By Ryan Dawes

On a cold November day in 1874, Elijah Davidson found himself an unwitting cave explorer. He had plunged through a small opening in a mossy cliffside, discovering an underground world. He was the first person to set foot in what would later be called the Oregon Caves. Once his dwindling supply of matches ran out, he was also the first person to get lost in them.

All he wanted was to find his dog Bruno.

Born in Illinois before moving to Oregon as a child, Davidson grew up to be a career trapper, hunter, and miner. Standing less than 5-foot-6, he made up for his physical size with extreme determination and resourcefulness, even carrying the claim among friends and family that he had tackled and wrestled bears.

It was only natural that when Bruno took off after a bear while the pair was hunting in the Siskiyou Mountains Davidson followed him. When both bear and dog disappeared into the cave, Davidson continued the pursuit by matchlight. When his last match went out, he was left in complete darkness. With a maze of passages between him and the outside world, he used the only navigational tool he had: the sound of a small creek flowing through the cave. He found the creek and followed it back to the entrance, where a happy Bruno waited.

Davidson’s loyalty to his canine companion unveiled one of Southern Oregon’s most spectacular destinations. Inside the caves, where massive chambers beckon, marble passageways—slowly carved from acidic water—glisten among dripping cave formations and endemic wildlife flourishes. In 2014, Congress designated the cave’s creek, dubbed the “River Styx” after the Greek myth, the only subterranean national wild and scenic watershed in the United States, giving it special protection.

Despite the grandeur of his discovery, Davidson didn’t publicize the caves. He shared his find locally and, while he explored the caves further with his brother, he never made claim to them. Instead, he and his family boarded a boat from Brookings to Alaska, pursuing the gold rush.

Before he left for Alaska, Davidson shared his story with a fellow miner and mountain man. Walter Burch, excited by the discovery, assembled a small party to further explore the caves. He and his brothers-in-law staked a squatter’s claim to the cave’s entrance, advertising a guided cave tour and campground for a dollar per person in local newspapers.

While they never were able to acquire an official title to the land, eventually causing their enterprise to fall through, they had caught the public’s attention. In 1907, Joaquin Miller, an early conservation writer and poet, visited the caves and recounted his adventure in Sunset magazine. Within two years, enough public interest had been generated that President William Howard Taft declared the caves a national monument.

Monument status brought development to the caves and surrounding areas. A road replaced the previous horse and foot trail from the Redwood Highway, lights and pathways were installed inside the cave, and the town of Cave Junction popped up. During the Great Depression, the National Parks Service commissioned the building of a rustic lodge near the cave’s entrance. Gust Lium, a self-taught carpenter and architect from Grants Pass, designed the six-story Oregon Caves Chateau, using local materials such as Siskiyou marble, Douglas fir, and Port Orford cedar siding.

Though they are now developed, the caves and their surrounding landscape still captivate modern explorers. Ancient bear and jaguar bones lie within, creatures found nowhere else in the world call the caves home, and the monument’s biodiversity is higher than some tropical ecosystems.

To explore the caves, you have three intriguing options. The 90-minute ranger-guided Discovery Tour takes visitors along lighted paths and stairways through limestone tunnels, chambers, and alluring calcite formations, like stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, cave popcorn, cave bacon, and flowstone, many unique to these caves. The slightly shorter Candlelight Tour gives visitors a sense of what earlier exploration of the cave might have been like. And for the most adventurous explorers, the three-hour Off-Trail Tour winds through chutes and squeezes to parts of the cave unseen by other tours.

Above ground, visitors can continue to experience the unique landscape of the Siskiyou Mountains. The Cliff Nature Trail offers a short walk through forest, marble outcrops, and panoramic views. The Big Tree Trail leads visitors to the largest Douglas fir tree in Oregon. For a longer hike and a rewarding view, the Mt. Elijah Loop summits 6,390-foot Mt. Elijah (named after Davidson), passing through wildflower meadows and the pristine Bigelow Lakes.

Almost 150 years have passed since Elijah Davidson first followed Bruno into the unknown. Today, thanks do Davidson’s chance discovery, visitors from throughout the state and beyond enjoy subterranean adventures in the Oregon Caves.