Cheese Cave

During our previous investigation, we explored the Cheese Caves, vast underground networks of old limestone quarries that today store, amongst various other things, billions of pounds of cheese.

The notion of a “cheese cave” significantly predates these storage spaces. Humans began crafting cheese long before the advent of recorded history. Some historians believe the first cheese might have risen along with the domestication of sheep, which occurred sometime around 8000 BCE. Even if this dairy product developed as a happy accident – as many foodstuffs do – we learned quickly to fiddle with coagulated milk to tune its textures and flavors. Cheesemongers became masters at ripening cheese, harnessing the inherent coolness of caves long before the inception of refrigeration. Today, of course, we can artificially maintain temperatures and have largely phased out the usage of cheese caves in the maturation process. A notable holdout transpires in France, where Roquefort, a blue cheese, must be ripened in the Combalou caves to be officially designated as Roquefort.

Today’s “cheese caves” refer more to storage than to ripening. One interesting cave in Washington, however, eschews the warehouse life. This cave mixes the old style of ripening with some gorgeous geology. No better alternative existed than to christen it Cheese Cave!

Let’s do some virtual spelunking.

Roquefort blue cheese - photo by Thesupermat 

Gifford Pinchot National Forest covers 1.32 million acres of southwestern Washington. This massive tract stretches from the southern flanks of Mt. Rainier, the High Point of the state, past Mt. St. Helens, down to the Columbia River on the Oregon border. Between the river and another Cascade volcano, Mount Adams, lies the community of Trout Lake. Sitting beneath the scenic ground just southwest of the tiny town, rests the curiously named Cheese Cave.

Discovered in 1894 by a resident named Joseph Arnie, the cave proved to be a valuable asset to the community. Its temperature constantly sits between 42 and 44 degrees Fahrenheit. This natural formation was a perfect refrigerator, so people started stowing potatoes there. Eventually, a man named Homer Spencer started a cheese company and began to age his product inside the cave. Our investigations often feature interesting, complex, or roundabout etymologies, but, in this case, the nomenclature seems pretty straightforward!

People beyond Homer Spencer hoped Cheese Cave could produce blue cheese similar to Roquefort. A state Supreme Court case regarding Spencer’s subsequent divorce elucidated that the United States Department of Agriculture thought something special was happening in Cheese Cave:

Further investigation, research, experimentation, and correspondence fully established the fact that the cave is unique in its adaptability for the aging and curing of cheese of the Roquefort type; indeed, it appears from the evidence that representatives of the United States Department of Agriculture, who had officially visited and examined the cave, declared that the department had been searching since 1925 for a locale having attributes of the caves in Roquefort, France, and that this cave was the first one of the desired kind that they had been able to find, and that this one, and no others in the United States, met the required qualifications.

Advertisement in Bend, Oregon, 29 Dec 1943 - image from CooksInfo

Alas, faux-Roquefort made in the caves of Washington eventually proved to be a business riddled with swiss-cheese holes. The Guler Cheese Company folded. However, the enterprising spelunker can still find evidence of the endeavor. While doing so, she may experience something far more interesting than aging cheese in a cave.

Cheese Cave is not just any void in the ground. Located in the Cascade Range, packed full of volcanoes, Cheese Cave is actually a lava tube!

Also known as pyroducts, lave tubes are natural pipes that form from streaming molten rock under a hardened surface of a lava flow. If the chute empties, we get a tubular (and radical!) cave. These formations can be quite spectacular.

Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park - photo by Frank Schulenberg
Valentine Cave in Lava Beds National Monument - photo by Dave Bunnell

Perhaps even the claustrophobic might enjoy Cheese Cave, as its lava tube is massive. Running 2,060 feet long, the chamber’s floor is flat and measures 25 feet wide. The ceiling above might feel more like a warehouse than a cave, as the bottom-to-top measurement ranges between 25 and 45 feet. A conduit that size moved a lot of lava. The tube is between 12,000 and 18,000 years old, created by a volcano that formed the crater that is today filled by Lake Wapiki to the northwest.

In 1961, a metal staircase at the natural entrance on the north side replaced the infrastructure of the old cheese company. Wooden debris from the racks used to age cheese still populates the cave. With a consistent climate, these artifacts of a bygone era might greet explorers for hundreds of years. A pavilion covers the human-made entrance at the southern terminus. Visitors can descend a ladder there. In terms of exploration, few lava tubes offer easier access.

If you go, remember to bring a coat. The constant temperature, just 10 degrees Fahrenheit above freezing, forms an ironic juxtaposition with the lava that formed the cave, which can top 2,000 degrees. Cheese, caves, and lava: a trio I never expected. Enjoy these photographs of Cheese Cave!

Cheese Cave's lava tube and old wooden racks - photo by Michaelstoops 
The pavilion over the south entrance - photo by Tamara Elliott/Gorge Guide
Heading down - photo by Tamara Elliott/Gorge Guide
Remnants of the cheese business - photo by Hawkinwinter
Metal staircase built in 1961 - photo by Hawkinwinter
Large room - photo by Devon Bray
Light from the entrance - photo by Michaelstoops

Further Reading and Exploration

Trout Lake Cheese Caves – Pacific Northwest Cheese Project


Exploring the Trout Lake Cheese Caves – HawkInWinter

Caves of Washington by William R. Halliday

Guler Blue Cheese – CooksInfo

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