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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Nature - Marble Halls of Oregon

Marble Halls of Oregon

Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve

Story by Lee Juillerat

Photography provided by Oregon Caves National Monument

Oregon Caves National Monument is now more than it’s longtime motto—the “Marble Halls of Oregon.” A long-awaited expansion opened up the monument for increased hiking, camping and backpacking opportunities. Last December, legislation approved by Congress and signed by President Obama added 4,000 acres to the 488-acre monument.

The additional acres mean many changes for the Monument. “We have high hopes it will expand our visitation,” says Vicki Snitzler, Oregon Caves superintendent. “With the addition of that acreage, there are folks who will stay another day.”

“It's a big change,” echoes George Herring, the monument's chief of interpretation. “It gives the monument a bigger swatch of the Klamath-Siskiyou ecosystem. Everybody's thinking very creatively.”

Snitzler agrees that they’re still brainstorming how the acres will be used, and hopes local outfitters may add guided tours to some of the new areas. “Hopefully, we'll test some of those programs this summer.”

The addition includes nine miles of trails formerly managed by the Forest Service. One leads to the 6,390-foot summit of Mount Elijah while another goes to Bigelow Lake, a “hot spot” of biological diversity because its sub-alpine meadows feature 120 plant species and wildflowers. The expansion also makes the creek known as the River Styx, which flows through the cave, the nation's first underground river protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

It also gives the park a new name: Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve.

One thing it doesn't change is hunting, which will continue to be allowed in the new acreage.

Herring says the expansion offers new opportunities for visitors, “depending on how intrepid they are.” He suggests a nine-mile figure-eight trek that begins at the historic Oregon Caves Chateau, goes through Douglas and red fir forests, crosses mountain meadows, travels along ridges, reaches Elijah's summit and travels past the Big Tree, a 13-foot diameter Douglas fir believed to be 1,200 to 1,500 years old.

“It's something like hiking in the Lord of the Rings land,” Herring says of feelings generated trekking through the forests, along ridges and Elijah's summit, which offer clear day views of the Pacific Ocean, Mount McLoughlin, Mount Bachelor, the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area and Mount Shasta. 

During an overnight backpacking trip with his son during the August Perseid meteor shower, Herring said they saw long-eared owls and incredible starry skies.

He says hikers venturing to Bigelow Lakes, especially in June and July, can expect to see a profusion of wildflowers. “The wildflowers just explode in the summer, and there's any color combination imaginable of butterflies.”

The expansion was desired because the newly acquired acreage includes the watershed that feeds the cave and provides drinking water for visitors. “The ability to manage the entire watershed in one unit will help with its preservation and protection into the future,” Snitzler believes. 

Proposals to expand the monument began shortly after President William Howard Taft created it in 1909. The monument's general management plan, approved in 2000, envisioned an expansion of 3,000 acres.

It's expected the expansion will also lure more visitors, especially as campgrounds, trails and facilities are improved. Herring said there are plans to install historic markers and information panels at the Illinois Valley Visitor Center in Cave Junction and along the road to the monument. Oregon Caves is located 19 miles off Highway 199, the road that connects the California Redwoods and Oregon and California coasts with the Rogue Valley and Crater Lake National Park. 

“Rather than just coming to see the caves and leaving, it gives people the opportunity to stay longer to camp, hike or stay at the historic lodge,” says Representative Peter DeFazio, of the Oregon Congressional district that includes the monument. “It will attract more visitors. It's a big positive.” 

SIDEBAR

Cave tours have resumed for the season at Oregon Caves National Monument. General cave tours are being offered at least once per hour, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., until May 23, when extended summer hours go into effect.

Tours, which are offered on a first-come, first-served basis, last about 90 minutes and have a limit of 15 people per tour. The cost is $10 for adults and $7 for youth ages 15 and younger. Fees help fund projects that improve the park's facilities, including restoration of the historic Chateau.

The cave tour is rated moderately strenuous. For safety reasons, children must be at least 42 inches tall and be able to walk independently. Visitors in wheelchairs can access the first room of the cave. The temperature inside the cave is about 44°F so warm clothing and good hiking shoes are recommended. Cameras with flash are allowed in the cave but tripods, flashlights, food, backpacks and purses are not. 

The Chateau will open with food, lodging and gift shop services May 7. For food and lodging information or Chateau reservations call 541-592-3400. For information on cave tours call 541-592-2100 ext. 2221 or visit www.nps.gov/orca.

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