The continuation of the Broken Top Loop Trail, from Marker # 7, is guided by posts across the lava crust to the entrance for Buffalo Caves. These under-surface lava tubes are accessible at Marker # 8.
The relatively inconspicuous main entrance to Buffalo Caves is near Big Cinder Butte which has a thriving aspen tree forest on the north facing side of the formidable and distinctive volcano. Nearby are excellent examples of lava toes which form at the edge of the crust when hot lava oozes out from underneath.
A permit, available at the Interpretive Center, is required to enter any cave in Craters of the Moon National Monument. Everyone is screened by questionnaire to reduce the spread of White-nose Syndrome to protect bats. The permit is left visible in the car. If the car remains in the parking lot after closing, someone will be looking for us. Buffalo Caves are the only subterranean lava tubes we will be able to access today. The next spur road on the 7 mile, one-way loop road is closed for trail maintenance. It is unfortunate because, at that location, there are better caves to explore. They are Dewdrop Cave, Boy Scout Cave, Beauty Cave and Indian Tunnel. Mel and I leave our backpacks at the entrance and scramble, with lanterns, a short distance down into the lava tube.
Buffalo Caves are part of the lava tube system of the Broken Top flow. Crusts of cooling lava form over rivers of hot, flowing lava. The lava river beneath the crust becomes insulated from cooling air allowing the hot lava to continue to flow. Eventually the molten lava drains away, evacuates the space and leaves an open lava tube or cave.
The height of the lava tube varies. There are several squeezes off to the sides and we explore some of these with varying degrees of success. One section of the cave is taped off due to a ceiling collapse. It is unusual to explore a cave with a relatively flat floor.
We exit through a squeeze into a different location, then scramble into a large cavern at the other end of the Buffalo Cave structure. This is just too much fun!
Mel and I take time for some nourishment above Buffalo Caves before completing the Broken Top Loop Trail. It is an excellent educational and recreational experience with a broad range of terrain and features. Back at the trailhead, we will consider the adjacent trail to Tree Molds.