Jordan Valley is one of the most remote places in Oregon, and is home to the youngest lava flow in the state. This area sees very few visitors. The roads are rough and unsigned. The lava field has no trails or vegetation and looks like asphalt. The surface is an obstacle course filled with volcanic craters and pits. For years I dreamed of visiting this unique landform, and just recently I had the opportunity to explore it.

As we drove closer to Jordan Valley we got out of cellular range. We had stored some GPS waypoints on a smartphone and a Garmin Rino. I am so glad we did not rely solely on the smartphone to get us to our destination. The smartphone was left on the dashboard of the car and it had heated up so much from the desert sun that it needed to be turned off and stowed away to cool off. This was not the case with the Rino; it was not affected by the heat and was operating just fine.


A view of the craters and lava flow from up on a hill where we camped.

The sunset that night was beautiful. As you can see by the size of the lava flow that finding a cave in this terrain is not easy. Even though the lava looks relatively flat, it is not at all. To travel on this surface you need to high up and down hills and climb around on this boot-destroying flow. Everywhere you look you think there is a cave off in the distance. As you investigate further most of these leads are just depressions and sinkholes in the lava field.

Having the Garmin Rino came in handy. We used the map on the Rino for a reference and marked leads we had already checked so that we did not have to go and check the same lead twice. Things get funny when everything looks the same. Once we did find a cave we added the GPS waypoints to our Rino. That way if we return to this area we can visit the cave again quickly without having to search as much. Returning back to our camp was easier since there are visible landforms; like the large crater in the foreground.

As we were breaking down our camp, a rattlesnake came crawling past my friend Brian’s leg and hissed at him. He called out to me and pointed at the snake, “There is a rattlesnake right there!” I immediately ran and grabbed my camera, followed the rattlesnake, and photographed it. It was very windy out, and I think the snake was just trying to find some shelter. As I snapped away at the snake, it slithered right under my tent. We broke down my tent with trekking poles as to keep our distance from the rattler. By the time the tent came down the snake had slithered away.

Proper rigging was essential to our safety. If the rope did fail than we were going to be trapped in this pit. The pit is completely over-hung and unclimbable. Jordan Valley is such a remote place that it may take years for people to find our bodies.

Brian Thackeray rappels into one of the pit caves. Although the surface of the lava flow lacks vegetation and is surrounded by desert this cave is filled with ferns. It felt like dropping into a terrarium.

Finding a frog like this in the middle of the desert is just mind-blowing. How long has this species existed in a cave like this? When we first found the cave a large owl flew out of the entrance. It startled me and I took five photographs of it flying away. Unfortunately none of photographs turned out; it was too quick for me and I was not prepared. I wonder if the owl was preying on these frogs or just looking for some shade in the desert heat.


A closer view of the ferns that grew on the base of the cave floor.


Communication is key on a trip like this. Instead of yelling down to Brian from the surface I could just talk to him on the Rino. This way I did not need to shout or stand on the edge of the pit.

The rest of our time in Jordan Valley ended up being a lot more adventurous than we had anticipated. We drove on a very bad road on our way out to the highway. Some of this so-called road brought us through creeks and over huge rocks. I broke (two of the three) bolts that were keeping my right front wheel attached to my truck because of the all the impact. The steering wheel was completely crooked and we drove to a gas station to repair the vehicle. We were very lucky and the gas attendant had a few bolts that worked to replace the two we had broken during the drive out.”