The Oregon Caves Lodge: A Well-Kept Secret

(c) 1996 by Fred Flaxman
This article first appeared in the May 1996 edition of the Jefferson Monthly.

My wife and I never heard of the Oregon Caves until we moved to southern Oregon five years ago. I noticed the designation on a map when I was planning a trip to the coast. No one mentioned this national monument to me, and we never seemed to have the time to make the necessary detour at Cave Junction from the Redwood Highway. Well, let me tell you, it's not only well worth the detour; it's well worth an overnight stay.

Yet another two years passed before I read about the Oregon Caves Lodge -- a six-story lodge built in 1934 for visitors to the area. That building sounded interesting, since it included a dining room with a mountain stream running through it. Nevertheless, two more years passed before we made our first trip to the caves and stayed overnight at the lodge. We were in the car less than two hours door-to-door from Medford.

Just as well it took us all this time to discover this little-known gem, because five years ago we might not have liked it so much. According to Norm Heyden, the current general manager, "age had been getting to the building." The boiler didn't work. Neither did the radiators. In the middle of the winter, 34 degrees Farenheit was the highest temperature obtainable -- indoors. Almost everything was in need of repair, replacement or cleaning.

The place was in such sad shape that Heyden twice turned down the general manager job when it was offered to him three years ago, but changed his mind after a second visit, when he started to see the tremendous potential of the place.

Now virtually everything has been redone -- and none of it at public expense. Although the 480 acres of the Oregon Caves National Monument are owned by the federal government and controlled by the National Park Service, the lodge itself was built by private enterprise and is now owned by the Estey Corporation, a company whose principal business is vending machines and food service. So it is the Estey Corporation which has foot the bill for the hotel's restoration. This in contrast to the Crater Lake Lodge, which is owned by the federal government and took $15 million of public funds to reconstruct. Estey is the authorized concessionaire of both the Crater Lake Lodge and the Oregon Caves Lodge, and they manage the Oregon Caves as well.

Heyden speaks with great enthusiasm and justifiable pride about what his crew has accomplished at the Lodge. The beautiful main staircase, whose see-through steps are made of polished wood, had been covered with 17 layers of paint over the years, all of which were painstakingly removed. The front desk counter was sanded down to the beautiful, original wood. Five bathrooms a year have been redone, so that 17 had been rehabilitated as of this writing, and the remaining three should be finished by the end of this year.

Since the lodge has only 22 guest rooms, and very few visitors all winter, it is difficult to imagine how this venture can be financially profitable, especially since it takes a summer staff of 68-72 and a winter crew of 12-15 to keep things going.

There have never been telephones or TVs in the rooms, and there won't be now, as a very conscientious effort is being made to keep the original 1934 atmosphere -- including the peace and quiet. But the old crank telephones were never removed from the hallways, and they are being made to work once again so that guests can easily communicate with the front desk.

The Lodge is covered with Port Orford cedar bark, which makes the structure blend in with its environment like a giant treehouse. It is constructed in a canyon in such a way that, from the entrance side, only three of its six stories are above grade. There are two fish ponds on this side of the building with waterfalls between them. The water then passes through the dining room, one flight below ground, where it is tamed in a series of rectangular beds, covered with artificial plants, before it goes out the other end, down another two flights to the canyon below.

This peaceful, innocent-looking stream was not so picturesque in 1964. At that time 21 inches of snow followed by 21 inches of rain resulted in a flood which brought solid mud to the first three floors of the building. The flood ruined the restaurant's hardwood floors, which are still covered by carpeting today.

The lobby features a huge stone fireplace and -- according to Heyden -- the country's largest collection of original Monterey furniture. These chairs and tables were produced by woodworking artist George Mason from the 1920s until 1943. Only 159 pieces of each design were made. The Lodge's collection was originally purchased for $20,000. Visiting actress Suanne Langston told Heyden that a single Monterey chair now goes for $5,000. But you can sit on one here for free.

Our room was comfortable, pleasant and functional, but not really attractive. The walls and ceiling were covered with a brownish, glazed, ugly but practical fire-retardant firtex. Exposed sprinkler system pipes and an undistinguished central lighting fixture completed the view up. The wall had one Kmart-style framed photo of a woodland scene -- taken someplace else. Our bathroom was one of the few which had not yet been redone, so it didn't even have a hook on the back of the door to hang your clothes before you hopped into the age-worn bath/shower.

Our sleep was disturbed first by the loud, banging noise of the old-fashioned radiators heating up, then by being too hot, and, finally, by noisy crows at sunrise. But, somehow, this sounds worse in print than it was in reality.

The restaurant, which is only open for dinner, served good, unpretentious, simple American food. I had an excellent, tender little filet mignon wrapped in bacon. My wife had the fresh fish of the day, which she enjoyed immensely.

