Flagstaff has a walkable downtown area full of restaurants, brew pubs and independent stores. Just before picking up Patricia at the train station at the center of this area we stopped by a speciality beer store to pick out some treats. As we drove into the beer store parking lot, we noticed a bike store across the street. John does not pass a bike store without walking in, so after placing the beers in the van parked behind the store, we crossed the street to the bike store. The store owner noticed us just as much as we noticed the shop – even though the van was parked out of sight from the bike shop, he had seen us drive by and complimented the van. We then proceeded to have a long conversation about traveling and about what to do in the area. In his words, there are so many beautiful places to hike and bike in around Flagstaff that it is “ridiculous”. He in particular recommended two lava features: Sunset Crater Lava National Monument, which we missed, and Lava River Cave, which we explored on our way back through Flagstaff after leaving the Grand Canyon.

After running errands in Flagstaff, we headed the 15 miles back up the highway to the national forest intending to find a “dispersed camping” spot (“dispersed camping” = free camping with no amenities in designated locations on public land). With no trace of snow around, the possibility that the forest roads would be closed for winter had not occurred to me. I downloaded the motor vehicle use map, spent some time trying to decipher the mess of lines, symbols and tables to finally determine what roads were open for dispersed camping in mid-March only to be thwarted by gates sporting “road closed” signs. At one such site, where the gate was set back about 50 feet from the road, we stopped outside of the gate and were debating parking overnight in the open area before the gate when a car speeded in behind us. John moved the van so the car could get by, though we didn’t understand why anyone would be in such a hurry to stop at a closed gate. The driver got out and unlocked the gate! We got out and talked to her. It turns out some people live up the forest road and have the combination to open the gate. She informed us that usually in winter there are a couple feet of snow and they snowmobile to their homes in the forest. The roads are closed even in a dry winter to prevent people from driving in on a dry road then getting hit by a snowstorm that traps them back there. She also said she thought it would be fine if we parked right there overnight, so we did. We settled in right around dinner time, so we saw her neighbors all coming home. We were surprised at how many people live back there.

We rode our bicycles down miles of closed dirt road to get to the cave.

We scoff at the “No Parking” sign.

The road leading to the Lava River Cave is also closed for the winter, so we parked outside the gate and rode our bicycles four miles on a dirt forest road to get to the cave. While this cave is not as decorated as the limestone caverns in Carlsbad and Kartchner, exploring a cave on our own was a whole new (and fun!) experience. No one was around when we arrived, and we didn’t see anyone else until after we had eaten lunch at the very end of the 3/4 mile underground trail and started heading back out. Walking in the dark through a tube with only one exit is not for the claustrophobic or the monsterphobic. The cave isn’t tight by any means, but it is a little creepy to be alone in a strange dark place.

The darkness is really profound. We spent many minutes with our headlamps off, sitting still in a lack of light that is never encountered in normal life. The brain is confused by the lack of visual input and I continued seeing after-images of lights and phantom shadows the entire time. It was a really interesting experience.

Entrance to Lava River Cave.

Entrance to Lava River Cave.

Looking up at the light from just inside the cave.

John looking up at me from just inside the cave.

It is hard to capture the cave in pictures.

It is hard to capture the cave in pictures.

Icicle drapery.

Icicle drapery.

John climbing back into the light.

John climbing back into the light.

Following the cave exploration we stayed a couple more nights in the Arizona Snowbowl parking lot. The first morning we woke up to a white-coated world and the place briefly lived up to its name. I like the Flagstaff area, and could happily spend even more time there. After all, the abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities is “ridiculous”.

Snow outside the van on March 14 in Flagstaff, AZ.

Snow outside the van on March 14 in Flagstaff, AZ.

 

March 13, 2014

3 Thoughts on “Spelunking!

  1. Louisa Treskon on April 28, 2014 at 7:34 am said:

    This post made me want to experience they type of darkness you describe – sounds interesting!

  2. Icicles, bah humbug. Spring if finally here. Do either of you ever think about exploring jungles? I used to live in Guam. Lot of unexplored places there. That’s where a Japanese soldier from WWII was discovered in the 1970’s. He didn’t know the war was over. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoichi_Yokoi
    I moved there in 1976 a little after he was found and was able to go out to the place where he was living.

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