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Coconino Lava River Cave: What’s Not to “Lava”?

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Who says vacations can’t be educational? Imagine a classroom where “lavasicles” drip down from the ceiling and frozen rivers of rock ripple beneath your feet. Give the bookbags the boot and explore the fascinating subjects of geology, history, and biology with your family when you visit the Coconino Lava River Cave in Flagstaff, Arizona. Just Less than two and a half hours east of Kingman and the Zuni Village and RV Campground, this U.S. Forest Service destination is not only a fascinating natural formation but a remarkable educational experience for young and old. 


The Lava River Cave was discovered around 1915 by lumbermen working in the Coconino Forest. The manual labor of felling trees with nothing more than axes and bucksaws was grueling, hot work. Once the cave was found, the cool passages provided a welcome respite. Ice often formed in the cave, a feature that local homesteaders took advantage of, harvesting the frozen water for food preservation and other uses. The interior of the cave is still quite chilly, so be sure to wear layers. Temperatures can get as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit, even if the outdoor temperature is in the nineties!


The Coconino Lava River Cave is a geological formation likely resulting from a historic volcanic eruption. While many geological formations require extended periods of time to form, like the Grand Canyon, or Monument Valley, the Lava River Cave probably formed in less than a day. Molten lava cut through the Earth’s crust in a hot river. Once the eruption ceased, the lava drained from the conduit, leaving a vacant tunnel. Because the cooling happened so quickly, many of the surface features remain “frozen,” a geological snapshot of what it looked like all those years ago.

Geologists have dated the Coconino Lava River Cave to somewhere between 650,000-700,000 years old. That’s a lot of birthday candles! But even that many candles couldn’t reach the estimated temperature of the lava that formed the cave—2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Talk about hot stuff!

Just under a mile long, the cave is the only one of its kind in Arizona. It has many unique formations along its length. To see all of them, you’ll want to bring several strong flashlights on your visit. The cave has no natural lighting and does get quite dark. Wear sturdy, comfortable shoes—hiking boots are best—for the terrain is uneven.

When you’re not keeping an eye on your footing, some of the lava flow features you can spot are splashdowns, flow ripples, cooling cracks, and “lavasicles.” These hanging formations resemble icicles dripping down from the ceiling of the cave. Do watch your head. Ceiling clearance can vary anywhere from three to thirty feet.


It’s unlikely you will run into any cave-dwelling creatures while exploring the cave, but not impossible. Sharp eyes can spot the evidence that wildlife does use the cave for shelter on occasion. Droppings from animals like squirrels, porcupines, and even bats can be seen on the floor and along the walls.

That being said, while bats do like to live in cold, dark caves, if you do happen upon any of these small flying creatures, give them ample room and try not to disturb them. They do not pose any great threat. In fact, they play an important role in the ecological cycle. A single bat can consume its own weight in insects in just one evening.

So, the next time you’re visiting Kingman and looking for a uniquely exciting and educational day trip, check out the Coconino Lava River Cave. No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks. With the Coconino Lava River Cave, let the great outdoors be your classroom…and don’t forget to bring the teacher an apple!

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