, $7 for children, and $5 for seniors and pass holders. Cave tours are offered daily but the days and hours offered tend to taper off as the season winds down each year. Speaking of seasons…
In 2023, cave tours were offered from May 12 to November 5; dates for 2024 will probably be similar. The “surface areas” of Oregon Caves National Monument are open year-round but can be pretty tough to access in the winter months when the road is less maintained. Instead, I recommend planning your visit during the spring, summer, and autumn when the caves are also open – also, why visit if you can’t tour the caves?!
If you’re feeling confused at all, be sure to consult the Oregon Caves NPS website which has the most up-to-date info.
Things to Do at Oregon Caves National Monument
While Oregon Caves isn’t big by any stretch, I thought it would help to start by covering the main activities I recommend. After that, I put them together into a quick guide for spending one day in Oregon Caves.
Explore the Visitor Center
As with all of my national park itineraries, I recommend visiting the Visitor Center – I mean, it’s named for us! It’s also an essential first stop at Oregon Caves National Monument as it’s where you’ll book your cave tour (offered first-come, first-serve each day, more on that below) and where you’ll meet the group at your appointed tour time.
(Pro tip: You can also stop at the Illinois Valley Visitor Center in Cave Junction to book your tour if you’re passing through town to reach Oregon Caves; this will save you time if tours are somehow sold out for the day you were planning to visit.)
The Oregon Caves Visitor Center is home to a small museum, bookshop, and gift shop, and provides a good introduction to this small area and what you’ll experience on a cave tour as well as the surrounding hiking trails.
Additionally, the Visitor Center is home to the restrooms nearest the cave entrance and lockers where you’ll need to store all bags and non-clothing items (water bottles, large cameras, etc.) that you brought with you – none of those are allowed in the caves, so you can lock them up for a quarter (25¢).
Take a Cave Tour
After the Visitor Center, you’ll probably want to head out on a cave tour – ideally, it will be the next available one after you arrive, though you may need to wait if you’re visiting during peak season or arrive later in the morning/afternoon. (Tour groups are first-come, first-served with no reservations and limited to about 12 people so fill up fast!)
As you might guess from the name, the cave tours are what Oregon Caves National Monument is all about! This incredible cave system is well worth the admission and time to visit; there are four different cave tour options but the most often offered one is the Discovery Cave Tour, and it’s the one most people take.
The Discovery Cave Tour is one-way through the caves and takes about 90 minutes in total. You need to be fit enough to climb over 500 steps and able to squat below 45 inches at points. If it helps, I did this tour at 5 months pregnant with no issues! Children must be at least 42 inches tall and cannot be carried (for your safety, and for the safety of the cave!), which limits when I can next visit with Mr. V and Baby V!
I can’t imagine visiting Oregon Caves and not going on a cave tour, so you should plan your visit around this.
(Pro tip: If you – or you with your kid – volunteer to be at the end of the line in the cave tour, you can earn a special “Tail Ranger” badge!)
Hit the Hiking Trails
After a cave tour (or perhaps before if you have to wait to join a tour), there are six trails in total:
- Cliff Nature Trail – 0.7-1mi* with 75 feet elevation gain (easy)
- Big Tree Trail – 3.3mi loop with 1,125 feet elevation gain (moderate)
- Old Growth Trail – 1mi loop with 200 feet elevation gain (easy to moderate)
- No Name Trail – 1.3mi out and back with 268 feet elevation gain (easy to moderate)
- Cave Creek Trail – 3.6mi out and back with 1,245 feet elevation gain (moderate to strenuous)
- Bigelow Lakes – Mt. Elijah Loop Trail – 9.2mi loop with 2,390 feet elevation gain (strenuous)
During my visit, I took the Cliff Nature Trail from the cave exit back to the Visitor Center (*this part of the trail is 0.7 miles, or it’s a one-mile loop in total). It was a lovely little walk among the trees and up onto the marble cliffs that are home to the caves below your feet.
I really wanted to do the Big Tree Trail too, but felt it was a bit outside my physical abilities (again, I was five months pregnant during my visit) for this trip. This trail looks like a great 1-2 hour hike that takes you to one of the biggest Douglas Fir trees in the National Monument – and the surrounding area!
