There’s one cave in Idaho that gets a lot of extra protection. It’s called Aviator’s Cave and it is within the boundaries of the Idaho National Laboratory, which is in the desert between Idaho Falls and Arco. Since 1949 “the Site,” as it’s known locally, has been a national center for nuclear research. Because of the sensitive nature of that research, security at INL is high. In 1985, that included regular helicopter flyovers to make sure people weren’t intentionally or accidentally trespassing on the federal property.
In January 1985 pilot Mike Atwood was flying about 500 feet above the desert on a routine patrol when he spotted what looked like smoke. Circling around to investigate, he saw that it wasn’t smoke, but steam coming from a visible rift in the lava rock below. Atwood assumed it was condensation from warm air inside a lava tube hitting the sub-zero air in the desert above. He noted the GPS coordinates of the site and paid no more attention to it.
Lava tubes are common there in the Idaho desert, not far from Craters of the Moon National Monument. The caves were formed some 30,000 years ago when rivers of lava spewed from the earth, flowing downhill like water. The lava rivers would cool from the outside first forming a tube or roof over the molten lava still flowing beneath. Like a garden hose when the water is shut off the molten lava would drain out leaving a cave sometimes miles long.
Three years after his winter encounter with the steam and in a warmer season, Atwood’s curiosity surfaced. He decided to go back and investigate the hole he had found. When he flew to the coordinates he’d noted, Atwood saw that the vegetation around the dark shadow on the ground was a brighter shade of green than the surrounding rabbit brush.
About 30 feet from the hole he found a spot clear enough to land. As he walked closer to the cave he began to see buffalo skulls and other bones inside. He climbed down to the opening, stooped to get inside, and found that the cave opened up once past the lip. Standing up was easy.
It was immediately obvious that Atwood was not the first person to stand in that cave, though he was the first to stand there in a very long time. Among the scattered bones were obsidian chips and projectile points, evidence that native hunters had at least stopped in the cave if they had not lived there. Atwood, and later others, found more fragile evidence of human occupation, including objects made from plant material and fur.
Today this important archeological site remains doubly protected by its status as a place of scientific study and a place within a modern well-protected place of scientific study. Aviator’s Cave was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.