This is part of a writing I did some time ago about a solo trip I took to Arizona in 2018. Read part 3 here.
After my long day in Grand Canyon National Park, I allow myself to sleep in late on Thursday. I don’t have a lot planned today. I had originally planned to visit the lava river cave, and hike the Veit Springs Loop trail. However, as sore as my body is from my canyon adventure, I decide that Veit Springs is sadly off the table. I do still want to see the cave though, so I don’t allow myself to sleep too late. I still have to drive back to Phoenix today.
I stiffly get out of bed and shower, checking my stitched finger as I do, spraying and re-bandaging it when I get out. I dress, pack my things up and load the car. I won’t be returning to Anna’s place once I leave. I hear one of their dogs out running around barking as I prepare to leave, but don’t see it.
I load up into the car, put the Coconino Lava River Tubes into my GPS, and set off. It’s a decent drive to get to the Coconino National Forest, and the scenery outside the window is absolutely gorgeous. there are thick, lush pine forests of uniform, arrow-straight tree trunks as far as the eye can see. Which granted, isn’t very far with all the trees.
My first sign that I should have probably researched this cave better is when my GPS instructs me to turn onto “Fire Access Road 45” or something like that. That doesn’t seem right. But the road is pretty well maintained so I do anyway, having to brake hard to not miss the turn. I continue a ways before being directed to turn onto another fire access road. Then another. All in all, I end up driving about eight miles through the Coconino National Forest on narrow, muddy fire access roads in my rented white Altima. That's the last time I try to save money on my rental by getting a sedan. It’s also sprinkling rain which isn’t helping.
I finally pull into a clearing, narrowly avoid a massive mudhole in the middle, and swing off to one side to park. This must be it, I guess. I haven’t exactly done no research on the lava river cave, I just didn’t really look into the route to get there too closely. I know about the cave, however. I know that it’s completely undeveloped. There are no railings or pathways or anything inside, and certainly no lights of any kind. You have to bring your own lights, and it better be a bright one, because it’s darker than dark, and if your light goes out, buddy you’re in trouble. So you bring a backup for your light. And if you’re smart, a backup for your backup.
The Coconino Lava River Tubes were formed long long ago, I don’t know exactly how long, but at one point there was liquid lava flowing underground in this area. In some places, once the lava was gone, enormous underground tunnels were left behind, and this is one of them. It’s an almost perfectly round tunnel formed naturally, so it caught my attention when researching the area.
I step out of my car, grab my things, and slam the door shut. I decide to leave my backpack behind for this excursion, but bring a water bottle, and layer up so that I can adjust based on comfort inside. Being underground, the cave is somewhere around 50 degrees Fahrenheit all year round. The only trouble now, is that I don’t see a cave anywhere. If I were a giant underground cavern in the middle of the forest, where would I hide? I wander around a bit, and follow the muddy roadway a bit further into the woods. As I come around a corner, I can’t see my car anymore. I can’t get lost, I just follow the road, but it’s strange how suddenly I’m surrounded entirely in uniform forest. I take a panorama shot 360 degrees around myself before moving ahead.
After a bit, I reach another clearing, I spot a small mound of rocks, and approach. This is the cave. A bit more primitive even than I anticipated. It’s just a hole in the ground, and not a particularly large one at that. A low rock wall has been built up around it. I step inside the rock wall, and notice a metal box on a pedestal and lift the lid. Inside is a worn binder full of ratty weathered papers with names on it. Apparently you’re supposed to sign in. That way if someone comes here in a month and sees you didn’t sign out, they’ll know there's a corpse down there somewhere! I sign in anyway as a formality.
There’s absolutely no one else here. The last car I even met was on the forest service road, and it was going the other way. I’m entirely alone in the middle of the Coconino National Forest. I grab my water bottle and cautiously begin to descend into the narrow hole in the ground. I crouch low and squeeze in, putting on my headlamp as I do.
What has always seemed like an absurdly bright headlamp in the past seems pitifully dark as I enter the first chamber, even with the natural light leaking in through the opening above me. I cautiously move ahead, clambering carefully over jagged rock formations on the floor, hardly even looking around me out of fear of tripping on the uneven floor. At the far end of the room I’m in, there's another narrow passage and I squeeze through. Once through, the tunnel starts to really open up, and I find myself in a high vaulting tunnel stretching far out ahead of me before curving around.
I re-situate my headlamp, and take a sip of water before heading on. It’s a strange feeling, being so far under ground, so far away from another human being. I kind of like it, and I’m not sure if I should be concerned or not. People know I’m here, but none within hundreds of miles of me. No one who can help if I run into trouble. And no one would know anyway, there’d be no way to get a signal out with so much rock above my head.