Depending on how much time you have to visit, you could do any or all of the trails that sound interesting and that you have the physical ability to do.
Visit the Oregon Caves Chateau
I’ve included the Oregon Caves Chateau on my list even though it’s closed for rehabilitation; historically, this 1930s six-story lodge housed 23 rooms for overnight guests as well as a diner. Unfortunately, the building is quite outdated and needs extensive repair and seismic retrofitting before it can re-open to guests or even day visitors. I don’t expect it will reopen in 2024, maybe by 2025! (I’ll update this post once there’s more info available.)
In the meantime, you can walk around the exterior of the building and admire its craftsmanship and historic importance – it’s the building on the vintage-style postcards you can buy as a souvenir!
Bonus: Wine Tasting in the Area
On the drive from Cave Junction or another nearby community, you might notice a few signs for wine tasting along OR-46, the Caves Highway. This is obviously unrelated to Oregon Caves National Monument, but this part of Southern Oregon (which I think is called the “Illinois Valley”) is home to some small, family wineries whose tasting rooms make for another fun activity.
I didn’t personally stop to sample wine on my trip, but I was recommended to consider Foris Vineyards and Bridgeview Vineyards Winery, both of which are a slight detour off OR-46. In both cases, their tasting rooms are open from around midday through the afternoon, making this a good activity after visiting Oregon Caves. (Bridgeview also offers overnight accommodation – more on that below!)
One Day in Oregon Caves Itinerary
As you can see, Oregon Caves National Monument is a pretty reasonable size for a one-day visit; it’s not like larger national monuments or national parks that really necessitate an overnight and multi-day visit. In fact, I visited in a half-day: I took the first tour of the day, did a short hike, and was on my way; you might want to spend longer, so here’s how I recommend doing that:
- Start by making the drive from your overnight stay in the area; I’d expect this to take at least an hour depending on where you stay.
- Check in at the Visitor Center and arrange your cave tour. Depending on the timing of your cave tour, either head out on that straight away, go for a hike in the meantime, or spend a few minutes in the gift shop and museum if your cave tour is starting close to your arrival time.
- Take your Discovery Cave Tour.
- Hit the trails! The Cliff Nature Trail is a great option if you have 30-45 minutes before your tour; if you have a few hours, the Big Tree Trail, Old Growth Trail, or No Name Trail are all good options depending on your fitness.
- Depending on your overnight accommodations, depart Oregon Caves National Monument; you might stop for a wine tasting at one of the local wineries if you have time.
It’s pretty simple to spend one day at Oregon Caves and feel like you’ve seen it all – aside from the Chateau, that is, which you’ll have to return to see (just as I will!).
Where to Stay Near Oregon Caves
As mentioned above, the best way to visit Oregon Caves is by planning 1-2 overnight stays in the area. If you only want to spend one night in Cave Junction or the surrounding area, make it the night before: you want to arrive at the caves as early as possible to ensure you get a spot on a tour without too much time to kill. (Even if you can fill that time with hiking and souvenir shopping in the gift shop!)
I stayed the night before my visit at Out N About Treesort; it was a 50-minute drive to Oregon Caves the next morning. This funky and fascinating property has several treehouses you can book; I was in the family suite, but there are cozy studio-style treehouses and joint treehouses connected by elevated walkways too. They also offer daytime activities like ziplining, horseback riding, and river rafting if you decide to stay in the area for longer than just one day to visit Oregon Caves.
Other options in the area; Cave Junction and neighboring Kerby are home to a couple of small hotels too:
- As mentioned, Bridgeview offers a Winery Suite set above their tasting room. It’s a beautiful two-bedroom accommodation that would be great for families (especially with older kids).
- The Sasquatch Loft is a vacation rental in Cave Junction; it has limited availability but could be a good option.
- Google also says there’s a Holiday Motel just north of Cave Junction but I’m a little sketchy on the details, so be sure to do extra research before booking.
- The Kerbyville Inn is a bit further up the road (in Kerby), but offers cozy accommodation.
Like I said, there are options – they’re funky, but that’s part of what makes Southern Oregon fun to explore!
Have any other questions about visiting Oregon Caves National Monument or spending a day there? Let me know in the comments below!