From a distance, I wondered if I was just looking at a blackened forest fire over the hillside. This was Idaho, filled with fields of rolling green and nothing else, the black crags I was seeing very out of place against the soft grass. But it was actually all volcanic rock left there from the ancient volcanoes.
I first climbed the dusty cindercone, the top interspersed with iridescent volcanic shards, the surface of which was sharp and grated and filled with air bubbles from where the lava had spontaneously hardened. This place was a stark landscape that definitely held true to its name.
One of the couple trails I walked was the Broken Top Loop, where I found an opening to a cave.
I entered Buffalo Cave, with two flashlights, extra batteries, and a jacket. It is unsurprisingly damp and bone-chillingly cold in caves. So I descended down the jagged boulders into the looming dark. Strapped on my headlamp and pulled on the jacket.
It was so very, very dark. I didn’t even realize it until I remembered to turn off my headlamp to take it in. I sat there looking into the complete and total darkness, letting my imagination run a bit too far for a hike into a cave. It looked as if I was about to enter into some kind of abyss running into the earth forever.
But the long dark ended at a fence, blocking my further path into the cave due to “unstable conditions,” a warning that did not inspire any confidence. So I instead rounded the another path and scraped over the boulders there. I saw the light again, and pulled myself out.
Buffalo Cave was not the only cave I explored. I drove over to the Caves Trail, and ended up entering each of those too.
Beauty Cave, Dew Drop Cave, and Indian Tunnel. I was sort of entranced by the feeling of entering these caves by myself, this cold sort of fear that morphs into icy adrenaline.
These caves were covered in ice from never having been exposed to the sun. The walls in some places gleamed and shimmered like silver and gold foil.
And then I came to the final cave on my list.
I looked at my map and thought that the entrance sounded quite small, the ceiling heights stamped in every area of the map. The entrance was apparently three feet wide. So I shuffled down, backpack on, into the larger room. As I looked around the small cavern, I thought it was time to turn back, until I checked the map one more time. 1 foot, it said. Low crawl, it said. I spent a long time frowning at the actual one foot gap of jagged stalactites above rough-hewn pools of icy water, trying to figure out if this was the correct way to go. But in a strange way, it looked fun.
I pulled off my pack, put my phone and camera in my back pockets, squeezed my extra flashlight in hand, and got down on my belly to low crawl through this cave. Unsurprisingly, it was very uncomfortable. I scraped up my hands and put a lasting bruise on my kneecap. I was astounded I wasn’t more banged up from how I felt afterward. But after about ten to fifteen feet (which felt much, much longer), I emerged on the other side, without managing to bump my head on the low ceiling.
The lights on the other side of the cavern I emerged into denoted that I was not, in fact, trapped underground in this small space. I shimmied up and out to see that I had nearly made it back to the main trail. Apparently, one could enter Boyscout Cave from a different side, without the low crawl through the middle. But that didn’t stop the wave of relief that I felt at popping my head up into the warm sunlight to breathe moving air.
As I returned through the one-foot crawl, my headlamp simply went out. Of course it did. I cursed, but turned on the only other flashlight I had, in my hand. Still, there had been a split second of panic as my eyes searched for light that wasn’t there, my brain confused at the curtain of dark that had so instantly fallen, like a blackout. It was a good thing for sure that I always have a back-up plan, this time in the form of the extra light in hand.
After that mess, I tugged my backpack back on, squeezed back through the three foot entrance with some difficulty, and made it back to the parking lot. I felt lucky not to have been squished, buried alive, or lost in the lava tubes.
Not a huge national monument, but quite a lot to do if you like caves. You might not know how much you might like exploring these places until you find the courage to descend into that dark.