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Derrick Cave

Lake County, OR

Deschutes National Forest is home to some amazing lava tube caves. On the edge of the forest in Central Oregon, if you know the right spot, you can find Derrick Cave. It’s far from any town or paved roads, but even in this remote location Derrick Cave has had an unusual role in history.

Walking inside feels like entering a cathedral. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Derrick Cave has been a notable spot for centuries. Early Oregon homesteaders used it as a picnic spot to escape the summer heat — they could make ice cream using ice from deep inside the cave.

During WWII, plans were drawn up to use the cave as an air raid shelter in case of bombing or invasion by Japanese forces. The idea of using the cave as an emergency shelter lived on into the Cold War. In the 1950s Civil Defense volunteers designated it a nuclear fallout shelter for Central Oregon residents. One section of the cave was sealed off with concrete and an iron door, then filled with emergency rations and water supplies for over a thousand people. If Oregon were to be the target of a nuclear attack, residents would take shelter further back in the deeper section of the cave. It was a plan that might have been flawed from the beginning, simply due to the impossible logistics of getting that number of people safely into the cave and then sealing it to the outside world.

“There’s no practical way of sealing this cave to make it fallout-proof. If nuclear war had broken out and people had taken shelter in Derrick Cave, in a few days I think you’d have had 1,000 dead bodies in there.” — Doug Troutman, Lakeview BLM Office.

The Civil Defense supplies were eventually stolen, including the door itself that once sealed off the entrance. Today, the iron doorframe is the only thing that remains from this period of history.

Derrick Cave was also used in a series of experiments by NASA during the Apollo era. Scrap iron was hauled into the cave and lit on fire, to see if it could be detected above ground in high altitude gravimetric tests. This same technology would be used years later to survey potential Moon landing sites. Not too far away in the Newberry Volcanic Crater, astronauts trained to walk on the Moon by navigating lava fields while wearing bulky spacesuits.

There’s little in the cave today that would suggest the different ways it’s been used over the years. Still, its natural beauty makes it a fantastic place to explore.

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