The inside of Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon has been shaped by not geography, but by geology. The lava lands of Newberry National Volcanic Monument offer gorgeous sites and hikes to astound you, especially if you’re used to the green trees and ferns of western Washington. With tons of options, some being only twenty minutes south of Bend, it’s a no-brainer to visit.
You can customize your Newberry trek however you’d like, but its recommended to start early to beat the crowds and the summer heat–and to cram in as many sites as you can! Other than a cave, you’re going to be in the sun most of the day, so pack extra water and SPF. Bring a strong flashlight or headlamp if you’ve got it, a light jacket (even if it’s 90* out–bear with me) and some cash (including single bills). No hiking sandals here–close-toed shoes only! $5 covers your entrance fees for the entire day (purchase at either the Lava Lands or Paulina visitor centers), as will flashing a Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful pass. Each stop I have listed here has pit toilets or bathrooms, and Lava Lands has a water source. In the summer the cave and visitor centers open at 9am. So pack up and try to see as many of the 400+ cinder cones and vents as you can!
We started our Newberry day with the first stop from Bend, the Lava Lands visitor center. In addition to an interpretive center (which has an unofficial cancellation for those with an NPS passport), there are multiple paved paths for hiking of varying distances (less than a mile up to five miles), but with our full day, we opted to skip them and pay $2 each (exact change required) to take the 10am shuttle up to the top of Lava Butte.
Lava Butte, elevation 5020 feet, has a two-story fire lookout and a stunning vista. Unfortunately due to smoke from nearby wildfires, what would have been a stunning panoramic view of peaks and volcanic cones was less impressive than what I knew it could have been, but it’s still worth the trek to walk around the rim (0.25 miles) of an actual cinder cone! Ambitious hikers and bikers can skip the shuttle and go up to Lave Butte themselves, but it’s a quad-burner for sure–you gain 500 feet elevation in a very short, winding time. Off-season you can drive instead of taking the shuttle, but parking at the top is limited.
LAVA RIVER CAVE
Heading just a little south, your next stop is the Lava River Cave. The park guide recommended arriving at the cave before 11am, as parking is limited and not allowed on the shoulder outside of the caves. Our first attempt to do the caves, the parking lot was full, so we actually moved on and did the caves on the return of our journey. This cave, like may other lava caves, was formed by a lava tube, which is when flowing (hot) lava moves underneath a hardened (cooled) lava flow. Once the flow ceases and the rock is cooled, a cave remains. While the cave hike is long (a mile each way) and mostly fairly wide, it is a cave–it’s incredibly dark and the ceiling is low enough to have to stoop at times. If you are moderately claustrophobic or have children afraid of the dark, this might not be for you.
There are some necessary preparations before departing. For starters, the cave has not yet been invaded by white nose syndrome, and would like to stay that way. White nose syndrome is a disease that attacks bats and is often fatal to them. While humans are immune, this disease is extremely easily transferred by humans as the spores can live and travel in your clothing. Make sure you do not wear any items you have worn in other caves before–even if they have been washed in hot water the white nose fungus can withstand that and still be passed on. For more information, go here.
In addition to making sure you are wearing cave-new clothing, make sure to bring some layers. The cave is 42* year-round, which was a treat to get away from the mid-day heat–but not for long. I went with a flannel shirt and risked my legs being bare and was mostly okay. Some people bring hats, mittens, and scarves, but I felt that was unnecessary. Lastly, you will require some serious light. I opted to pay $5 cash to rent a high-powered flashlight at the cave visitor center rather than use a weak flashlight. Do not cheapen out here–it is 100% darkness inside, and a cell phone light goes mere inches. Even with lights I heard many stubbed toes from visitors–why ruin your trip with that? Be mindful with children that an adult with a light and hand-holding might work best.
Okay, so you have a jacket of some sort, fungus-free clothing, and a light. Visitors are required to go through an orientation from rangers that will ensure again that you are wearing close-toed shoes, fresh clothing that hasn’t been in a cave, and have adequate lighting–but you should be prepared for that! Now time to descend into the darkness–and I do mean descend. You must go down over one-hundred stairs. There is a massive bottleneck here, but be patient–it will get much wider and it’s far too narrow to risk flying past someone who might not be steady on their feet. Compared to many other caves, Lava River Cave doesn’t have many stalactites or stalagmites, but they do offer a fenced-off ‘sand garden’ to view that has been created over thousands of years by rain and snow melt carrying ash from the eruption of Mt. Mazama through the cracks of the rock onto the floor of the cave. After the sand garden, the terrain of the cave turns into a hard sand instead of rock.
