Caving minutes from home

In Central Oregon, a cave outing is never far

By David Jasper / The Bulletin

Published Apr 5, 2012 at 05:00AM

Saturday morning, my wife and I shoved the essentials — kids, coats, hats, gloves, flashlights, headlamps, a bevy of batteries, tuna fish sandwiches, granola bars and guidebooks — into the van and jumped on U.S. Highway 97 heading south.

Our destinations: South Ice Cave about an hour southeast of Bend, then on to Fort Rock, falling heavy, wet spring snow be darned.

However, once we reached South Century Drive at Sunriver, we came to a complete stop behind a semitrailer and a line of stock-still traffic that seemed to stretch on forever. And ever. And — you get the idea. Turned out to be a car accident that closed 97 for 1 1/2 hours.

We had no way of knowing this at the time, so after 20 minutes of going nowhere, we took the path of least resistance and retreated back to Bend using driving maneuvers for which I will plead the Fifth along with “everyone else was doing it.”

Instead of surrendering to the elements and the universe, we exited at Knott Road, drove east to China Hat Road past the ever-popular Boyd Cave and 3.1 miles farther to Arnold Ice Cave and Hidden Forest Cave, just a short walk down an easy trail.

Once we took a look at these caves, we realized yet again that in Central Oregon, some of the best adventures can be had just a few minutes from home.

But the two caves, and the experience of visiting them, couldn't be more different. As many readers will already know, before Frigidaire, there was Arnold Ice Cave. For a few decades in the early to mid-20th century, ice from the cave was harvested and brought to Bend help keep perishables.

After it fell into disuse in the 1950s, according to “Bend, Overall” author Scott Cook, “local cavers chipped a trench into the ice and found a half-mile of passage beyond the ice-choked entrance area. In 1963, the Forest Service built a staircase down into the entrance of the cave, which was then a dangerous slope of ice.”

Cook writes that the ice slowly overtook the staircase, and it was still hidden beneath a thick sheen of ice as of the 2010 edition of his book. But that ice has clearly receded.

From the parking area, you'll see two pits. The one on the left leads down to Arnold Ice Cave. Being the most expendable member of our party, I led the way down the trail, which becomes rocky (bouldery?) closer to the mouth of the cave. Tread carefully.

As you get closer, you'll see that 1963 staircase — or what's left of it. But getting too close could be treacherous; the sheen of ice atop the dirt and rocks at the cave entrance looks like a slippery slope to a lengthy hospital visit. There was an ice-free way to the staircase (which had an empty bottle of Mirror Pond Pale Ale sitting on a railing, by the way) but with kids not far behind I took the safe route: back uphill to level ground.

From there, we hung a left down the trail that runs between the two pits, then headed toward Hidden Forest, about a five-minute walk down the trail. As you walk, you'll pass another pit on your right, but keep going straight a few more minutes and the next big hole (hint: it's full of pines) houses Hidden Forest Cave.

Continue on along the path, watching your step as you go. The trail will wrap around the left side of the hole and become an easier path downward. Hidden Forest Cave is accessible year-round, according to Deschutes National Forest's Public Cave Access page (http://tinyurl.com/7u9bn9h). Just stay away from the walls, which are closed to climbing and bouldering year-round.

A year ago, some idiot, or possibly a group of idiots, sprayed graffiti on the rocky walls and even trees in the pit. They're an ugly sight, as is the litter in the cave, which included an abandoned water pipe. Stay classy, litterbugs.

It's truly unfortunate how abused the China Hat area of Deschutes National Forest is. During a run the next day at nearby Swamp Wells Trail, I spied piles of spent shotgun shells, various no-longer-identifiable shot-up junk, even a paper target replete with arrow sunk deep in a tree.

Fortunately for those visiting Hidden Forest Cave, the folks at Oregon High Desert Grotto, a Bend caving group, are spearheading a cleanup of the graffiti. For more information or to donate to the restoration fund, visit ohdgrotto.caves.org and click on “reward.”

Hidden Forest Cave, a collapsed lava tube, is not one of the longer caves in the area, but it makes up for it in height and breadth. The bottom of the cave affords a unique perspective on the trees growing from the bottom of the pit. Climb over rocks to the back of the cave and you'll see light beaming down from the neighboring pit, the very same one you passed earlier in the hike.

As Cook notes, Hidden Forest Cave was used for a scene in the 1994 Uma Thurman film “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a flop I saw and can remember just well enough to take him at his word — won't be seeing that dud again.

We had Hidden Forest Cave all to ourselves during our visit, but passed a few other families also braving the elements on a snowy spring day as we headed back to the trailhead and our vehicle.