Skeleton Cave – the name immediately brings questions to your mind. The designation refers to the discovery of several animal skeletons found inside of the cave. This lava tube cave is located south of Bend off of the China Hat Road (also known as Road 18). Incidentally, 690 caves have been discovered in Deschutes County and 577 of them are lava tubes.
Inside Skeleton Cave
There is currently a metal staircase leading down into the cave. In the past it was just like a large pit trap that animals sometimes fell into and then could not escape. Because of this, skeletons and fossilized remains of several species of animals have been found within the cave. These included horse, deer, elk, bear, fox, a large hyena-type canid, lynx, a small carnivore, and various rodents. The horse skeleton found in the cave was determined to be that of Equus niobrarensis. It lived during the Pleistocene era that ended 10,000 years ago.
The cave was discovered in 1924, although writing on the cave wall indicates it may have been visited in 1894. An old still was found in the cave. It was surveyed by Walter T. Perry and Phil Brogan. They measured the main cave at 3,036 feet long with a side passage of 1,734 feet. Later, in 1971 Jim Neiland measured the cave more accurately at a length of 3,560 feet.
Lava tube cave
Lava tubes are tunnels that form when slow moving lava develops a hard exterior crust that thickens as the interior, faster flowing, lava continues to flow through until it drains away.
On the ceiling of Skeleton Cave you can see “lavacicles” which are a variety of stalactites. They form as the lava drips from the roof of a cave and cools and hardens.
This cave is especially popular with visitors and many have enjoyed exploring it. The temperature inside the cave averages 43 degrees Fahrenheit. Visitors can walk into the first part of the cave and explore deeper sections by climbing and crawling.
Negative impacts to Skeleton Cave
Unfortunately, visitors are impacting the habitats within Skeleton Cave and other caves nearby. The number of recreational cavers (or spelunkers) increased as Bend’s population increased. The parking lot was located close to the cave opening and provided easy access. Skeleton cave was known as “The Party Cave”. Vandals spray painted graffiti and left their garbage behind. Some of the sport climbers left bolts and chalk lines that began to accumulate on the cave walls and ceiling.
Bat populations in the caves were dropping since people were in the caves during their hibernation period. Unlike other mammals that hibernate, bats have very little body fat so if they are disturbed they may die. There are nine species of bats living in the caves near China Hat Road.
Conserving cave environments
The Road 18 Caves Project Environmental Assessment was designed to “analyze effects of humans on wildlife resources (including bat habitat), recreational opportunities, geologic features, native vegetation, and cultural resources in nine caves in regards to past, present and future use” in the area located eight miles Southeast of Bend, Oregon. The findings were published in 2001. Some of the recommendations included gating some of the cave entrances, moving parking lots farther away from entrances, preventing entry during the time when bats hibernate, and limiting or removing bolts used by sports climbers. This was a controversial decision because people have a right to explore caves but the caves are also protected under the Federal Cave Resources Protection Act.
In order to protect the habitats within Skeleton Cave, it can only be accessed through private commercial tours. Wanderlust Tours has a special permit to access the caves. They provide helmets, lights, and a naturalist guide.
To learn more facts about caves, visit the Oregon High Desert Grotto website.