It’s impossible to miss the end of the cave–there’s a clear sign. This ‘end’ is actually just where sand gets impassable–it’s unknown how far the lava tube truly extends. In previous years you could actually scoot down much further, but to protect the bats they now stop you before the ceiling gets too low. By this point the bottleneck is completely gone and it had thinned out enough to try in a few spots to stop and turn our lights off to feel the total darkness around us. It was so dark we couldn’t sense a hand that was directly in front of our face! As you make your way back, you’ll rejoin the bottleneck when you get close to the entrance stairs (what goes down must come up on this journey), so again be patient (and remember that many of these people may be tourists and not seasoned hikers who know trail etiquette).
LAVA CAST FOREST
This one-mile path lets you walk in a land torched by lava ages ago. But first, you need to drive on a narrow 9 mile gravel road a few miles south of the cave. My sedan made it up fine, but was absolutely filthy after. It was here that we noticed butterflies–hundreds of them. Unfortunately even going 20MPH they seemed to be dive-bombing my windshield, which I could have done without. But that all was gone once we hit the trail. There was acres of lava rock as far as the eye can see!
Like many of the trails at Lava Lands, this is a paved path. I like how accessible it is (some areas have steep hills and are narrow but you can do an out-and-back rather than the loop if that is an issue), but also it really reinforces what areas are okay and not okay to walk on. The lava casts themselves used to be much taller, but decades of people going off trail to touch or climb around then has worn them down. I can talk about Leave No Trace (LNT) principals until I’m blue in the face, but seeing an old picture of what the casts used to look like is a powerful reminder of LNT’s importance. The lava casts were formed 6,000 years ago, when slow-moving lava (pahoehoe) flowed from a vent of the Newberry volcano through a forest and enveloped the trees there. Once cooled, the ‘cast’ of the tree trunk remained. There is even one section where you can tell it is a cast of downed trees!
With lava rock and casts everywhere, the most abundant vegetation was a hardy sagebrush-type ground cover and a few scattered trees. The trees (Ponderosa pines?) had clearly had to adapt to the rocky terrain–the trunks were all twisted like pulled taffy and there were many standing dead. I was almost as interested in these trees as the lava casts themselves! Besides butterflies there were plenty of gold ground squirrels scurrying about, and hawks circling overhead. Compared to Lava Lands and the cave, this is one of the most ‘outdoorsy’ of the stops in Newberry, paved trail and all. But our final stop is my favorite of all, so we hit the road after finishing this fascinating loop.
BIG OBSIDIAN FLOW
1300 years ago, Newberry’s youngest lava flow created my favorite place in the entire monument. Once you park in the massive parking lot, you are greeted with a giant sign imploring you to not steal any obsidian. Obsidian, as you will soon see, is a stunning material. While it may look like there’s enough rocks here for everyone to bring home a souvenir, with thousands of visitors that is simply not true. So remember to take only pictures here, and if you have young children you might even want to check their pockets (which I have heard of rangers asking visitors to do as well). On my first trip to the park years ago I was able to purchase a small piece of obsidian at the Lava Lands Visitor shop, and I’m sure there are people on Etsy who make crafts with legally-sourced obsidian if you’re really itching to own. Let’s keep this stunning natural wonder around for everyone to enjoy!
I originally thought obsidian was formed when lava made contact with a glacier, but the long-form answer is that obsidian comes from lava with a higher silica content (an ingredient used to make glass) coming into contact with air or water so it cools before it’s atoms can turn into a rock. The result is a stunning, smooth black glass. Obsidian is unique to each volcanic eruption, making a fascinating study for archaeologists and anthropologists, as Native Americans would use sharp, thin obsidian pieces to make the arrowheads and other weapons, which would then travel far to be traded. The path has interpretive signs that talk about this history of obsidian.
This trail is unpaved and very rocky. Because of the obsidian shards, dogs are NOT recommended here–their paws can get seriously cut up. Additionally, there are a few stairs to climb. However, I saw people of all abilities on the trail, as the payoff is worth it. Glittering obsidian mounds are all around you as well as stunning views. The full trail is less than a mile, and winds up through obsidian and pumice boulders to a stunning vista looking down on Paulina Lake. Like Crater Lake, Paulina Lake is in the crater of the Newberry volcano caldera. You can easily visit the lake during your Newberry Trip and even hike around it (rumor has it there are secret hot springs) and the rest of the caldera, but we opted to view from afar and have more time for finishing the Bend Ale Trail in the evening.
While obsidian does not make for the coziest of seats, we had a snack and kept taking in our surroundings. I was struck at how all four sites were unique despite being formed by lava from the same volcano. I’m no geology expert but it seems astounding! Take your time when exploring Newberry (but don’t take any obsidian!)–it’s a unique testament to nature and geology that should be seen by all.