Skylight Cave near Black Butte Ranch is not much of a hike to get too, but it is one of the most spectacular lave tubes in Central Oregon. If you visit the cave in the morning hours on a clear, sunny day, you will be witness to up to three beams of sunlight piercing the cave’s roof and illuminating a room. Actually seeing the beams yourself (they are not a trick of photography) is awesome!
Skylight Cave was created during an eruption of nearby Sixmile Butte. During the eruption, a river of lava flowed just beneath the surface, creating the lava tube. As the lava cooled, because of its shallow depth, a number of sections of the roof collapsed, creating the skylights in the cave.
The “hike” to Skylight Cave is really just a 500 foot jaunt down a road. The forest service has identified a wide spot in the road as a parking area for those visiting the cave. Once you see the signs (and probably a vehicle or two), you will know you’re in the right spot. Then just hop out of your car and march down the road for a couple minutes and you will find yourself at the entrance to the cave.
Prior to entering the cave, be sure to fill out the logbook so that the Forest Service can keep track of visitors. It will also lay out guidelines for helping to prevent white-nose syndrome, a disease ravaging the bat population throughout North American. Taking simple steps like not wearing the same cloths or shoes you wore into a different cave can help to prevent this illness. (Bats can’t wear masks so they need your help).
Looking down the ladder into the cave abyss of Skylight Cave is the most daunting aspect of this adventure. You can to climb down a ladder that extends probably about 15 feet to the cavern floor. Be sure you’ve brought a warm coat and some sturdy shoes. It is cold down there, even in the height of summer, and the floor of the cave is very rough in places.
Once down, if you want to see the skylights, head to your left (if you are facing away from the ladder). You should be able to see light coming from that direction. Head over the broken, rocky ground for a couple hundred feet to find yourself in an amphitheater of light.
Timing is the essential element in catching the beams within Skylight Cave. The sun has to be able to shine straight through the skylights to create the beams, which means that they only occur during certain parts of the day. This changes through the year (because the sun is in different locations at different times depending on the date. Stupid astronomy.), but if you get there between 8 and 10, you will usually be in luck. The best show supposedly occurs the closest to the summer solstice as well, around June 20th, when the sun is highest in the sky. You also want to make sure you go on a clear day. Clouds will block the sun and you won’t see the magnificent beams.
If you are up for a little more exploring, you could also head the other direction from the ladder as well. The cave extends an additional 900 feet into the earth. Just be aware there are some low ceilings which may require crawling in places.
The hardest part of exploring the Skylight Cave is getting there. Most of the way is along decent, if washboard, gravel roads, but there are lots of roads in this section of the Forest for you to take a wrong turn on. See heed my directions well, young one.
Take Highway 20 nine miles northwest of Sisters or four miles southeast of the Suttle Lake turnoff. The road you are looking for will be right across the highway , on the west side of the road, from the road to Camp Sherman. This is McAllister Road and will be paved for the first 0.4 miles. You will then take a right onto Forest Road 2061, the first gravel road you come to. Road 2061 will be the most obvious, main route as you travel through the forest, so just stay on it for the net 5 miles.
5.3 miles from the highway, you will reach a T junction with Forest Road 1028. This is also a decent, cinder road. Make a left onto it and continue on for another 0.6 miles. Then make another left onto some non-descript dirt road. This road, for the most part, isn’t too bad, but does have some bumpy spots if you are trying to get there in a low clearance vehicle. But it is only a mile more along this road before you reach the parking area for the cave.
Passes: No passes are required at this site. Fill out the visitor log at the entrace to the cave before entering.
Dogs: Dogs are not allowed in the cave. (And would have a hard time with the ladder.)
Usage: Light - Moderate
Open Season: The caves are closed from October 1 - April 30 to protect resident bat populations.
Considerations: To see the sun beams, you need to visit in the morning on a clear day. The beams are generally present between 8 and 10 AM in the summer months, but may extend eariler or later depending on the exact date. Caves are also cold. This one is usually about 40 degrees. So bring a coat. Caves are also dark. Bringing a flashlight or latern helps to fix that.