Amphipod unique to cave’s lake

by Lindy Steeves
Burns Times-Herald


The entrance to Malheur Cave leads to a 3,000 foot-long cavern, formed by lava flows. (Photo by Lindy Steeves)

Fifty-five miles southeast of Burns, hidden amongst the sagebrush and endless desert, lies the Malheur Cave. The 3,000 foot-long cavern varies in height from 8 to 20 feet tall and is the only known cave in the area.

At the end of the cave  is a lake thats depth depends on the season and yearly water level. A classic example of a lava tube, The Malheur Cave was formed when lava flows covered much of the basin and is speculated to be about 32,000 years old.

Though narrow at the mouth, the Malheur Cave quickly widens and gives way to a wide, albeit pitch-black, passage. A flashlight, or other light source, is necessary to trek through the tube, as no sunlight remains after a short distance. The walls are alternately red, bronze, coppery, honeycombed, smooth and reflective. The trek to the back of the cave is rocky and the lake is cool and clear enough that visitors can easily view the bottom. After one experiences the cave, it is easy to see why the spot held the fascination of the early settlers and inhabitants of the area.

Before Oregon and Harney County were settled, the Paiute Indian Tribe used the cave as a stronghold against its enemies in times of conflict. These enemies included both the Bannock Indian tribe of Idaho and the U.S. Calvary. The narrow opening could easily be blocked by rocks while the underwater lake provided both water and (rumored) eyeless fish for sustenance. When the tribe members were under attack, they would move their food and provisions into the cave, block off the entrance and wait for their attacker to tire and leave the area. After the assault was over, the tribe would remove only enough rocks to exit and leave its stronghold prepared for the next assault.

When the cave was discovered by settlers, the entire entrance had been sealed off, and the opening was littered with arrows, arrowheads, and other abandoned weaponry that had been used during attempted seiges.

In more recent history,  a dive team  embarked on a series of trips to the cave in 2000. Its goal was to document, explore, and film the underwater portion of Malheur Cave. Each trip involved living in the cave during the filming, copious dive equipment and a crew of scientists and divers to record findings.


In the clear water at the end of the cave, researchers  collected specimens of a small creature called the Malheur Cave Amphipod or Stygobromus hubbsi. Amphipods are distant relatives of crabs and shrimp, and this particular species exists nowhere else in the world. Two samples of the creatures were sent to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., and further testing and studies are being conducted.

At the bottom of the lake, the researchers also found evidence of previous explorations in the form of an old wooden rowboat.

The cave, located on the private property of Tree Top Ranches, is currently owned by the Robert Burns Masonic Lodge No. 97. The lodge’s bleachers can be seen at the base of the cave’s initial decline. The Masons use the cave for meetings, events and ceremonies, and their mark can be seen above the entrance.


Until recent years, the cave has been open to public use; however, because of abuses to the property and mistreatment of the cave, visitation without permission is discouraged.

Those who wish to visit the cave should first contact the Masons and Tree Top Ranches to gain permission.

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