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The Descent into Darkness

By Emily Huddleston

“On the count of three turn your lights off,” I told Brenna. “One, two, three...”

Click.

We sat in complete darkness. My breaths came in short gasps.  Terrified and mesmerized, I waited for my eyes to adjust.  I waved my hand inches from my face. Nothing. Not only were we surrounded by blackness, but except for our breathing it was silent. What if our flashlights didn’t come back on? We were almost a mile into our underground adventure. It was 40 degrees and we were alone.  There was no way we would make it out without lights.

I could hear Brenna calmly breathing next to me and I was glad to have her along. I felt safer. Brenna and I have been friends for almost eight years and I’m not sure if it is her 6 foot stature or her desire to always be a helping hand, but I jokingly call her mom more than I call her Brenna.

Thirty minutes earlier we had entered the Lava River Cave in Flagstaff, Arizona. The cave was formed around 700,000 years ago after molten rock erupted from a volcano vent in Hart Prairie nearby. The top, bottom and sides of the cave cooled first, solidifying them. This allowed the insides of the lava river to continue to flow until it emptied out that cave.

I was shaking from fear during the walk from the parking lot to the cave’s opening. I’m one of those people who’s scared of everything before I do it but seconds after I finish it I’m ready to go again. Feeling out of place walking in 80 degree Flagstaff weather, I was dressed in an oversized sweatshirt, long pants and running shoes. The sun was beating down on my headlight and I carried another flashlight in my right hand. My backpack was filled with camera equipment, weighing me down from the moment we stepped out of the car. I turned my flashlight on and off too many times to make sure it was working. I hoped I hadn’t worn out the switch. I also checked my pack for extra batteries even though I knew they were there.

After a short walk through the woods, I spotted a large pit full of rocks: the opening of the cave. The first thing I noticed when we reached the opening was a chill radiating from the darkness. Goosebumps ran up my arms. The temperature inside the cave can range from 35- 45 degrees. After announcing to anyone who would listen how scared I was while teetering on the rocks in the sunlight, I gathered my strength, bent down and entered the chilly cave. I clicked my flashlights on and began to follow Brenna’s lead. Getting down into the cave is the most physical part of this hike. It is tighter than the rest of the cave and there are many boulders to crawl over but it is manageable. The rocks here can be wet or icy so I paid extra attention to my footing. Brenna’s long arms and legs came in handy to help me when I couldn’t quite make it through a pile of rocks. After a short descent the fear I initially had begun to fade away. The ceilings began to get taller and the boulders got smaller, opening up into a large breathtaking tube. I raised my head in awe and looked at the brown and red colored rocks that surrounded me. Any light from the outside had completely faded away and we were immersed in this dark, cold, other worldly place.

The cave was busy and there were people around us but the cave does this fascinating thing with sound. Unless the voices were right next to us, we couldn’t hear them. We saw only headlights floating up ahead. This gave us our own personal space in the cave. Everyone we did encounter was very friendly, always saying hello as we passed.

A few minutes later we hit a fork in the cave as the main tube breaks off into two separate tubes. We took the path to the left after hearing the right one has low ceilings. One of the most fascinating parts of the cave was seeing the physical changes as we got further and further in. The wet boulders disappeared and were replaced with smaller rocks and smoother surfaces to walk on. The mile walk into the cave is flat and easy to navigate through. Every so often I ran my hands along the wall feeling the cold rocks beneath my fingers.

“How in the world did lava form this?” I asked Brenna over and over again. Many of the walls were wet which fascinated Brenna. “Where is this water coming from?” she asked me. “And why is it only coming through certain parts of the cave?” The rocks forming the top and sides of the tube changed color from reds to blue, to grays and browns as we made our way through. The tubes twisted and the ceilings changed heights. If there was ever a place to spark my interest geology, this was it.

To see all of the cave’s features, lights became my best friend. When deciding which lights and how many to bring I had to consider not only the amount of light I needed but also the ability of using my hands to help me through the cave. My two lights and Brenna’s headlight lit up the cave well. However while I could see most everything within a 15 foot radius, I couldn’t see much further. From my perspective this added to the experience. I couldn’t quite tell where I was headed or what was around each corner. And I could only see the small headlights of others floating in the distance. Peripheral vision was also not an option in the cave. I had to turn my head to exactly what I wanted to look at to see it and this took a bit of getting used to.  But all of this made the hike much more exciting. Embracing the darkness and uncertainty fueled the adrenaline rush that kept me moving further in. 

This light also helped us in one of the most important parts of this adventure: taking photos. Brenna has an eye for photography and brought along a great DSLR camera so taking photos in the cave became her job. However, regardless of how impressive the photographer, taking pictures in total darkness isn’t an easy task. Along with our flashlights we brought a larger LED light and a tripod to help. Looking back I wish we had known exactly how the camera worked and how it takes photographs in darker settings before getting into the cave. While we couldn’t plan for every situation, it was not only difficult but frustrating to adjust the shutter speed, the focus, the self timer etc., with little light. This was a trial and error process but Brenna is a patient person. Even with all of our supplies, Brenna took the best photos using just the flash of the camera. But having our extra equipment to fall back on was helpful.

As Brenna took photos, we continued to make our way down the mile long tube. We began to become interested in the temperature of the cave. It varied as we made our way through, some spots being much cooler than others. In the warmer spots we took off our sweatshirts and gloves. Fumbling with all of our belongings we tied our sweatshirts around our waists and stuffed the gloves in our packs. This never lasted long though, the chill always seemed to creep back to us and we had to put our warmer clothes back on again. I left the cave with many more questions than I got answers for.

Eventually Brenna and I hit a dead end and it was time to turn around. However this didn’t stop Brenna from peering through a small hole in the wall only big enough for a skinny body to squeeze through. She spotting writing on the other side, which convinced her we could continue on. After telling Brenna I knew this was the end of the cave and I wasn’t in the mood for a search and rescue, we headed back. If my fingers didn’t feel like they were going to fall victim to frostbite, I would have stayed in there all day. Another mile back and there was a light at the end of the tunnel (literally).  

 

 

 

 

 


I emerged from the blackness, eyes squinting from the bright sunlight. I thought back to an hour earlier when Brenna and I had turned off our flashlights to see what it would be like to be stuck in the cave, lightless. Luckily without any problems, our flashlights easily turned back on and we were able to make it out. Standing outside the cave I felt out of place again bundled up in winter clothes as the summer heat beat down. On our walk back to the car I realized I proven myself right once again. Regardless of any initial fear I may have had, I wanted to go back for more. As I climbed in the car to leave the Lava River Cave, I wished I was back at the cave’s opening ready to do it all over again. 

If you decide take your own adventure into the Lava River Cave here are a few suggestions:

 

 

Directions: Drive 9 miles north of Flagstaff on US 180 and turn west (left) on FR 245 (at milepost 230). Continue 3 miles to FR171 and turn south 1 mile to where FR 171B turns left. From here it is a short distance to Lava River Cave.

GPS Coordinates of Lava Cave: N 35° 20' 32" W 111° 50' 07"

Full-sized Photos

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