But we liked the food in the coffee shop even better. The 1930s-style cafe specializes in old-fashioned ice cream fountain deserts, which are wonderful if you can only make yourself forget everything you've learned about healthy nutrition since then. The coffee shop is also justifiably known for its club sandwich, which is hefty enough to stuff two normal-size adults. My wife and I split one of these with the knowing approval of our broad-smiled waiter. The accompanying French fries were the best we've had in southern Oregon.

The Oregon Caves themselves are certainly worth a visit -- provided you're physically fit enough to climb about 500 stairs and dressed appropriately for humid, 41 degree F. temperatures at any time of the year. Though they are not as spectacular, large and stalactite/stalagmite-full as some other caves, such as the Luray Caverns in Virginia, they, at least, have not been commercialized with colored lights and piped-in music.

Our guide, Susan McNerney, was highly entertaining, informative, dynamic and knowledgeable. And she was just right for the job -- short, so she could get through the caves with a minimum of bending -- and loud, so she could be heard without mechanical amplification.

Most people who visit Oregon's marble caves do just that, and nothing else. So they miss the pleasure -- and exercise -- of walking on the Monuments several trails. We took the 3.3-mile Big Tree loop trail through the surrounding old-growth forest past a 12.5-foot-thick Douglas fir some 1,200-1,500 years old.

I'm glad we followed Norm Heyden's advice and took the loop to the left as we started rather than to the right. That way the climb up the mountain was more gradual and there were several attractive wood-and-stone benches along the way to serve for rest stops. The right side of the loop is much steeper, with no benches along the way. It would have murdered me, in the shape I'm in, to have had to go up that way!

There are seven marked trails to choose from. The one we selected was immaculately clean -- not a beer bottle, soda can, or any other scrap of litter in sight. The views were magnificent from this 4,800-foot perspective, the air as pure as can be with a wonderful, natural pine scent. Rarely have I enjoyed breathing so much.

I could tell how few people take advantage of this trail when we went back the long way from the top. We were there just before Labor Day, and the summer's growth was beginning to cover the narrow path -- something which wouldn't have happened had there been a steady stream of tourists treading there. Then, too, we passed only two other couples during our two-hour hike. Crowds just never seem to be a problem in southern Oregon.

One other thing I should mention about this superb choice for a southern Oregon mini-vacation: The road from Cave Junction to the Oregon Caves is itself highly scenic, especially once you've entered the Siskiyou National Forest, which surrounds the national monument. For anyone who is not up to mountain climbing and forest hiking, this drive through the woods is the next best way to enjoy the natural beauty of the Northwest.

When we returned to the Rogue Valley, I told many of our friends about the Oregon Caves and the Oregon Caves Lodge. Not one of them had been there, yet they all have lived in this area longer than we have. One acquaintance was even here in 1934 when the Lodge opened. I asked him why he hadn't bothered to pay a visit.

"I have no interest in caves," he said. "I have no desire whatsoever to go underground." So the Oregon Caves are not for everyone. But, if you are excited by cave exploration, invigorated by walks in the woods, and relaxed by a night or two in a rustic mountain lodge, the Oregon Caves are for you.

How to Get There

The Oregon Caves National Monument is located 20 miles southeast of Cave Junction on Oregon Route 46. The Caves can be reached by traveling either 50 miles south from Grants Pass, Ore., or 76 miles north from Crescent City, Calif., on U.S. Route 199 (The Redwood Highway). The last 8 miles of Oregon 46 are narrow and winding, picturesque but difficult for towing trailers. So they are not recommended due to the narrow roads, infrequent turnarounds and lack of parking space.

Not for Everyone

Children must be able to climb a set of test stairs unassisted and must be at least 42 inches tall to enter the caves, and childcare services are not available. The cave tour is considered strenuous and is not recommended for people with heart, breathing, or walking problems. The entire route, including cave passage and exit trail, is nearly a mile in length. The route includes over 500 stairs, most of which are steep and wet. The exit trail is at a 16% grade.

How much does it cost?

Guided cave tours are $5.75 per adult; $3.50 per child under 12; and $5.00 for seniors with Golden Age cards. Golden Age cards may be purchased for a one-time fee of $10.00 by any U.S. resident 62 or older. There is no entrance fee at the Oregon Caves National Monument. The caves are open every day but Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Summer rates at the Lodge are $89.00 per room for 1 or 2 people and $9 for each additional person over six years old. Full hotel services are available from May 1 through Oct. 1. October through April the Lodge offers bed and breakfast only. Room rates dip to $49 per night during January and February. The charge is $69 per night the other months. For more information and reservations, call 541-592-3400.