I wave my hand in front of my face but I can’t see it. Just darkness like I’ve never known before. Total blindness, and the sort of terror that comes with losing one of your senses, even for a moment. I’m afraid to take the smallest step, and when I do, I can hear the gravel beneath my hiking boot crackle.
It’s cold this far underground in Lava River Cave. Not freezing, but well below 40 degrees.
I had lost my father a few months prior. He died on a weekday in the middle of the night, and even though he was old enough for me to have seen it coming, it was still a surprise.
Months later, I’m in northern Arizona where my brother went to school. We had spent the early morning talking about dad for the first time since he passed, before I broke off on my own to explore this cavernous underground hideaway.
The mile-long lava tube just outside of Flagstaff, Ariz., (about 14 miles) was formed when a volcano in Hart Prairie erupted about 700,000 years ago. The molten rock that erupted flowed like scolding hot sludge, then cooled and solidified. The rest of the lava river flowed inside its walls and what it emptied out became this cave.
To get here, you drive nine miles north of Flagstaff on US 180 and turn left at milepost 230. From there it’s just three more miles to FR171 and another mile south when FR 171B turns left. Then it’s just a short walk to the cave.
The cave is open year round. In the winter, when the roads are iced closed, folks will hike or even ski into the mouth of cave.
This is America’s most terrifying hike that nobody’s heard of.
I’m alone down here.
A man stands at the entrance to the cave (Photo: Right Brain Photography/Flickr)
I drove my dad’s car to a parking space a few miles back at the entrance of Coconino National Forest and walked to the mouth of the cave, an opening about 30 feet wide with an inclined entrance like a makeshift staircase of jagged rock, dirt, and loose gravel, and I sit on the top and begin my slow descent into the cavernous darkness.
It’s not pitch black at first. Inside are craggy rock formations, hardened lava daggers hundreds of thousands of years old. It isn’t beautiful. Just hostile and unwelcoming. I begin to walk away from whatever daylight is left and soon I’m absorbed by shadows. And then, once I’m about 40 feet in, I can no longer see.
It’s not uncommon for a local high school to take their classes on a guided tour through the lava cave. For locals, this is a part of their history. But most venture down here alone. Some are burn-out kids looking for a cop-free place to get stoned; others are geology junkies looking for new rock formations; others, like myself, are just looking for something thrilling.
I take a step. And another. I can’t feel how wide the space is. It feels like the walls are closing in and my mind begins to create monsters–thoughts of wild bats or adapted man-eating creatures who’ve evolved from years of living in utter darkness.
I reach for the flashlight in my jacket, fumble it, and click it on. The lights envelopes me and I see the empty cave ahead. I see some icicles and, on the ground puddles of condensation from the previous nights rain.
The hallways are more narrow and graffitied in places, and the graffiti makes me uneasy; the thought of someone else being down here with me scares and comforts me.
About a quarter mile in, the roof of the cave begins to slant downward, and I’m forced to crouch and then find myself on my knees, the cold of the stone floor through my jeans. I shine my flashlight on the walls and see a small opening I’m to crawl through.
Yes, I think, there are definitely red-eyed demons on the other side of this waiting to behead me, but I go ahead and crawl through the claustrophic space anyway, turn on my back, and kick my way through.
I can’t breathe for a moment. On the floor beside me are a cigarette butt and a stepped-on soda can. And then I stand on the other side of the wall in a wide-open room with a 60-foot ceiling. I set my flashlight down and it beams diagonally onto the side of the wall to reveal graffiti scrawl on stone and ice and black rock.
I’m far from the beginning now. The ground in this room is more slippery than before and I’m not confident I could find my way back anymore. There’s no map.
I keep walking and around the corner, I see the yellow glow of another flashlight and hear the faint sounds of giggling. I’m scared at first but quickly realize it’s some college freshman and his girlfriend. I approach them, nod politely, shine a light at their faces. Her hair is a little disheveled and he’s staring straight ahead, almost guilty. And then I wonder what it was I may have interrupted, and I’m a different kind of scared.
I move along.
It’s about 45 minutes to the end. Without my flashlight, I’d be lost forever. Should the batteries fail, there is a crushing sense that you could lose your life down here. I’ve reached the end, this impossible wall that won’t let me go any further. I turn my flashlight off and pause for a moment. I don’t cry but I close my eyes and try my best to. And when the moment has passed, I decide I’ve been in the dark long enough and I turn my flashlight back on.
On my way back through the cave, I am careful to look upward at the ceiling, at the hanging icepicks and daggers, formed so many years ago, and now that safety is closer, I can appreciate better the beauty and wonderment of the cave. I secretly hope to see some sort of sign, maybe something spiritual, maybe a sign scribbled into the walls from a passerby to give me some hope. But it’s just the random waves of mindless lava from another time.
I crawl through the final tunnel and can see the first signs of daylight. It’s just the tiniest sliver of pale blue but it’s enough that I don’t need the flashlight anymore.
Our other favorite intense hikes
A man hiking The Maze (Photo: Thinkstock)
The Maze, Utah
No fatalities–yet–but the Maze is the riskiest for canyon hikers because of its brutal terrain and steep falls. Most travel the trail by jeep for safety purposes.
Mist Trail, Half Dome, Calif.
Steep falls and risks of lightning strikes make this gorgeous-yet-deadly hike among the most fatal in California. Reach the end, however, and proudly wear your “I Climbed Half Dome” shirt.
Abrams Falls, Great Smoky Mountains
Inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with torrential downpour, the 2.5-mile hike has claimed 29 lives.
West Coast Trail, Vancouver, Canada
Bears, wolves, and cougars, oh my! Yes, these man-eating beasts stalk the West Coast Trail in Vancouver in Canada. And the wild animals are just one dangerous component of the trail alongside wooden cliffs, creaky bridges, and steep, steep falls.
Rover’s Run, Anchorage, Alaska
Beware the roaming brown bear! This bike hike in Anchorage has long been a stomping ground great bears, and maulings are not unheard of. Locals use it for skiing and biking, but it’s anything but safe.