Road Trip: Sea Lion Caves

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If America didn’t invent the tourist trap, it certainly perfected it. Long highways through undeveloped countryside were fertile ground for local entrepreneurs to find ever increasingly bizarre ways to relive bored tourists of their money. From Cawker City’s giant ball of twine to the world’s largest gnome in Kerhonkson, many of these attractions are only remarkable as part of a bizarre set of kitschy Americana. However, not all roadside attractions are created equal.

The Sea Lion Caves located about 11 miles north of Florence, OR is one such attraction. Opened in 1932, the history of this particular tourist trap may be even more interesting than what it features, which, unsurprisingly, is a cave full of sea lions.

The grotto itself is also part of the attraction. At 125 feet high, it is the largest sea cave in North America. Although known to Native Americans, it’s existence was only brought to the attention of the state of Oregon in 1880 when a local sailor, Captain William Cox, successfully sailed a small boat into the grotto. Impressed by the cave system, Cox acquired the land, which remained in his family until R.E. Clanton purchased the caves in 1927 with the intention of opening a business. Clanton and fellow partners, J. G. Houghton and J. E. Jacobson, predicted that route 101 would pass the site and began excavating a 1,500 long trail by hand. At the end of the path, Clanton and his associates built a wooden tower that descended 135 steps to the base of the cave.

The Sea Lion Caves were not immediately successful given the remoteness of the location at the time but saw a gradual rise in visitors as word spread. Clanton sold his stake in the company to R.A Saubert in 1934, whose family continues to operate the venture alongside the Jacobson family. In 1961, after three years of work, an elevator was installed, increasing access and comfort. From then on, the Sea Lion Caves became a premier attraction for any family taking a road trip on route 101.

Today, the Sea Lion Caves are home to Steller’s sea lion and the California sea lion, although, Steller’s is much more prevalent. It also hosts a variety of bird life including puffins, cormorants, and even bald eagles. Migrating grey whales and orcas are also frequent visitors to the waters surrounding the caves, and can be easily spotted from the surrounding cliffs on a clear day.

Though sea lions can be found in the caves year-round, winter is arguably the best time to visit when hundreds of these animals spend these months hunkered down inside rather than along the cliff side rookeries. The weather, of course, can be horrible, but part of the fun is watching the sea lions navigate the large swells that crash upon the rocks of the grotto.

Another notable fact is that the Sea Lion Caves forms the backbone of the Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve, and it is one of the only places were the population of Stellar’s sea lions is increasing. Despite the tens of thousands of tourists coming to the caves each year, metal bars keep visitors a respectful distance from the wildlife. And while the entrance fee may feel a bit steep, it helps keep crowds under control and allows for the sustainable management of the site without having to rely on the whims of public funding. If nothing else, the Sea Lion Caves is a great example of how private ownership can take the lead in conservation and maintain a symbiotic relationship between profit and the environment.

The Sea Lion Caves are open from 9AM to 4PM all year (except Thanksgiving and Christmas day) and are located at 91560 US 101, N. Florence, OR 97439. Entrance fees are $14 for adults, $13 for seniors, and $8 for children 5 to 12. Children under 4 are free.

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