This cave is like no other I’ve been in. The walls and floor are smooth, relatively speaking. There are no stalagmites or stalactites, and with the exception of the occasional puddle where water has filtered all the way down from the surface and drips on the floor, it’s dry. There’s also no wildlife whatsoever in here. Not even bats. It’s incredibly quiet, with only the occasional drip of water to accompany my footsteps.
I don’t speak as it feels wrong to disturb the silence, and there’s no one to hear anyway. With nothing else to do but continue, I do. I follow the tunnel further and further underground. I can hardly get lost, the tunnel has no forks or branches, the danger is getting hurt or losing my light and not being able to get back out. I notice an interesting mineral deposit of some kind on the ceiling. It seems to glitter and I’m not sure what it is. Some parts of the tunnel are barely high enough for me to stand in, others are much taller. I sadly don’t get any pictures in the highest chambers as my light can’t even begin to fill them enough for a proper exposure.
At one point, I nearly trip over a cairn of rocks that someone before me has built. Eventually, I come to a fork in the tunnel. I knew this was coming, but the problem is, I don’t know is what comes after it. I’ve seen pictures of this fork, but I have no idea if there are more forks further on. I decide that being alone, I’d best not chance it and turn back.
On my way back, I hear distant voices. A bit unnerved, I call out and get no response. A bit further on, I see some lights and hear voices again, and soon I come upon some fellow spelunkers and chat briefly. I push on though and as I’m nearing the entrance room, I encounter some more people on their way in. I stop to chat with a woman accompanied by two boys probably in their early teens. She mentions that she’s been here before, and after I explain why I turned back, she says I’m welcome to join her and her son and his friend as they are going all the way to the end.
So, I turn around and trek back over my same trail again. I can’t remember the woman’s name, but she says she came here as a child and the cave was much rougher then, the floor has been smoothed a lot by the countless feet over the years she says. We chat as we continue. It turns out, that just past the fork I stopped at, the two branches come right back together, so I needn’t have worried. We take the larger tunnel as she says the other is very tight to squeeze through. At one point, we enter a stretch of tunnel that has to be nearly 30 feet high at the peak. I can hardly even process it in the dim lighting, even with mine and all my companions lights shining about.
Eventually, we reach the end of the tunnel. It ends rather abruptly. The four of us stop for a breather and sit on some rocks. The boys want to try turning all the lights off, and the woman agrees. We all switch our lights off, one by one. The darkness that followed is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before or likely will again. Roughly a mile down an underground tunnel, there’s not even the tiniest hint of natural light. My eyes can’t even really adjust to it because there’s simply no light whatsoever. I hold absolutely still, fearing to move in the absolute darkness.
After a couple of seconds, the woman says she’s had enough and turns her light back on and the boys and I do too. We have a quick snack and some water, before turning back. The return journey is quite uneventful, and by the time I make it back to the entrance, I’m just about exhausted. I’m glad that I decided to forego the Veit Springs Loop. I finally make it back to my car and say goodbye to my companions, again not getting proper contact info which I immediately regret. I message a few people at home that I’m safe, and it’s time to head back to Phoenix.
I navigate carefully back to the main road and then set my GPS to take me to a place that my Airbnb host, Anna, told me about. It’s called the Horsemen’s Lodge. It is a bit outside of Flagstaff, so it’s a decent drive to get there. By the time I do, it’s raining again, and I’m very hungry. I stumble inside stiffly, barely able to walk after that last two days, and am seated in a very western feeling restaurant, with wood all around and antlers in the light fixtures. I order a very large steak and some onion rings to fill my rumbling belly and sit back to wait. When my food comes, I think it might be the best food I’ve ever eaten. I take my time eating, and then finally get back on the road to Phoenix.
On the drive back, I'm so exhausted I pass most of the time in sort of a daze and don't remember much since nothing exciting happened. At this point, I’m completely fine with that. It rains off and on, and I notice the scenery changing back to the desert and cacti as I near Phoenix, exactly the opposite of what I observed on my way out. I navigate through the terrifying Phoenix traffic once again, and make it to the Enterprise Rent-A-Car without wrecking my ride, and drop it off. Expecting to have to get yet another Lyft ride back to Scot’s place for my last night, I’m surprised when I’m offered a free ride by an Enterprise rep and take it gladly, thankful to be done driving for the rest of my trip.
When I arrive back at Scot’s storage container, I let myself in again, quite experienced by now, and flop on the bed. My flight leaves early tomorrow and I need to get to bed early. It occurs to me that there's a small chance I might not be able to get a ride at 3 in the morning when I plan to depart, and so I open the Lyft app to schedule a ride now. However, when no one has taken the job after a few hours, I finally fall asleep, desperately hoping someone will before it’s time to leave.
Read part 5 here.